William Castle (April 24, 1914 – May 31, 1977) was one of those Renaissance men from the studio system that doesn’t really exist anymore. He’s known for writing, directing, and producing a string of B-pictures, and his storied career in Hollywood takes on a Forrest Gump-like tone, as he lucked into job after job on nothing more than gumption and bullshit. And yet, his legacy is felt throughout the 20th century.
Castle worked with Bela Lugosi and Orson Welles (he shot second unit footage for The Lady From Shanghai), and he got a reputation for bringing in films on time and under budget. He was a big fan of Hitchcock and even appeared in trailers and in framing sequences of his films to address the crowd directly. Hitchcock, in turn, noticed the success of Castle’s shock-thrillers and apocryphally decided to do one of his own—a project which became the movie Psycho.
Castle is best known for his outrageous and inventive promotional stunts; he dreamed up a number of gimmicks to help bolster the movies he financed, and it’s fair to say his gimmicks (and the mythology surrounding them) are better remembered than the movies he made.
He never quite cracked the big time, but his penchant for theatricality and the people he inspired, and the projects that got made because of him, have earned him a seat at the table of great horror personalities, and, I think, transcending the genre completely. Joe Dante’s film Matinee (1993) is based entirely on the legacy of William Castle and his movies, and is worth seeing for John Goodman’s inspired performance as “Lawrence Woolsey, the Master of Movie Horror!” The films below have been graded somewhat on a curve. While it’s true that their appearance on the list is in deference to the inventiveness of the gimmick, it must be the movie itself that determines whether or not they make the grade. Therefore, the rankings below reflect the movies’ stature with regards to thrills and chills.
5. Macabre (1958)
A small-town doctor that no one seems to like is victimized when his three-year-old daughter goes missing. While he and his nurse run around trying to find her, the back story of what happened to the young girl’s mother, and her blind, hell-raising sister, unspools, and we get two sets of flashbacks before the mystery is fully revealed and the would-be murderer apprehended.
Grave-digging, one good jump scare, and a dash of film noir aren’t quite enough to elevate the script, but it moves at a brisk enough pace and would be a good, light warm-up for a double feature (which was exactly what it was supposed to be in the first place). Jim Backus (Thurston Howell, III for you Gilligan’s Island fans) plays the sheriff entangled in this neo-gothic-to-the-point-of-being-Byzantine story with a kind of menacing swagger that’s a lot of fun to watch.
What made Macabre such a success at the box office was the $1,000 Life Insurance Policy payable to the family of anyone who dies of fright from watching this movie, underwritten by Lloyd’s of London, no less (in theory: Lloyd’s made sure their names weren’t actually printed on the policies). Everyone in the audience got one of these “policies” which made for a dandy souvenir since there was no way in hell the movie was going to scare anyone, period, much less “to death.” But the promotion worked like a charm. Other movie followed suit, right up into the early 1980s, all promising cash payouts for deceased movie-goers, with nary a claim ever being filed.
Castle had his own money on the line, and so he took to the road on a barnstorming tour, visiting theaters with actresses in nurses outfits, popping out of coffins (which figures in the movie—see? It’s a tie-in!) and working up movie-goers in person and on the radio. The gambit paid off, and Castle was officially in business.
4. Mr. Sardonicus (1961)
At the end of the 19th century, a London-based doctor visits Baron Sardonicus at the behest of the baroness. The doctor shows up, having once been in love with her, and Sardonicus begs him for a cure for his face, paralyzed from fright upon seeing the corpse of his father, whose body he himself exhumed. The doctor tries to cure Sardonicus, to no avail, and Sardonicus threatens his own wife in order to get the doctor to cooperate. He’s tortured everyone else for disappointing him in one way or another, so what’s the baroness, more or less? Here’s hoping the doc can find a cure and escape the clutches of Mr. Sardonicus!
In late 1961, Roger Corman had completed two of the movies in his legendary “Poe Cycle”: The House of Usher (1960) and the Pit and the Pendulum (1961) and they were critical and financial successes. I’m not suggesting the Castle went looking for a gothic grotesquerie that he could capitalize on, but more than one reviewer and critic at the time sure thought so. Again, putting this movie in the warm-up spot for a double feature that includes any of Corman’s Poe movies would be a right smart pairing.
The movie was based on a short story that ran in Playboy magazine, “Sardonicus,” by horror writer Ray Russell, who also wrote the screenplay. He would go on to write other screenplays for Castle, and even a couple for Roger Corman (including one of the Poe movies, The Premature Burial). The last movie he worked on was 1982’s The Incubus, a minor drive-in cult classic, based on his novel.
The gimmick for the movie was a much ballyhoo-ed “Punishment Poll,” wherein the audience could decide the fate of the villain before watching the final scene in the movie. Everyone in attendance was given a glow-in-the-dark card, printed with a large thumb. Hold the thumb up for “mercy,” and point the thumb down for “no mercy,” you know, like Roman Emperors at a gladiator arena. Based on the audience vote, the respective ending would be shown. This would have been so cool…only, there weren’t two endings. In the movie itself, Castle appears and addresses the audience, making an impassioned case for giving Sardonicus the business, and then he asks everyone to hold up their cards and vote. From the screen, he makes a show of counting every card, and then declaring that the audience decided…no mercy. The last bit of the film plays so that everyone can see just how screwed Sardonicus is, and you are left the distinct feeling that you’ve been had.
3. 13 Ghosts (1960)
A down-on-their-luck family inherits a house, free and clear, just when they need it the most. The only stipulation is, they can never sell it, or leave. Oh, and also, it’s just a little bit haunted. The dead relative was a noted occultist, and these ghosts were part of his ongoing experiments. Why, he even developed a special set of kooky spectacles with which to view the ghosts. The young boy in the family, Buck, is fascinated by these apparitions. When he finds out there is a fortune hidden in the house somewhere, he and the estate’s lawyer make a pact to look for it together. It’s pretty clear, however, that the lawyer has no intention of sharing the fortune when he finds it. Meanwhile, the ghosts are ramping up their haunting, and the family is getting appropriately spooked.
This film is almost more of an urban fantasy film, in the same magical realism vein as Thorne Smith’s Topper and Night Life of the Gods. There’s a lot of magic and super science, and some interesting poltergeist activity that is both seen and unseen. Aside from the modern-day setting, the movie is structurally very similar to a lot of by-the-numbers gothic haunted house flicks. Young Buck spends the whole movie calling the creepy live-in housekeeper a witch, and this is funny in that she is played by none other than Margaret Hamilton herself (and if I need to tell you she portrayed the most famous movie witch of all time, the Wicked Witch of the West, in The Wizard of Oz, then we can no longer be friends). Martin Milner takes a turn as the opportunistic lawyer, and even though he’s both charming and despicable, I kept expecting him to radio in a domestic disturbance using the Adam-12 call sign.
Of all the various William Castle gimmicks, I was most curious about Illusiono! I am a lifelong fan of 3-D. From stereoscopes to ViewMaster reels, from comic books to movies, and all that other related ephemera, I am mildly obsessed with the exploitation of one’s own optics to trick your brain into seeing images with depth. When I found out that this gimmick was a ‘hack’ of the anaglyphic 3D process (using one red and one blue lens), I was so jealous I never got to see it in action.* The idea was simple: whenever ghosts showed up in the movie, the screen would turn blue. If you wanted to see the ghosts, you looked through the red lens. If you didn’t want to see the ghosts, you looked through the blue lens. To misquote Tyler Durden, you decided your level of involvement. Illusiono! was probably Castle’s most successful promotional gimmick. For one thing, it actually worked, and people in the audience got to really use it as intended. That it wasn’t used to greater effect was its only sin.
*Note: Anchor Bay currently has a blu ray double feature available with 13 Ghosts and 13 Frightened Girls and, while the package does not contain a ghost viewer, the anaglyphic overlay process was digitally duplicated! For the first time since the movie appeared in theaters, if you have any cheap pair of red and blue 3-D glasses, you can experience Illusiono! for yourself.
2. The Tingler (1959)
A brilliant scientist, played by Vincent Price, discovers a parasite that lives inside the human body and feeds on fear, enlarging, or, growing bigger, as it does (sorry: Matinee reference). Price manages to extract this “tingler” from the spinal cord of a woman, but it gets loose before he can do the scientific thing and cut it up and study it, you know, for science. And wouldn’t you know it, somehow or another, the tingler gets loose…in a movie theater…and the audience’s only defense against it…is to SCREAM! SCREAM FOR YOUR LIVES!
Vincent Price’s performance saves The Tingler, because he makes everything better. The premise is, well, kinda silly, and were it not for his sincerity, the movie would fall apart. He’s convincing as the doctor studying the effects of fear, right up to and including dosing himself with LSD—the first on-screen trip of its kind, and freaking out in his lab while his sidekicks watch from behind a closed door. That’s good news for us who are watching it from the comfort of our own home, but in 1959, Price wasn’t the draw. He was handily upstaged by Percepto!
This is it: the apex, the acme, the ultimate William Castle gimmick. Storied, legendary, even, with people swearing to this very day that they were electrocuted in their chairs. Percepto! was the perfect encapsulation of what Castle was looking for; a way to create an interactive experience on the big screen. Here’s how it worked:
Castle bought a bunch of surplus WWII aircraft wing de-icers; vibrating motors that were affixed to the hollow interior of long-range bomber wings and wired to vibrate the aluminum and dislodge the ice that formed on them at high altitudes. Castle then sent out crates of these things, along with wiring and detailed instructions. These de-icers were attached to the undersides of the theater seats (all wooden at the time) and the wiring was strung along beneath the rows and snaked back up to the projection booth.
At a certain point in the movie, the audience in the theater would see a shadow of the tingler scootch across the screen (over the print of The Tingler, that they were all watching), and then the film would stop and melt and break (the best metaphor ever for “the projectionist buys the farm”) and then the screen would go black, as if the projector had stopped. That’s when Vincent Price would announce that the tingler was actually loose in the theater and their only chance of surviving was to scream as loud as they can.
There were actual screams on the soundtrack, but that was a moot point because by that time, the projectionist (very much alive, thanks ever so much) had pushed the button in the booth that set all of the de-icers to vibrating, sending many unsuspecting patrons straight up out of their chair, yelling bloody murder. After about 15 seconds of bedlam, Price would announce that the tingler had been dealt with, and then the movie would resume.
Not content to merely “shock” the audience, Castle planted stooges in the crowd to start screaming, and even had someone “faint” and have to be carried out of the theater on a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance while everyone watched. Whoever fainted would, of course, somehow make a miraculous recovery just in time to slip back into the audience for the next show.
1. House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Vincent Price plays an eccentric millionaire who has rented an infamously haunted house and invited five people to spend the night there. After giving them a tour of the place, showing off various murder sites, he offers each of them $10,000 to spend the night. Before anyone can seal the deal, strange things start happening, and coincidentally, the caretaker has locked them all in, preventing any chance of an early release.
What happens next is more akin to a Scooby Doo episode as the people are scared, and killed off, and attempt to do one another in while avoiding getting done in themselves. Everyone has a gun, and no one trusts anyone. It’s a chilling and surprisingly effective movie, with good twists and turns and a nice, tight little murder mystery in its midst. In fact, I’d argue that the gimmick, Emergo!, actually gets in the way of the film.
Emergo! billed itself as a means for the action on the screen to come right out into the theater. I mean, who wouldn’t want that? Hold your answer until I explain it to you fully: there’s a scene wherein an “animated” skeleton is moving closer on the screen, menacing a character. Emergo! happens as the projectionist flips a switch that starts the motor that operates the pulley he’d installed earlier in the week, dragging a plastic skeleton, previously hidden in the wings, across and over the heads of the audience.
I don’t know if you have ever been inside an old movie theater, but they are basically cathedrals: Giant, cavernous spaces, some with balconies, capable of seating hundreds more patrons than the multiplex closets of today. This skeleton, then, which I’ll give the benefit of the doubt and call “life sized,” seen from the audience, some fifteen feet over their heads, would have looked nothing like the twenty-foot-tall image playing onscreen as it slowly creeps over the audiences’ heads to a maximum distance of seventy feet, which would have brought the skeleton to a stop halfway across auditorium. Revivals of the show, absent the motor, have to rely on the projectionist, frantically yanking on the rope and pulley, sending the skeleton overhead in fits and starts.
Repeat customers, and likely many first-timers, used the prop for target practice, hurling popcorn, soda cups, and whatever else they could throw. If the pulley got jammed up, the skeleton would hang, twisting slowly in the air conditioning, as the movie played on. And lest you think I’m overstating it, I’ve actually seen this film in a theater that did the whole Emergo! presentation, and can attest first-hand to its underwhelming impact. The good news is this: House on Haunted Hill doesn’t need Emergo! or any other gimmick, to be an engaging and fun murder-filled romp. Vincent Price is his own special effect, anyway.