Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story


What a hoot this picture is! If you ever went to a kiddie matinee (and the excellent little sleeper Matinee was an homage to Castle, with John Goodman playing the role) or a dusk-to-dawn drive-in all-nighter in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s, you’ll know who William Castle was. My experience was mostly at the drive-in, so most of his famous prank gimmicks weren’t played on me, but I was aware of them. Just get a load of these:

In Macabre he offered a $1000 insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London to the heirs of anyone who died of fright during the show. You had to specify a beneficiary before you went in. Nurses were in the lobby, and hearses were parked outside.

In House on Haunted Hill, filmed in EMERG-O, an inflatable skeleton flew over the audience on a wire. Naturally, kids threw candy and popcorn at it, but they packed the seats.

In maybe his most famous gimmick, The Tingler, he actually had theater seats wired to vibrate (this was known as PERCEPT-O!) when the incredibly cheesy Tingler gets loose in the projection booth and crawls across the white screen. The only way to protect yourself … ? Scream! Scream as loud as you can!

In 13 Ghosts, filmed in the miracle of ILLUSION-O!, a red or blue filter was provided, for those who wanted to see the ghosts, and those who were too scared to look.

In what I feel was his artistic triumph, Homicidal, he stopped the film for 45 seconds during which those too frightened to stay to the end could leave … and get their money back! The studio thought he was nuts, and it turned out he was. At the first screening he went to, when the break came … everybody left! He was devastated! Then the theater owner informed him that almost all that crowd had stayed over from the previous showing, the sneaky bastards, and then sat through it again until they could leave and get their money back. Not to be hornswoggled again, Castle printed refund forms in different colors for each showing. And proving himself to be a true genius, he instituted an elaborate procedure for refunds. You had to follow yellow footprints back to the lobby. You had to cross yellow lines labeled “Cowards keep walking!” Then you had to sign a yellow form stating “I am a bone fide coward,” and then stand in the “Coward’s Corner” until everyone left. Refunds fell off to near zero.

Clearly, this was no Stanley Kubrick. His spiritual forebear was P.T. Barnum, who he openly admired. The man he most resented was Alfred Hitchcock, who got all the glory for scaring people. He was never in Hitchcock’s league, but he did share something else with him. Hitch and Castle were the only directors who personally introduced their films in the trailers. But where Hitch’s were droll and witty, Castle’s were cheesy and silly. Castle evidently did aspire to better things, but it was also clear he didn’t really have it in him to do a classic, actually scary horror show. He was too cheap, for one thing. He made his bones in the B-movie backlots of Columbia under the overseer’s whip of the most horrible movie producer of all, Harry Cohn. At one point he actually did own the rights to Rosemary’s Baby, and intended to direct it himself, which would have been a disaster. Luckily, he was wise enough to finally understand that, and let Roman Polanski direct his masterpiece, but he did produce it.

The film covers all this and much, much more. The dominant talking head here is his daughter, Terry, who has actually taken over his mantle in a small way, producing remakes of a few of his films. They have been critical disasters but have made decent money, just like Dad. She seems like a lot of fun, and clearly loved her father, who was a dedicated family man as well as a huckster supreme. There are plaudits from some of his many admirers, such as John Waters (who calls Castle the greatest director of all time … but that’s John Waters for you!), Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Darryl Hickman, John Landis, and Diane Lane. Some nice dirt on Joan Crawford’s diva behavior on the set of Strait-jacket. I never liked that bitch, even in her heyday. And there is a brief story from my friend Forry Ackerman, telling about when he first saw Frankenstein, in 1931, and they had nurses in the lobby and ambulances outside. I hadn’t known that gimmick was that old, but for all the rest of the brilliant, insane gimmicks, we have good old Bill Castle to thank. I miss him, the crazy bastard.

BTW: I just looked up his filmography, and was surprised to see that he directed something called The Busy Body, which was based on a book by the all-time master of the comic caper story, Donald E. Westlake. I saw it many years ago and don’t recall being all that impressed with it, but I just put it on my Netflix list and I intend to see it again soon.