Sunday, November 21, 2010

Spine Tingler!: The William Castle Story

Spine Tingler!: The William Castle Story is a 2007 documentary (directed by Jeffery Schwartz) making its debut on the Documentary Film Channel this November. The documentary traces the popularity of the master of 1950s and 1960s schlock horror. He was known for a series of quickly-made, cheap movies with legendary, over-the-top promotional ideas, or gimmicks. It was noted that he was half Alfred Hitchcock and half PT Barnum, a filmmaker and a showman. The gimmicks that became his trademark were as much a draw as the movies themselves. Not only were Castle's movies reviewed, the gimmicks were reviewed. His work, for the most part, was not critically acclaimed, but the films were wildly popular; made money; and, most importantly, made him a known name. William Castle branded himself through his completely off-the-wall promotional style, and his name became as big a box office draw as any famous actor. He was successful, in part, because he engaged the audience and made them part of his movies. Kids especially loved William Castle movies because his gimmicks made movie-going more of a spectacle and a personal experience. Why, surely, there weren't too many directors who had a national fan club (besides George Cukor, whose fans wore badges that averred 'I'm Cuckoo For Cukor!')!

William Castle was a Jewish orphan who, from an early age, longed to be an entertainer. He was a charmer with an inordinate amount of chutzpah and a mind like a sponge. Early in his career, he managed to finagle meetings with several powerful men who contributed to his later success. His first major theater job was with Bela Lugosi, who was then working on Broadway. He was employed in the theater when he impressed another rising star who would end up being one of his greatest influences, Orson Welles. Soon, Castle was ready to move on to Hollywood. Harry Cohn, then president of Columbia Pictures, was known as being a tough and intimidating personality, but he quickly warmed to the likeable Castle and gave him his first job. Castle's beginning in cinema was inauspicious; he was assigned a lot of lightweight, cheap 'b' comedies. Castle wanted to have more artistic control and make a name for himself as an 'a' movie director. He searched for a book to adapt for his first real film and settled on a gripping noir tale called If I Die Before I Wake. This was his discovery, and he was integral to the making of the film. When he presented the idea to the studio as a movie he would like to direct, it was approved, but he was relegated to co-producer. His old friend, Orson Welles, was named director, and the movie became The Lady From Shanghai. Despite the fact that he was disappointed at losing his discovery, working with Welles was an invaluable experience for him as a filmmaker.

But William Castle didn't want to be second-in-command. He still wanted to make a name for himself. One day, he saw a long queue of people waiting to see a French film, Les Diaboliques, a masterpiece of suspense. He watched the audience as closely as the movie, and it occurred to him how much people love the cheap thrill of fear. Castle was driven by his intense desire to entertain, and this was the seed of his signature use of gimmickry to promote his movies.

"Every picture had a gimmick," Castle once said of his films. His first foray into the art of the cheap gimmick was 1958's Macabre wherein the entire audience was covered by a real one million dollar Lloyd's of London insurance policy for Death By Fright. No one collected on the policy, but the gimmick drummed up ticket sales. Next, House On Haunted Hill boasted Emergo; glowing ghosts and skeletons emerged out of the screen and zipped across the theater on wires, much to the delight of theater-goers. Better yet, The Tingler utilized Percepto!, essentially a buzzer that was installed on select theater seats. Fainting and hysterical women were planted in the audience, and, part-way through the movie, it would appear that the projectionist had been attacked by the Tingler as a limp lobster-like shadow would flop across the blank movie screen. As some seats would begin to vibrate, Price's voice would sound over the PA, warning that if the audience didn't scream, the Tingler would get them. The theater would erupt in screams and everyone would have a great time. 13 Ghosts, seen in 'ectoplasmic color', utilized one of the more sophisticated technological advances, Illusion-O, a ghost viewer much like a pair of 3D glasses. Homicidal was Castle's first truly scary movie (some insisted that it was better than Psycho). This movie offered a Fright Break right before the climax scene; if you were too scared to watch the end, you could get a refund, but you'd have to be put to shame in the Coward's Corner first! Mr. Sardonicus was purported to have two endings, and the audience was given a Punishment Poll to determine the fate of the antagonist. No one ever saw the version of the film where Sardonicus lived. Then came Straight-Jacket, written by Robert Bloch, which had the greatest gimmick of all: it starred Joan Crawford.

Despite his success, Castle was inspired by fear of losing his audience. What would be the next great promotional feat? How could he ensure that his films would draw a crowd? And he still longed to be taken seriously as a director. Castle's two greatest disappointments bookended his career. The first was losing control of his first discovery, The Lady Of Shanghai. The second major disappointment came at the end of his career when he discovered another book that he wanted to have full creative control over: Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby. He quickly bought the rights to the book and planned to produce and direct the movie, but, once again, his discovery was handed over to another filmmaker. This time Castle was made producer, and the movie was given to a young director named Roman Polanski. While the success of Rosemary's Baby did give Castle the critical acclaim and the financial comfort that he had hoped to achieve, it was not without hardships. He had strayed from his formulaic gimmickry which had always been done in innocent fun, and this movie seemed to take on a sinister life of its own. It seemed cursed, and the stress of the backlash took its toll on Castle's health and almost ended his career and his life. As America entered a new decade, it was evident that it had grown up, and the jaded public had moved beyond Castle's penchant for schlock. Sure, America still loved to be scared, but now it needed the gruesome Night Of The Living Dead and the even more gruesome Texas Chainsaw Massacre to get its kicks. William Castle's productions were just too naive and too silly to be taken seriously by an American public that had seen too much in such a short time.

Now, all these years later, a whole new generation of theater-goers are discovering just how much fun William Castle films can be. Repertory theaters have shown his movies complete with re-creation of his gimmicks (now that's cooler than Rocky Horror!) much to the delight of the audience proving that William Castle's movies are still a real scream.

Keep checking your tv schedules for the next airing of Spine Tingler! The site currently lists the next airing as Friday, November 26 at 1:00 PM EST.

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