The King of the Gimmick: The Work of Horror Maestro William Castle
I have watched over fifteen horror films in the last two weeks. My teeth are soar and no doubt covered with cavities from the handfuls of candy corn I’ve been shoveling in my mouth. And the street I live on is lined with carved jack-o-lanterns and piles of dead leaves, which gives it a strikingly eerie resemblance to the fictional small town of Haddonfield, IL. These three observations can only mean one thing; Halloween is right around the corner. Yes, that magical holiday that somehow seems to get more and more awesome every year despite growing out of trick r’ treating almost two decades ago. And even though I absolutely love dressing up and decorating for a Halloween bash and am very partial to candy, my favorite element of this seasonal celebration is no doubt all about the cinema.
Every year, I try to see as many horror films as I possibly can during the month of October leading up to All Hallows Eve. And with the number of movies that I have seen (trust me, it’s a lot), I can have a rather tricky time trying to find ones that I haven’t seen yet. What once called for me pacing up and down the horror section of my local video store for an hour picking random movies I’ve never heard of that sound interesting, has now been replaced with me spending that same hour browsing on Netflix. This year, I decided to go pretty far back on the timeline and take a break from all of the torture-porn garbage that has been getting released these past couple of years. Don’t get me wrong, as tempting as it was to see Saw 17: The Bride of Jigsaw’s Cousin, I instead decided to visit the work of an old horror legend.
That legend being none other then the “King of the Gimmick” himself. The Godfather of the B –Movie; Mr. William Castle. Thanks to the recent release of the William Castle Film Collection, the 5-disc DVD set that includes eight of the director’s finest contributions to the world of cinema, everyone now has the privilege of rediscovering one of the first film directors that understood that being scared and having fun go hand-in-hand when watching a fright film.
With over fifty movies on his resume, it’s a shame William Castle’s name doesn’t come up as frequently as Hitchcock’s or Argento’s when discussions arise on the icons of the horror genre. Don’t get me wrong, his movies were never celluloid perfection or anything like that. But certain classics like Straigh-Jacket, Mr. Sardonicus and many others possessed a campy flare that most horror buffs can’t help but pleasantly enjoy.
Having a background in theatre production, William Castle (then known as William Schloss before changing his last name to the German translation of the word; castle) moved to Hollywood at the age of 23. After using his irresistible charm to become acquainted with the great Orson Welles, he was able to get work as an assistant for the infamous director. He was even the first person to take interest in the property that would soon become The Lady From Shanghai, one of Welles’ finest movies. Watching filmmakers like Welles in action day after day gave Castle an overwhelming desire to be a director himself.
Patiently waiting for his chance, Castle’s received his education in filmmaking on the studio lots of Columbia Pictures where he would dabble in all kinds of behind the scenes work before eventually being hired on as a contract director. Back in those days, directors under a studio contract would churn out a movie every 12 to 15 days. Needless to say, Castle got his chance and was required to start whipping out cookie-cutter films on a monthly basis. The movies never garnered any attention except for all the negative reviews the critics would throw at them, which didn’t cast Castle in much of a positive light. It wasn’t until he ventured out on his own and decided that he wanted to focus on making scary movies that his presence in the film industry would be felt.
Now, if you asked any film historian who William Castle was, the first thing they would all say is “the King of the Gimmick.” You see, as much as Castle loved being behind the camera; where he truly excelled in filmmaking was marketing his final product to the public. When the director ventured away from the studio and began making pictures on his own, he always had a lot riding on them financially seeing how most of them were produced through second mortgages Castle and his wife would take out. Thus, he needed to guarantee that people would actually show up to the theater and by tickets to his movie. So he created preposterous gimmicks that would generate enough buzz to get people all over the county talking, which in turn led to big opening weekends for his films.
When Macabre, Castle’s first independent feature, came out in 1958 people who bought tickets were issued a $1000 life insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London just in case they actually died from fright while watching the movie. People were able to sign up with the nurses who were stationed right there at the movie theaters. Castle even orchestrated there to be hearses parked outside to add extra effect. All this hoopla over Macabre, a film supposedly so scary you could die from it, worked wonders for William Castle. The movie was a huge success with the public.
Castle’s next film, The House on Haunted Hill, was promoted as being filmed in “Emergo,” and exciting new technique in filmmaking where the images on the screen would emerge into real life. In a scene at the end of the film, a skeleton rises from a vat of acid and approaches one of the characters. At this point, a prop skeleton set up in the theater would be unveiled and soar above the crowd via cable. Even though some theater patrons used this gimmick for target practice with their Milk Duds, it again proved successful for Castle.
After Emergo came “Percepto” for the release of the “so-bad-it’s great movie,” The Tingler. The film’s ridiculous plot revolved around a creature that forms on the base of one’s spine every time they are frightened and if they don’t scream, the creature kills them. Of course, all hell breaks loose when Vincent Price’s character is able to extract one of these creatures from a person’s back only to let it escape and wreak havoc in a movie theater. The film’s gimmick, Percepto, were electronic devices wired under certain theater chairs that sent a shock through the person sitting in it, giving them one more reason to scream.
Then came “Illusion-O” for the 1960 release of 13 Ghosts. In the film, the characters were unable to see the ghosts that haunted their newly acquired house unless they wore a special pair of glasses. Illusion-O was created to give the audience the same experience and in all actuality were just a pair of old 3-D glasses made from blue and red cellophane that gave viewers the option of either viewing the ghosts on the screen when they appeared or hiding them incase they were too frightened.
Film after film, William Castle would find ridiculous new ways to ensure people would line up to see his movies. Nothing seemed too outrageous for the horror maestro as long as it resulted in sparking buzz. His 1961 film, Homicidal, contained a “Fright Break” with fifteen minutes left to go in the movie that offered people the chance to leave the theater incase they were too frightened to finish watching. They were even offered a complete refund, granted that it was issued in the theater’s designated “Coward’s Corner.”
Probably Castle’s most unique gimmick came with the release of the 1961 film, Mr. Sardonicus. In the film, the titular character has a grotesque smile permanently frozen on his face after he digs up his father’s dead body to retrieve a winning lottery ticket. With apparently two endings to the movie shot during production, audience members were asked to take a “Punishment Poll” right before the climax of the film to determine Sardonicus’s fate. They were to give a thumbs up if they wanted him to live or a thumbs down if they wanted him to die. It being a horror flick, Sardonicus was always sent to his execution by the audience, which caused many to speculate that an ending with him surviving was never shot at all. It only adds fuel to the fire that an alternative ending doesn’t appear on the Mr. Sardonicus disc of The William Castle Film Collection. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?
It would be easy to look back at the work William Castle did in both creating his films and in marketing them and shrug it off as cheesy and shameless self-promotion. Many wondered why the director continued with gimmicks even after establishing a name for himself. But if you actually think about it, the positive buzz that William Castle was able to create around his movies back in the late fifties, long before this internet thing came along, is a pretty impressive feat regardless of why he did it. And not all of Castle’s films were campy and centered around a gimmick.
Straight-Jacket, Castle’s 1964 film starring Joan Crawford, is an incredible movie and one of my favorites from the 60s. It contained some pretty sweet deaths that were extremely violent for that time and a rare surprise ending that actually surprises you. Not to mention it was written by Robert Bloch, the scribe behind Hitchcock’s Psycho. And in 1961, Time Magazine named Castle’s Homicidal as one of their Top Ten Films of the Year. You know what horror film wasn’t on that list that came out the same year? The above-mentioned Psycho. William Castle is also credited as being the primary producer on Rosemary’s Baby, the horror classic directed by Roman Polanski. If you’ve seen the film, you might remember his odd cameo as the creepy guy standing outside the phone booth when Mia Farrow tries making a call.
After a long career that included directing over 55 films, Mr. Castle succumbed to a heart attack and passed away in May of 1977. Gone but not forgotten, Castle’s films remain popular even today. Every October, theaters across the county offer midnight showings that pay tribute to the work of the late director. Some theaters have even gone as far as installing Percepto in their chairs for showings of the cult classic The Tingler, a favorite among Castle fans everywhere.
With a career almost as interesting as the fictional worlds he created behind the camera, William Castle proved that sometimes it’s more beneficial for a filmmaker to be less of an artist and more of a salesman. So this Halloween, when you’re looking for a cool horror movie to get you in the holiday spirit, put down that latest Hollywood remake and save that straight-to-DVD title for another time. Give The William Castle Film Collection a try. He never won any Oscars or anything like that, but his movies offer a lot of fun and are entertaining to watch, which is more then a lot of horror movies today are offering. And I personally would take Mr. Castle’s work over a Saw movie any day.