Like a lot of people, I believe that the kid you started out in life as doesn’t ever really go away. He or she might have a greater or lesser degree of influence on the decisions that you make later in life, anywhere from trusted consultant to helpless spectator. I also believe that the happier people in life, and in many cases the most successful, are the ones with inner children holding the former position rather than the latter. I believe that the happiest people are the ones who keep their covenants with their inner children; they honor their bargains and live true to those dreams.
When William Castle was 13 years old, he went to see Bela Lugosi perform Dracula live on Broadway. He was transfixed by the performance and begged/borrowed/scrounged additional ticket monies to watch the play again, and again, and again for two straight weeks. After seeing the play a dozen or so times, somehow young Castle was able to bluff his way backstage and meet Lugosi. The two of them – bright eyed youngster and Master Thespian – talked for the better part of the afternoon well into evening about acting and directing and the creative process. Castle’s remarkable insight and charm enthralled Lugosi and the two of them struck an unlikely friendship that would lead to Castle’s first job in show business, as the assistant stage manager for the touring production of Dracula.
Mr Sardonicus (1961) – It’s perhaps somewhat telling that while this is perhaps one of Castle’s greatest films, as promotional gimmicks went, it was one of his more restrained efforts.
That’s perhaps because instead of humiliating the audience, dropping fake dead bodies on them or zapping them with government surplus joy-buzzers, Castle decided to torture his cast for a change. Case in point, one Guy Rolfe – he of the titular role – who was forced to sit through an agonizing series of facial prostheses so uncomfortable he was only able to wear them for up to an hour at a time.
The story is a good one, one of those 18th century period pieces made popular by Roger Corman, who cranked out lurid reimaginings of Edgar Allen Poe’s masterpieces starring Castle’s one-time go-to, Vincent Price. In fact, the role of Sardonicus may well have suited Price, if not for the terrible facial mauling that froze Rolfe’s face into such an excruciating state that he had trouble sleeping at night.
Sardonicus starts out the story as Marek Toleslawski, a humble farmer who finds out his father has won a local lottery and then dies in his sleep, just like that dumbass Alanis Morisette tune. Anyway, Marek decides to dig up his father’s grave to retrieve the winning ticket (because, you know, some people actually do try to take it with them), only the sight of his dead father’s face sends Marek into a fit of paroxysms that culminate with his face actually freezing into the horrible rictus pictured above. While he manages to retrieve the ticket, the ol’ missus can’t stand the sight of him anymore and throws herself off a cliff or something. Marek transforms into an Evil Baron, renaming himself Sardonicus, and then spends the rest of his life doing Evil Baron deeds like killing the doctors who fail to cure him and torturing people with leeches and stuff.
The hero of this tale is one Dr Cargrave, whose former lover Maude is now the Baron’s wife. He comes to the Castle Sardonicus to attempt to cure the Baron, and Mayhem ensues.
William Castle’s gimmick with this film involved something called a “Punishment Poll,” which occurred roughly 3 minutes before the film’s conclusion. The film actually stops, and cuts to William Castle in the director’s chair, smoking his trademark big-ass cigar and grinning like an alligator at the audience. He informs you, the viewer, that it’s up to you whether or not Sardonicus should die for his offenses, or be allowed to live out the rest of his life. Castle makes no bones about which way he thinks the film should end, and gleefully eggs anybody viewing the film to choose punishment. Several versions of this break were filmed, one for theaters in which glow in the dark cards with a picture of a hand sticking out its thumb (thumbs up: he lives, thumbs down: well, you’ve seen Gladiator), the other was shot for drive-ins, with the instructions for voting based on flashing the headlights once or twice.
Obviously, nobody wanted to see Sardonicus not die, and so in every instance the “Punishment” ending was chosen. The funny thing about the promotion is that to this day, no alternate ending to the movie has ever been located, and even the actors don’t remember ever shooting scenes in which Sardonicus lived.
(1962 – 1964)
Over the next couple of years, William Castle cooled off on the promotional gimmicks. He made several notable films, branching out into comedy with the lighthearted espionage spoofs Zots!
and 13 Frightened Girls!
His next foray into horror would be in 1963, when Castle shot a semi-comedic remake of the 1932 Boris Karloff vehicle The Old Dark House. But for all of these films, Castle chose to forgo his usual style of outrageous gimmickry, with the exception of issuing plastic replica coins to the Zotz! audiences.
For his next film, Castle was able to snag none other than Academy Award winner Joan Crawford, fresh off of her stellar portrayal of Blanche Hudson in the chilling masterpiece, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? While Castle originally planned on eschewing once again any sort of promotional gimmicks for this more somber film, he found he could not restrain himself and at the last minute, ordered thousands of cardboard axes to be made up and distributed to audience members for opening night.
Strait-Jacket is a slightly more somber effort than Castle’s earlier films, a surprisingly effective psychological thriller (largely due to Crawford’s performance) about an older woman who is released to the custody of her family some 20 years after chopping her husband into hamburger meat with a large axe. Castle’s sense of playfulness is still evident in many instances, most notably in the closing frame of the film in which the Columbia Pictures Torchbearer is shown decapitated, with her flame snuffed out.
Overall the film was fairly successful and well-received, and led to William Castle collaborating with the Oscar-winning actress a second time, the following year.
I Saw What You Did (1965)
This is one of the final films in which Castle attempted one of his signature promotional efforts, in this case distributing fake plastic phones to the audience. For whatever reason the phone companies had a problem with the idea and threatened to sue if Castle went through with this. Another plan was for something called a "fright row", where viewers were strapped into their seats for the duration of the film, although this idea was soon abandoned as well. The film is about a couple of teenage girls who amuse themselves by prank calling random strangers and whispering “I saw what you did, I know who you are,” and then hanging up in a fit of giggles. As luck would have it, one night they run afoul of an actual psychotic killer, mere minutes after he’s quite brutally dispatched his loving wife in a violent stabbing which manages to pay homage to Psycho while at the same time doing something fairly fresh and original. I won’t actually give away how the scene plays out, because if you ever get a chance to see this movie the opening frames will give you quite a jump. Joan Crawford gives another solid performance although it seems her whole purpose in the film seems to simply be Joan Crawford.
(1966 – 1967) Over the next two years, William Castle completed a triptych of the most bizarre comedic offerings this side of Robert Rankin.
Let’s Kill Uncle (1966) is about a couple of annoying orphans, their scheming homicidal uncle, and a bunch of sharks.
The Spirit Is Willing (1967) is a haunted house comedy based on Nathaniel Benchley’s not-funny-at-all-and-actually-kinda-scary novel The Visitors.
The Busy Body (1967) is a… Well it’s got gangsters and a mix-up involving a dead body and some other stuff. Richard Pryor’s in it, so there’s that, but it’s just an odd film overall.
But while Castle worked on these films, he was sitting on a powder keg, and he knew it. That powder keg was the rights to a novel by an up and coming writer by the name of Ira Levin; a script that would go on to be one of the most influential horror movies ever made, and the subject of the third and final entry on William Castle…