Monday, October 8, 2012
William Castle - Part III
In the above photo, it’s 1975 in Southern California, and William Castle is working on his last film; a somewhat gritty Sci-Fi horror number called Bug. He’s handing the directorial reigns over to Jeannot Szwarc, who’s going to go on in the next couple of years to direct Jaws 2 as well as the superb (and criminally underrated) Somewhere in Time.
Bug stars Bradford Dillman, and a young actor who goes by the moniker “Hercules”. He’s the handsome fellow on the right. No, not your right – Castle’s right. Yeah, the six-legged guy. According to legend, the document that William Castle is signing in the photo is a life insurance policy for Hercules the Cockroach worth $1,000,000.00
I never figured out who the 3rd guy in the photo was. He might have been the underwriter from Lloyd’s of London who brokered the insurance deal, or he might have just been the one to bring Castle his coffee every morning. Whoever he is, both he and William Castle look remarkably relaxed to be seated next to a cockroach the size of a honey-glazed ham. The photograph is purported to be completely undoctored.
You can call bullshit all you want, but when you’re talking about anything Castle has been a part of there’s always been a little bit of magic at work. Loads and loads of bullshit, sure – but a little bit of magic, too. Hell, when William Castle was a teenager he was teaching stage magic to Dracula. In the bridge that links every generation of cinematic horror together, from the Golden Age of Universal Studios to the dawn of the Modern Era, William Castle is the keystone of it all. And he saved his greatest trick of all for the very end, more than 30 years after his death.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
The mid-sixties brought along with it a new way of looking at the horror film. Whereas for years it had languished as the stuff of zero-budget production, laughable scripts and rubbery, fake-looking monsters, once films like Target and Night of the Living Dead started coming out, folks realized that you could say things within a horror film that you just quite couldn’t elsewhere. They started paying attention.
At the time, Robert Evans was working over at Paramount Pictures, and pretty much everything the guy touched was turning into gold. It was William Castle who came to Evans with an advance copy of the manuscript, even before Random House had published the book. Castle knew the potential the story had, and wasted no time buying up the film rights.
Robert Evans realized that the story would make for a blockbuster movie as well. The thing was, he didn’t think that William Castle was the right guy to direct the film. So, he bought the script anyway, under the condition that Castle was to produce the thing, but that Paramount would get to choose a different director. Castle agreed, and Paramount (under the guidance of Robert Evans) went with Roman Polanski instead.
To his credit, Polanski made an almost perfect film with Rosemary’s Baby. It is one of the most faithful adaptations to a book ever. Rosemary’s Baby is also one of the most highly acclaimed movies to come out in the history of film – not just horror movies, but films overall. Perhaps more importantly, it marked a shift in the overall American paradigm of horror, away from the drive-ins and dingy grindhouse theatres towards one of universal acceptance, and even a little bit of respect.
But I always kind of wonder what Castle would have done with the thing, had he been given free reign. No doubt Vincent Price would have been involved, and maybe he’d have brought back a variation of his “Emergo” trick, and dropped bright red plastic devil puppets down from nowhere on his audience.
Project X (1968)
After Rosemary’s Baby, Castle went on direct Project X, an underrated Sci-Fi number that predated a lot of themes perfected in later films like Total Recall, The Matrix and Inception. It starred Christopher George as Hagen; an American Spy in the year 2118 who is critically injured in a plane crash after a mission in China. Scientists place Hagen into cryogenic suspension and attempt to extract critical information from his mind by creating a holographic dream state and then implanting agent personalities into his dream state.
Riot was a film that Castle produced, handing the directorial duties over to Buzz Kulik. Starring Gene Hackman and Jim Brown, the film is based on the true story of a Minnesota prison riot. While Castle did not direct, the movie is not without evident traces of his signature weirdness. For example, large portions of the flick are filmed in an actual prison (eschewing to shoot in Minnesota, they chose the Yuma Territorial Prison instead). The warden in the film was portrayed by Frank Eyman, who was an actual warden in real life, and they actually used real convicts from the real freakin’ prison as extras in the film.
It was little touches like this that made Riot one of the harder, more harrowing examples of the Prison-Exploitation genre, and not to be missed if you’re a fan of the whole true-crime type stuff.
Almost 5 full years were to pass before William Castle finished work on Shanks, his penultimate film and the last one he would ever direct. The truth is, I don’t even know where to begin with this fucking thing. You’re either going to love it or hate it, depending on your particular sensibilities. The first time I ever saw it, I’m pretty sure I was still in high school, and I never made the connection that this was even a Castle film until I began researching his filmography for this blog. But now that I’ve watched it a 2nd time, it kind of clicked.
In a way, Shanks is a definitive statement on what Castle was trying to do all along as a filmmaker, which was to push the envelope as far as he dared. William Castle may not have had the technical proficiency of Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick, but he more than made up for that with the chances that he took as an artist.
While there is some dialogue sprinkled throughout the movie, Shanks is shot almost as a silent film – stage cards and all. It starred Marcel Marceau, the world famous mime (it kinda disturbs me that there is such a thing, but whatever) as both the titular character Malcolm Shanks, and his benefactor; an old mad scientist type known as “Old Man Walker”.
I won’t try to give away too many of the plot details, but it involves reanimating dead people as puppets, an evil biker gang, an uncomfortably inappropriate relationship between a 50 year old man and a 16 year old girl, and a chicken that eats half of some guy’s face before shoving him down a flight of stairs. There’s also some of the most hilarious fight scene choreography this side of a Bollywood action film.
On the plus side, the scenes involving Marceau as Old Man Walker, particularly in the latter half of the film, are some of the creepiest shots I’ve ever seen.
Here we are again, back to the very end (sort of). Castle produced Bug but whether he knew it or not, his directing days were done. Jeannot Szwarc did an admirable job of making this story about enormous fire breathing cockroaches into something with a few memorable scares.
You saw Castle’s promo shot earlier, the one with Hercules the Cockroach, and a lot has been made of the fact that Castle’s last gonzo movie promotion is similar in a lot of ways to his very first. With Macabre, the insurance policies went out to the audience members, while in the case of Bug, Castle insured a gigantic roach.
But what a lot of people don’t know is that originally, William Castle had another plan to scare the living shit out of his audiences, and had he been allowed to do it, it would have been one for the ages.
As you can guess by the title, the premise of Bug has to do with an invasion of, well, bugs. It promises bugs, and it delivers them, hand over fist. You see shots of giant cockroaches, flying periplaneta roaches, Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches, a myriad of the foul things, legions of them throughout the whole goddamn movie, getting into people’s hair and crawling into their ears, you see them incinerate a cat in one scene (really) and it’s pretty hard not to walk away from the flick without feeling sort of a creepy-crawly sensation, even if you’re watching it at home, with all of the lights on.
Well, Castle’s idea for this one was to take what he had done with The Tingler and ramp it up by a thousand percent or so. He had an idea for building small devices, rigged from windshield wiper motors, to be placed under the theater seats so that during key scenes in the movie, thin little filaments would brush against the lower legs of unsuspecting audience members.
The thing was, it wasn’t 1959 anymore. It was 1975, and America was a different place, more cynical perhaps, and a hell of a lot more litigious. Castle could get a single theatre to sign off on the idea, and so he tanked it and insured a cockroach instead.
Maybe that was the joke – maybe insuring a cockroach was about as outrageous as a guy like William Castle could get anymore without unwanted pressure from the guys running the business side of the show.
William Castle passed away of heart failure in 1977. Bug was the last film he ever worked on, but like I said earlier, he still had one more trick up his sleeve. It started a few years ago, as the “social media” craze began, first with Facebook, and then with Twitter. William Castle’s ghost began to write again. He has his own blog now, despite being dead, and while he’s pretty much finished with the movie business, the ghost of William Castle has written several books, most recently From the Grave: The Prayer.
To this day, William Castle manages to stay the 2nd busiest dead guy in show business, right behind Tupac Shakur. The kid who once upon a time talked his way into a job with Bela Lugosi; America’s 1st great horror icon, went on in life to produce Rosemary’s Baby, the 1st truly modern horror film. And in between and for long after, William Castle created a vision of horror that is inimitable, and uncanny, and 100% all his own.
As for closing statements, I’ll leave it to the man himself:
“We all have a common interest, bigger and more horrible monsters - and I'm just the monster to bring them to you.” - William Castle