Sunday, June 24, 2012

William Castle, Part One

So there was this guy named William Castle, who made a bunch of films, starting in the early fifties, all the way into the mid-seventies when he died, presumably as a result of the Rosemary’s Baby curse (don’t worry, we’ll get to that later).

You may have seen one of his movies on the local cable access late show, something with Elvira or one her knock-offs spouting witticisms while flashing some top-boob. You might have seen one of the well-intentioned remakes that cropped up a few years ago – a few Castle films featured Vincent Price, and no actor can fill those shoes no matter how hard they try. But watching the originals at home cannot compare to the thrill of going to see the real thing. You see, Castle the Director was a competent artist, not in the same league as Orson Welles or Eliah Kazan, better than most of the low-budget BEM flicks and teen cautionary tales that were getting cranked out each week for pennies on the dollar…

…But Castle the Promoter was a fucking visionary. Nobody ever pulled the same stunts as William Castle.

His first film was a suspense thriller called Macabre, in which a young woman is kidnapped and buried alive, and her father - a doctor - races against time to find her. Castle, choosing not to go through the typical Hollywood financing channels, decided to mortgage his own house in order to produce the film. If he stopped there, Castle could be set aside as simply another indie director who gambled on his own artistic merit, rather than allowing the machine to compromise his vision.

But Castle pushed it a little bit farther than most. When distributing the film, he saw to it that each viewer received a $1000 insurance certificate from Lloyd’s of London, in case they should die of fright. Then, ushers and assorted theater personnel were issued nurse outfits and surgical garb, and ordered to stand by the audience in case of emergency.

His gambit worked. Macabre, which cost an estimated $90,000 to make and then distribute, ended up earning over 5 million dollars to date.

For his next project, Castle had the good fortune of casting the legendary Vincent Price, who would go on to collaborate with him again. The House on Haunted Hill was released in what Castle dubbed as “Emergo” which apparently is a fancy term for rigging an elaborate pulley system into movie house and then dropping fucking skeletons onto an unsuspecting audience at a key moment in the film. While the idea sounds slightly terrifying in theory, Castle failed to acquire enough real skeletons for nation-wide release and had to settle for using plastic puppets, which quickly drew the ire of audience members and became fodder for target practice.

After failing to literally scare the shit out of his audience (no doubt much to the relief of whoever would have been responsible for the cleanup), a lesser man might have given up on making scary movies, and gone on to more respectable endeavors. But not William Castle. Instead, the man came up with what may have been the most audacious idea in the history of film – attempting to electrocute the viewers.

Less than a year after The House on Haunted Hill, Castle finished production on The Tingler, again working with Vincent Price and writer Robb White. The story is about a doctor (Well, Vincent Price, so read Mad Scientist) who discovers that living inside every human being’s spine is a small parasite that feeds on fear. Naturally, the doctor’s reaction to this discovery is to yank one of the little fuckers out of a dead woman’s spine and grow it large enough to eat people. Also naturally, the thing escapes the doctor’s lab. Cue mayhem.

Not satisfied with simply releasing a horror movie starring the legendary Vincent Price for the 2nd time, Castle decided to release the film in what he dubbed “Percepto”, possibly because he’d already used the made-up word “Emergo” for House on Haunted Hill, and possibly because the word “Percepto” fit more easily on a marquis than what he really had in mind, which was “Jolt the Living Bejesus out of the Audience.”

Arguably, the logistics required to hook thousands of car batteries up to movie theatre seats would have caused ticket prices to skyrocket. This, plus the fact that once his patrons had all died as a result of horribly painful electrical burns he’d have to find a whole new target market forced Castle to think more creatively. He and his and his team instead devised small gadgets similar to joy-buzzers, which were actually retro-fitted surplus vibrators left over from World War II. Just what our brave troops were doing with such things is the topic for a whole ‘nother day…

…But I digress. Anyway, the Percepto-gadgets were then wired to the underside of metal theatre seats. The climax of the movie occurred when the Tingler-monster broke into a crowded theatre, and, you guessed it – military grade vibrator madness. The Tingler also has the distinction of being the first modern horror film to employ LSD as a plot device, which may sound shocking (forgive the pun), but can be only assumed as reasonable for the time, seeing as how in 1959, LSD was still perfectly legal.

In fact, The Tingler actually shows Vincent Price actually taking a hit of acid just after familiarizing himself with it by reading a copy of a book titled “Fright Effects Induced By Injection Of Lysergic Acid LSD 25”, which sounds like a totally good idea on account of how everyone who’s ever taken acid knows, the best thing to do is think really, really hard about how to have a bad trip beforehand, and by all means read a manual on the fucking subject if you have the wherewithal.

After the madness that was The Tingler, Castle demonstrated a marked restraint for his next project, 13 Ghosts. Released a year later, and minus the significant presence of Vincent Price, Castle nonetheless retained Robb White, along with much of the creative team that helmed his earlier projects. This time around, Castle created a device he christened “Illusion-O” which probably could have also been the name of a really disappointing brand of cereal.

“Illusion-O” consisted of a pair of glasses very similar to the type used to view 3-D movies. There was a red lens and a blue lens, only much longer and stacked on top of each other, instead of side by side.

The premise of “Illusion-O’ was simple – the movie was shot in standard black and white, and the eponymous ghosts were filmed with a blue shade superimposed over the image. To see the ghosts, one need only view the film through the red lens. To opt out, watch the film through the blue. Despite the blinding headache one can only assume came from watching a movie like in this manner, the film was a commercial success.

Castle wasn’t satisfied. He’d long since decided that the film medium was lacking, well… something. For his next entry, the following year, Castle apparently lost his shit.

Homicidal was released in 1961, starring a woman named Jean Arless. This was only one of two of Arless’s on-screen appearance, only it wasn’t. The truth is that Jean Arless was actually Joan Marshall, a second tier ancillary television actress who appeared in at least one episode of just about every show you remember, or vaguely remember from that era, from Star Trek to Bat Masterson. Marshall changed her name several times for different roles, and also occasionally used the name “Joan Ashby”.

In retrospect, one can view Homicidal as one of Castle’s more sober-minded and better efforts. He dispenses with the supernatural and tells a fairly compelling story that opens with the murder of a judge in the middle of a court session, and then illustrates’ the history of the assassin’s family.

Oh yeah, that thing about Castle losing his mind over the promotion? That totally happened, or at least that’s how it would have appeared to the outside observer. Truth is, Castle was equal parts entrepreneur and performance artist. He took risks – bizarre, albeit calculated risks. And the promotion surrounding Homicidal was his most daring since The Tingler.

You see, Castle had little to no respect for what people in show business refer to as “The 4th Wall.” His movies were regularly interrupted by messages from the actors to avert their eyes, lest they die of fright, although zero reports exist on such a death ever occurring. More frequently were such messages from Castle himself. He’d tried various forms of film-tricks, he’d dropped puppets on people, and he tickled them with remote operated vibrators. But there was one trick Castle hadn’t tried yet... abject humiliation of his audience.

Here’s how this worked: The movie unfolded pretty normally all the way up to the climax in the 3rd act, at which point the film stops in its tracks. I don’t mean that there’s a cutaway, or anything, I mean the movie actually stops, like an intermission. This was called a “Fright Break.”

Only in the halcyon era of BEM B-movies and zero-budget slasher flicks could anybody ever have pulled this off. The purpose of the “Fright Break” was to give viewers that were too terrified to watch the rest of the movie a chance to back out. Castle offered a full refund to anyone who opted out at this point. About 1 percent of audience members left on the opening night, at which point Castle apparently went bezerk, and the mother of all promotional events / social experiments was born – enter the “Coward’s Corner.”

Imagine how this went down: As you enter the theatre, you see a set of yellow footprints leading up the center aisle to an area behind the back row. A booth is set up there, decked out in the same shade of yellow, manned by pimply teenagers in yellow uniforms. Your mind flashes back to that funny little form that you signed as you purchased your tickets, the ones with the full refund – that in itself seemed a little funny, but this –

“Hey, what’s that all about?” you ask the usher.

The usher smiles ruefully and a deep crimson flush floods his face and neck. He really doesn’t know how to respond, so he checks your tickets and bids you to enjoy the show.

You think, No problem if I don’t, I can get a refund. Right? Right. But even as you’re thinking that, you realize that something here is very, very amiss.
The show begins with a personal message from William Castle himself, warning people how terribly frightening the following movie might be for some. Castle mentions the “Fright Break” which jibes with what you heard. A friend of yours thought the movie was alright, but he left a few minutes early and got his refund just the night before – Opening night.

Oh yeah, on with the show. It’s pretty good, a lot gorier than its contemporaries. Homicidal came out right around the same time as Psycho, and while Castle lacked Hitchcock’s finesse, he made up for it in lurid sensationalism. As the 3rd act commences in the final reel, the film goes black for a moment. Having gotten sucked into the story, you almost forgot about the break. Only now, Castle threw in a new twist.

Several people stand up, no doubt thinking about taking advantage of that refund. As they do, the center aisle is flooded with a bright yellow spotlight, same shade as those glowing footprints. Castle’s voice booms over the sound system: “Look at the chicken! See how he shivers, in Coward’s Corner!!!”

You now see that the yellow uniforms are identical to nurse uniforms. There is a bright yellow line with the words “Cowards keep walking”, with arrows leading all the way to the booth. One of the kids is fiddling with what looks like a blood pressure cuff.

Everybody in the audience turns and stares at the few people who stood up for the Fright Break They sit back down again. For the rest of Homicidal’s run in theatres, not one single person asked for a refund again.


  1. wonderful read- thanks for that. I know Bill is looking from beyond the grave and smiling down. Nice work in capturing it all, I'm happy to be able to say that ( thanks to Bruce at Film Forum) to have been able to experience all of Bill's ballyhoo.

    Looking forward to part 2.

  2. Hey thanks man, I'm really glad you liked it! Come back anytime

  3. Thanks for the follow. Loved the moose story. And good luck with the publishing process. I am awaiting a call from to set the press in motion for my second book. I am so much calmer this time around. I know exactly how you feel. Good luck!