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The Seats Are Buzzing: The Films of William Castle

As October rolls around we begin to make our lists of must see Halloween movies. Many of which are horror films that we've been watching forever. It all starts in September when I begin to look at my movie shelf and start to ponder what I want to watch in the coming month. If there is one director whose films I get really excited about watching every October, it's the films directed by William Castle. Castle's career as a director spanned from the early 1940s right up to the mid 1970s. I don't wish to go too deeply into Castle's past, or his whole life, really. There's a fantastic documentary on the man called “Spin-Tingler: The William Castle Story” that is worth checking out. Instead, the exact period of films I want to focus on that make a “William Castle Movie” what they are, would be the films Castle produced and directed from 1958-1965.

What is it about this span of films that makes them so special and such an excited part of my Halloween celebrations? Simple. William Castle made horror movies unlike anyone else. I want to point out that even to say “horror” feels a little overblown in the modern vernacular. William Castle's films are more fun than they are fright. Castle was a sort of cinematic P.T. Barnum, and the last great showman of the movies, he modeled himself on Alfred Hitchcock, and has often been called “The poor man's Hitchcock.” A William Castle movie is the cinematic equivalent of your crazy rich uncle who builds a haunted house in his garage every year.

Let's start by looking at the titles, shall we? Here's the run down of the prime Castle films in order: “Macabre,” “House on Haunted Hill,” “The Tingler,” “13 Ghosts,” “Homicidal,” “Mr. Sardonicus,” and “Strait-Jacket.” Those titles alone makes you want to throw yourself in front of a drive in movie screen with a stack of burgers and a bag full of Halloween candy, don't they? Outside of marvelous titles, the thing that really sets William Castle's world apart of the other worlds of the macabre are gimmicks. Castle financed his first horror film himself, going so far as taking a mortgage out on his own home.

This terrified Castle into a state of fear and worry that the film would be a disaster at the box office. Castle had a knack for generating buzz and publicity, he knew that with the just the right trick, he could get people in the theaters to see “Macabre.” Castle came up with an idea that was so crazy it just might work. Castle contacted Lloyd's of London, and had legitimate “$1,000 Fright Insurance” policies created. Before being allowed admittance into the theater, each patron had to fill out a short insurance form. This form guaranteed that if you died of fright while watching the movie, your benefactor would receive $1,000. The trick paid off, “Macabre” was a success.

Castle followed up his “Macabre” formula with Vincent Price staring in 1959's “House on Haunted Hill.” This time the gimmick Castle dreamt up was a process he called “Emergo.” Emergo was a concept in which during one of the more amped up moments in the film, a plastic skeleton would float over the audience in the theater. The promotional material amped up the concept to make it sound like something inconceivable would be happening during the movie. The ballyhoo paid off, and “House on Haunted Hill” was a gigantic hit. The film's success was so noticeable, that it caused one Alfred Hitchcock to wonder what might happen if he made a low-budget, black and white thriller of his own. The next year Hitchcock would release “Psycho.”

In the same year Castle's “House on Haunted Hill” was released, he would follow it with his second and final film with Vincent Price. A film that is in many ways William Castle's masterpiece, “The Tingler.” “The Tingler” has many things that make it the quintessential William Castle movie. Vincent Price aside, the film was the first to fully show the Castle form. This is the film that Castle began to emulate Hitchcock's promotional style on. Appearing in the trailer for The Tingler, telling the audience about how “shocking” it is, and that it's a new film experience like they can't imagine thanks to “percepto.”

Castle also began to “host” his movies with “The Tingler.” Directly after the Columbia Pictures logo appears on screen, Castle walks into frame in front of a movie screen, to inform the audience that the “more sensitive” among them might experience some of the same sensations as the actors on the screen will. The plot of “The Tingler” involves Price as a doctor/scientist who is performing experiments on the subject of fear. Price knows there's some strange force inside of us that fear can generate, and he wants to get to the bottom of it. Price finds that when we become frightened, a creature begins to grow on our spines. Price dubs this “The Tingler” and when he captures one of the creatures, which looks like a cross between a rubber lobster and a centipede, Price finds that the only way to stop the creature from killing you is to scream.

Castle promised that during each running of “The Tingler” the titular creature would break loose into the theater and attack the audience, all thanks to his new modern day miracle of “percepto.” Castle convinced Columbia to spend an additional $250,000 to go around rigging up theater seats with surplus WWII airplane wing deicer boxes—that vibrated. All of this comes within the film's great climax, it begins first with a woman fainting in the audience and being carried out on a stretcher. Yes, Castle paid a plant to faint at each showing of the film.

Five minutes from when the plant faints and a voice over is played into the theater of Vincent Price assuring the audience that there is no need to panic, is when all hell breaks loose. The film appears to break, and The Tingler is seen in silhouette crawling across the screen. The film stops, the theater goes dark, once again a voice over of Price comes in to declare “The Tingler is loose in this theater! Do not panic, but scream! Scream for your lives!” This is the cue for the projectionist to flip a switch, causing sporadic seats in the house to buzz. After about a short 45 seconds or so of madness, Price assures the audience that The Tingler has been subdued, and the film will resume shortly. “The Tingler” was another box office success for Castle.

Castle's next three films would feature gimmicks in lesser degrees of “impact.” Following up “The Tingler” was “13 Ghosts” filmed in “Illision-O.” This time Castle handed out “ghost viewers” the his audiences. A variant on 3D glasses with red/blue filters, the “ghost viewers” allowed the audience to either see the ghosts on screen, or filter them out. The film was another success. During this time Castle also had his own national fan club with 250,000 members. Castle's main audience were pre-teens. Kids loved his films, audience flocked to the gimmicks, and the critics dismissed him outright.

Much in the same way that “House on Haunted Hill” influenced “Psycho,” Castle in turn was influenced by “Psycho” to make his own “homage” to the film with his next movie, “Homicidal.” “Homicidal” was the last film to feature one of Castle's “epic gimmicks.” “Homicidal” came with a fright break, a 45 second pause right before the film's climax that would allow the more frightened of the audience to leave and get their money back. Only it wasn't that simple. In order to receive your full refund, you had to stand in a booth called the “coward's corner” and show to the entire audience that you were far too chicken to see the ending of “Homicidal.”

Following “Homicidal,” Castle turned down the gimmicks and relied more on his reputation, by the time “Homicidal” was made, he had even adopted his own version of the Hitchcock Profile, by having his feature himself in a directors chair, with the image of a long cigar sticking out from his mouth. Castle also began to try to change his style with a few light comedies starting Tom Poston, “Zotz” and “The Old Dark House.” Castle's last big horror epic is “Strait-Jacket” featuring, in words borrowed from Castle fan John Waters, “the greatest gimmick of them all,” Joan Crawford.

Castle's efforts to move into A pictures culminated when he produced “Rosemary's Baby.” Castle had wanted to the direct the film himself, but Paramount Pictures, wary of his “shlock-mister” reputation, insisted he only produce, though Castle does have a cameo in the film. The momentum from the success of “Rosemary's Baby” was sadly short lived, Castle began to develop a series of health issues, and slipped back into directing B pictures. Castle, who smoked cigars regularly, kept having more and more issues with his health. Passing away from a heart attack at age 63 in 1977.

It's a deep shame that Castle couldn't have lived just a little while longer. In the early 1980s, the generation who grew up loving his movies as kids, began to revive the films. A popular feature for years at the Film Forum in New York City would be the annual screening of “The Tingler” complete with Percepto Buzzers wired to seats. The films began to be released to home video and both “House on Haunted Hill” and “13 Ghost” saw remakes in the late '90s. Today William Castle is rightfully seen as a truly unique, truly American filmmaker. A man whose films are all a world of their own. I can't think of many other directors who brand of “fun spookhouse” on celluloid could be more perfect for this time of the year. Many of his films are readily available on DVD, and even iTunes. So this year, why not rent a copy of “The Tingler” and gather the family around the TV? Screaming because Vincent Price told you to is far more fun than you'd think. 


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