WILLIAM CASTLE – Mad As Hell Movie Showman
For those of us who love B-movies and cult cinema the name William Castle (1914-1977) will conjure up thoughts of all kinds of creepy creatures and wild promotional campaigns that rivaled other famous film showmen of his day like Alfred Hitchcock. Castle may have been known primarily as the producer/director of his outrageous ouvre but when all was said and done he was really the star of them too because of his engaging, boisterous persona and intriguing methods of entertaining audiences.
Before I ever actually knew who William Castle was or had seen one of his own movies, I first noticed him in one of my favorite psychological thrillers Rosemary’s Baby (1968) directed by Roman Polanski. He has a small cameo as the man waiting outside a phone booth when Rosemary is contacting her doctor. It was only a minor part but I always remembered it because of the paranoia it invokes for Rosemary as well as us, the viewers. Castle had initially wanted to direct the film but ended up only as a producer.
William Castle was born William Schloss Jr. in New York City. After being orphaned, at the age of 13 he met the already legendary actor Bela Lugosi one day following a stage play of Dracula. It was here that Castle first realized he wanted to work in show business. A few years later, due to Castle’s persistance, Lugosi recommended him for a position as an assistant stage manager on the national tour of the play. An already ambitious Castle decided to drop out of high school to take the job. Following this initial adventure he got several jobs on Broadway doing things such as building sets and acting in bit parts. After moving out to Hollywood at age 23, Castle went to work for Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures. With Cohn as his mentor he learned many important secrets of the booming film business. Castle got his first work as an actual director on low budget B-films like The Chance of a Lifetime (1943) as well as four movies in the popular The Whistler series. He later was hired on Orson Welles’ film noir The Lady from Shanghai (1947) as a second unit location scout.
From the late 50s through to the 70s, William Castle directed and produced a variety of low budget genre films (mostly horror/thrillers and science fiction) that became cult classics due to their inherant schlocky qualities but more prominently because of the various promotional gimmicks that were used to shock and thrill audiences. Castle set the mark as a one of a kind Film Showman and grabbed the attention of moviegoers across the country through his ambitious multimedia marketing campaigns that really were a form of entertainment all their own.
For this celebratory William Castle Blogathon hosted by The Last Drive-In and Goregirl’s Dungeon we’ve decided to forego the usual in-depth reviews or critiques of the actual work and instead follow in the tradition of Mr. Castle by just giving you the goods, as in a listing of some of his most loved features along with some basic information on the myriad of crazy and inventive gimmicks he used in marketing them.
SYNOPSIS: The young daughter of Dr. Rodney Barrett (William Prince) is kidnapped by a maniac who proceeds to bury her in a coffin. The good doctor is then given five hours to find its location before the oxygen supply runs out. Barrett gets his family and friends to help him in the frantic search as various red herrings are set up to confuse them and the viewer. Co-starring Jim Backus, Christine White, Jacqueline Scott, and Susan Morrow.
GIMMICK: A certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London was given to audience members in case he/she should die of fright. Some showings had ushers dressed as surgeons with an ambulance parked outside theaters.
HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959)
SYNOPSIS: Vincent Price plays millionaire Frederick Loren. He and his wife Annabelle invite five people over for a little “haunted house” party. The main rule being whoever stays one night will earn $10,000 as a prize. As the night progresses, all the guests are trapped inside with a myriad of scary ghosts and other freakish frights. Co-Starring Carolyn Craig, Elisha Cook, Carol Ohmart, Alan Marshal
GIMMICK: Emergo – An inflatable glow-in-the-dark skeleton would fly over the audience during certain scenes.
THE TINGLER (1959)
SYNOPSIS: A pathologist, Dr. Warren Chapin (Vincent Price) discovers a parasite in humans which feeds on fear that he names the “Tingler”. The creature gets its name by making the spine of its host “tingle” when they are frightened. The more scared the victim gets, the larger it grows. One of Castle’s most famous cult classics and in our Top 3 favorites of his work. Co-starring Darryl Hickman, Patricia Cutts and Pamela Lincoln.
GIMMICK: Percepto – Castle purchased military airplane wing de-icers for their vibrating motors and had a crew install them under some of the theater seats. The devices were activated when Vincent Price tells the audience to “scream – scream for your lives!”.
Bloody Bathtub: The film was shot in black and white but Castle also added one scene with color in which blood flows from a sink’s water tap and a hand comes out of a bathtub filled with bright red blood.
13 GHOSTS (1960)
SYNOPSIS: When an old man dies and leaves his home to his nephew, his family move in unaware of they aren’t the only inhabitants. Along with a maid and some hidden treasures, the residence also contains 13 ghosts. Starring Charles Herbert, Jo Morrow, Rosemary DeCamp, Martin Milner, Donald Woods
GIMMICK: Illusion-O – Each attendee received a handheld ghost viewer/remover. During certain parts of the film, a viewer could see the ghosts by looking through the red cellophane, or remove the images if they were too scared by looking through the blue side.
SYNOPSIS: A mysterious woman, a mute nurse who uses a wheelchair and an heir on the verge of gaining the family estate all stay in a large creepy mansion where strange disturbances begin to occur. Starring Glenn Corbett, Patricia Breslin, Eugenie Leontovich, Alan Bunce, Richard Rust, and Joan Marshall
GIMMICK: The Fright Break showed a timer over the film’s finale. The audience was given 45 seconds to leave and receive a full refund if they were too frightened to see what happens. In one early showing, attendees sat through the movie a second time and left during the break to get their money back. To prevent this ripoff, Castle had different color tickets printed for each showing.
MR. SARDONICUS (1961)
SYNOPSIS: The face of Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) becomes frozen in a terrifying grin while robbing his father’s grave to obtain a winning lottery ticket. He then goes mad and later tries to have his face turned back to its original state with the help of a surgeon Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis). In our Top 3 favorites of Castle’s work. Starring Oskar Homolka, Audrey Dalton, Vladimir Sokoloff
GIMMICK: The “Punishment Poll” – Each person was given a glow-in-the-dark card featuring a hand with the thumb up. They voted by holding the card with either the thumb up or down to choose if Sardonicus would live or die. The story goes that no audience ever offered mercy so the alternate ending was never screened.
STRAIT JACKET (1964)
SYNOPSIS: Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford) has been in a mental hospital for 20 years after being convicted of the axe murder of her husband (Lee Majors) and his mistress. Following her release she moves in on the farm of her brother Bill and sister-in-law Emily. Soon more axe murders begin occurring. One of our Top 3 Castle picks. Co-starring Diane Baker, Leif Erickson, Rochelle Hudson
Castle had been told by producers not to use gimmicks for the film so he had star Joan Crawford go on a promotional tour to various theaters. He did however have cardboard axes made and given to theatergoers.
I SAW WHAT YOU DID (1965)
SYNOPSIS: Two teenage girls play pranks by dialing random phone numbers and telling the people who answer:”I saw what you did, I know who you are”. One of the calls is accidentally placed to a man who has recently murdered his wife and hidden her body. Starring Joan Crawford, John Ireland, Leif Erickson, Andi Garrett, Sarah Lane.
GIMMICK: William Castle declares: “This is a motion picture about UXORICIDE!“. In one promotional trailer he explains theaters will be equipped with seat belts for audience members “who might be scared out of their seats”. This gimmick was never actually used. The trailer has the announcer repeating: “DON’T ANSWER IT!!”.
BUG (1975, Dir: Jeannot Szwarc)
SYNOPSIS: During an earthquake, mutant cockroaches that can create fire by rubbing their cerci together begin appearing. Most of them perish due to the low air pressure on the Earth’s surface. A scientist, Dr James Partimer (Bradford Dillman) is able to keep one alive in a pressure chamber then successfully breeds it with another domestic species thus creating a highly intelligent, deadly super bug which attack various locals. Co-starring Joanna Miles and Richard Gilliland.
GIMMICK: A million-dollar life insurance policy was taken out on the film’s star, a cockroach named “Hercules”.
MATINEE – This 1993 cult comedy directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins) stars John Goodman as producer/director Lawrence Woolsey who was clearly a stand-in for William Castle. It will take you right back to the early days when Castle was promoting his films with all kinds of crazy gimmicks like the ones we listed above. Matinee even has a film within the film called MANT (based on classic B sci-fi films like THEM! and The Fly). We highly recommend Castle fans check it out after you’ve seen his films.
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