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A Tribute To William Castle

My Opinion

William Castle brought a certain goofiness to 50s horror, but it was a goofiness that worked, unlike Ed Wood’s brand of goofiness. I doubt Castle thought what he did amounted to cinematic masterpieces but you still get the feeling he liked what he did and wanted to create something that surpassed the modest budgets and silly promotional ideas. Castle’s movies now have a certain naïve charm to them and they hold fairly well (keeping in context the hyper-promotional idealism of the 50s).


from: Wikipedia.org/

Born as William Schloss in New York City to a Jewish family, he spent most of his teenage years working on Broadway in a number of jobs ranging from set building to acting. This put him in a good stead to become a director, and he left for Hollywood at the age of 23, going on to direct his first film 6 years later. He also worked an as assistant to director Orson Welles, doing much of the second unit location work for Welles' noir classic, The Lady from Shanghai.

Castle was famous for directing films with many gimmicks, which were ambitiously promoted, despite being reasonably low budget B-movies. Five of these were scripted by adventure novelist Robb White. Recently, two of his films have been remade, House on Haunted Hill in 1999, and Thirteen Ghosts in 2001 (the latter retitled Thir13en Ghosts, apparently in imitation of the suspense film Se7en).

He also produced, and had a brief non-speaking role in, Roman Polanski's film Rosemary's Baby (1968). (Castle is the grey-haired man lurking outside the phone booth while Mia Farrow is attempting to get in touch with the obstetrician.) According to the documentary featured on the film's DVD release, Castle had wanted to direct the film as well, but the studio insisted on hiring another director due to the reputation Castle had gained through his previous work. They felt that the novel deserved a better treatment than Castle was able to give it.

After a long career, William Castle died in Los Angeles, California, of a heart attack. He is interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.

A documentary focusing on Castle's life, Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, had its premiere at AFI FEST 2007 in Los Angeles on November 8, 2007. It won the Audience Award for Best Documentary.

Gimmicks used by Castle

Macabre - 1958. A certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyd's of London was given to each customer in case he/she should die of fright during the film. Showings also had ushers dressed in surgical garb with ambulances outside theater.

House on Haunted Hill - 1959. Filmed in "Emergo". An inflatable skeleton attached to a wire floated over the audience during the final moments of some showings of the film to parallel the action on the screen when a skeleton arose from a vat of acid and pursued the villainous wife of Vincent Price. The gimmick did not always instill fright; sometimes the skeleton became a target for some audience members who hurled candy boxes, soda cups or any other objects at hand at the laughable fake skeleton.

The Tingler - 1959. Filmed in "Percepto". In the film a docile creature that lives in the spinal cord is activated by fright, and can only be destroyed by screaming. In the film's finale one of the creatures removed from the spine of a mute woman killed by it when she was unable to scream is let loose in a movie theatre. Some seats in theatres showing the Tingler were equipped with larger versions of the hand held "joy buzzers" attached to the underside of the seats. When the Tingler in the film attacked the audience the "joy buzzers" were activated as Vincent Price's voice encouraged the real audience to "Scream - scream for your lives". The effect caused more giggles than shock. Articles regarding this often incorrectly state the seats in the theatre were wired to give electrical jolts. Much more effective was a scene in the black and white film of a hand rising from a bathtub filled with bright red blood. This color section was spliced into each print and remains impressive even today.

13 Ghosts - 1960. Filmed in "Illusion-O". A hand held ghost viewer/remover with strips of red and blue cellophane was given out to use during certain segments of the film. By looking through either the red or blue cellophane the audience was able to either see or remove the ghosts if they were "too frightening". The similarity to anaglyph 3-D glasses often causes this film to be listed as 3-D when in fact there are no 3-D segments in the film.

Homicidal - 1961. This film contained a "Fright break" with a 45 second timer overlaid over the film's climax as the heroine approached a house harboring a sadistic killer. A voiceover advised the audience of the time remaining in which they could leave the theatre and receive a full refund if they were too frightened to see the remainder of the film. To receive the refund the patron had to stand in the "Coward's Corner" until the film was over and the exiting audience filed by. To ensure the more wily patrons did not simply stay for a second showing and leave during the finale a different color "Coward's Certificate" was given each patron who had to present it in order to receive the refund for that showing. In a trailer for the film, Castle explained the use of the Coward's Certificate, and admonished the viewer to not reveal the ending of the film to friends, "or they will kill you. If they don't, I will."[4] "William Castle simply went nuts. He came up with "Coward's Corner," a yellow cardboard booth, manned by a bewildered theater employee in the lobby. When the Fright Break was announced, and you found that you couldn't take it anymore, you had to leave your seat and, in front of the entire audience, follow yellow footsteps up the aisle, bathed in a yellow light. Before you reached Coward's Corner, you crossed yellow lines with the stenciled message: "Cowards Keep Walking." You passed a nurse (in a yellow uniform?...I wonder), who would offer a blood-pressure test. All the while a recording was blaring, "'Watch the chicken! Watch him shiver in Coward's Corner'!" As the audience howled, you had to go through one final indignity -- at Coward's Corner you were forced to sign a yellow card stating, "I am a bona fide coward." Very, very few were masochistic enough to endure this. The one percent refund dribbled away to a zero percent, and I'm sure that in many cities a plant had to be paid to go through this torture. No wonder theater owners balked at booking a William Castle film. It was all just too damn complicated".

Mr. Sardonicus - 1961. In this gothic tale set in 1880 London a baron's face is frozen into a permanent grotesque hideous smile after digging up his father's grave to retrieve a lottery ticket left in the pocket of his father's jacket. The audiences were allowed to vote in a "punishment poll" during the climax of the film - Castle himself appears on screen to explain to the audience their options. Each member of the audience was given a card with a glow in the dark thumb they could hold either up or down to decide if Mr. Sardonicus would be cured or die during the end of the film. Banking that no one would want Mr. Sardonicus to survive William Castle filmed and showed only the punishment ending.

Zotz! - 1962. Each patron was given a "Magic" (gold colored plastic) coin which, of course, did absolutely nothing.

Strait-Jacket- 1964. Cardboard hatchets were handed out to each patron. The axes were more of a souvenir than an actual gimmick. The film was advertised with the tags "This film vividly depicts axe murders!" and "Just keep saying to yourself It's only a movie, it's only movie".

I Saw What You Did-1965. In an early trailer for the film William Castle advised the audience that a section of the theatre would be installed with seat belts for audience members "who might be scared out of their seats". The advertised gimmick was abandoned prior to the release of the film and never actually used.

Bug - 1975. Advertising a "Million dollar insurance policy has been taken out for the film's star Hercules the cockroach".

From Wikipedia


Bug (1975, writer/producer)
Shanks (1974)
Rosemary's Baby (1968, producer only)
Project X (1968)
The Spirit Is Willing (1967)
The Busy Body (1967)
Let's Kill Uncle (1966)
I Saw What You Did (1965)
Night Walker (1964)
Strait-Jacket (1964)
The Old Dark House (1963)
13 Frightened Girls (1963)
Zotz! (1962)
Mr. Sardonicus (1961)
Homicidal (1961)
13 Ghosts (1960)
The Tingler (1959)
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Macabre (1958)
Uranium Boom (1956)
The Houston Story (1956)
Duel on the Mississippi (1955)
The Gun That Won the West (1955)
New Orleans Uncensored (1955)
The Americano (1955)
Masterson of Kansas (1954)
The Law vs. Billy the Kid (1954)
The Saracen Blade (1954)
The Iron Glove (1954)
Drums of Tahiti (3-D) (1954)
Jesse James vs. the Daltons (3-D) (1954)
The Battle of Rogue River (1954)
Charge of the Lancers (1954)
Slaves of Babylon (1953)
Conquest of Cochise (1953)
Serpent of the Nile (1953)
Fort Ti (3-D) (1953)
Cave of Outlaws (1951)
Hollywood Story (1951)
The Fat Man (1951)
It's a Small World (1950)
Undertow (1949)
Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949)
The Gentleman from Nowhere (1948)
Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven (1948)
Crime Doctor's Gamble (1947)
Crime Doctor's Man Hunt (1946)
The Return of Rusty (1946)
Mysterious Intruder (1946)
Just Before Dawn (1946)
Voice of the Whistler (1945)
Crime Doctor's Warning (1945)
The Mark of the Whistler (1944)
When Strangers Marry (1944)
She's a Soldier Too (1944)
The Whistler (1944)
Klondike Kate (1943)
The Chance of a Lifetime (1943)

My Reviews

The House on Haunted Hill (1959)- Vincent Price's wife wants a party, so he throws her one in a big ol' scary house. He's wealthy and she wants him dead. He's wealthy and he wants her dead. It's an interesting dynamic that they pull off really well. This is a great movie pulled off admirably by the great William Castle, a 50's icon of horror schlock. Are the things happening in the house because of Price or because the house is haunted, or both? Very well done, although the twist ending doesn't really hold up if you think back to everything that went down, plus the voice over at the very end by the owner of the house seems oblivious to what actually happened at the end. Get past these weaknesses and you have a great suspense yarn. B+.

13 Ghosts (1959)- This is a decent enough William Castle flick. A man on the brink of bankruptcy inherits his uncle’s old mansion, tax-free no less, and moves his family in. His uncle’s lawyer warns him that his uncle found a way to capture and keep ghosts and that the house currently has 12 ghosts and is looking for a 13th. Undeterred that family moves in and deals with the ghosts and the weird maid (played by the Wicked Witch of the West). It’s also entirely possible that there is a stash of cash in the house and someone is trying to drive the family out, is that someone of this world or of the next... or both? When played at the movies this flick required viewers to use glasses in order to see the ghosts (the characters on screen also have to wear goggles to see the ghosts), which amounted to another Castle gimmick. This is typical 50s Castle material, no body is trying too hard or taking the material too seriously but it works in a fun old school way. Remade in 2001. B.

Tingler, The (1959)- This is, on the surface, more goofy William Castle stuff. You probably know the story about seats in the theatre being wired to produce a mild electrical shock to people at the most opportune times as they watched the movie back in the day. Yeah it's goofy and no, it doesn't actually require the warning that you may die of fright but this movie does work on many levels. It is well written (for hokey stuff anyway) and the plot is actually pretty good and tightly directed. The plot? Vincent Price is a coroner but his real interest is in the physiological changes the body experiences while frightened and exactly what triggers and releases those changes. He finds the perfect subject in a woman who is mute and therefore can't scream, which is the hypothesized release. Due to a decent enough plot twist Vincent gets to discover the creature from the title, The Tingler, which is a very silly giant centipede like thing which escapes and then triggered the electrical shocks in the theatre (It escapes in a theatre in the movie, nice touch). It is as silly as it all sounds but somehow it does work and is a pretty original plot. B+.

Mr. Sardonicus (1961)- This is a William castle movie, and the hokey beginning would lead you to think you are headed down more or less, hokey William Castle road. But that ends up being a false impression. No campy gimmicks, no false "So scary people fainted" stuff (not that those are bad things), instead we have a more or less subtle gothic horror movie about a poor man who must dig up his father’s fresh grave to get a winning lottery ticket. He becomes incredibly wealthy, but also pays the price of having his face frozen in a horrifying ‘death grin’. His new wife’s ex-boyfriend happens to be a genius surgeon who just might be able to fix up his face. Sardonicus’ butler is a sadistic nutjob channeling his best Bela Lugosi and the rest of the cast is almost perfect as well. This is a classic, slow paced and anti-climactic by today’s horror movie standards to be sure but if you like these gothic period pieces you will like this one. B+

Strait Jacket (1964)- After the success of "Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?" Joan Crawford and Bette Davis were back in demand. Bette went on to make A movie material like "Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte" and Joan went on to work with... William Castle. Apparently the theatres were getting tired of Castle’s gimmicks so for his next movie his gimmick would be landing a star like Joan. Plot? She comes home early from a trip to find her husband in bed with a woman and proceeds to decapitate them, while their young daughter looks on. She’s institutionalized and the young daughter is sent to live on a farm with her aunt and uncle. 20 years later mommy dearest comes home to stay and try and reconnect after 20 years and two murders. And of course, folks wind up getting their heads chopped off. Mommy is obviously insane... Or is she? Like Bela and Boris, Joan gave 110% no matter how bad the material and she is able to lift this unoriginal and poorly written material above par. Without Joan this would’ve just been another forgotten title, with Joan it is a cult classic. Yeah it’s 60s schlock but it works on that level better than most. B.

Rosemary's Baby (1968)- [Castle produced] Things are going great for Rosemary. Her and her husband found the perfect apartment, they have nice and caring, albeit eccentric neighbors. Her husband has found some good work (he's an actor). And she's pregnant. Despite all this something seems terribly wrong. Could it be a hormonal imbalance caused by the pregnancy? Maybe she is just becoming a little paranoid, or worse, going crazy. Or maybe... Just maybe there is a big conspiracy with practically everyone she trusts involved and she is in fact pregnant with Satan's child. You decide. This movie is handled with seriousness and is pulled off with great direction and acting. A very paranoid, claustrophobic feeling is created and held throughout and we get the feeling, in no uncertain terms, that the late 60s marked what may just be the beginning of the end times and horror has run with that idea ever since. It's an excellent adaptation of an excellent book and a very influential movie in the horror movie pantheon. A+

Buckets of Gimicks