“Classics of the Corn” is one of the most popular series on TMP. Today I’m bringing a special (and quite different) post to the series. Usually COTC has me making mildly witty musings on films that are completely packed with cheese, but today, to celebrate the 54th anniversary of the release of one of the greatest horror-corn films of all time, The Tingler, I’d like to pay tribute to a person: the legendary William Castle.
“Oh, it’s good to see you again, my homicidal friends,” William Castle says at the start of one of his films. In the introductions to his movies, and in his trailers, he directly addressed the audience from the big screen — much like Alfred Hitchcock did from the small screen in his “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” television series. (Castle, in fact, considered Hitch “the master” and is considered by many to be a less dry, more overtly comical version of our good friend A-H.)
Kooky introductions are just one of the things that serve as a trademark for Castle’s campy films. The man is most well-known for his gimmicky in-theater effects, which have names like “Percepto,” “Emergo” and “Illusion-O.”
His love for gimmicks and grand publicity stunts started young. After losing both of his parents to illness by age 11, young William felt different from his peers and as a result was not afraid to let his quirks show. He became known as “spider boy” by camp pals for his ability to stick his legs behind his head. According to his daughter Terry, this new-found notoriety with his peers got William addicted to the attention and the applause, leading him to a career in entertainment.
William Schloss, Jr., as he was known in his early life, became William Castle while starring in theater productions in New York. Originally focused on acting, Castle loved the behind-the-scenes work just as much, and came to lease Orson Welles’ Stony Creek Theater while Welles was away filming Citizen Kane. Though he’d attracted some attention in the theater circuit and charmed his way into friendships with the likes of Bela Lugosi, Castle would construct his first major publicity stunt at this theater.
The German government had invited the lead actress in his play at the time to come back to Germany and perform in Munich, an offer which Castle helped her turn down. Castle then deliberately vandalized his own theater with Nazi symbols, calling on the press and acting like the vandalism was a hate crime committed by others, and assuring them that he would not be intimidated by Nazis. This brilliant manipulation of the press made his play a hit, and Hollywood offers came calling. The idea of directing films had not even occurred yet in Castle’s mind, and already his flair for dramatics and energetic media campaigns was apparent.
Castle took one of those Hollywood offers and began working under the infamous Harry Cohn, absorbing everything he could about filmmaking. He was bit very hard by the filmmaking bug and worked his way up from dialogue director to jack-of-all-trades to B-movie director to famed horror film director.
Castle did good work at Columbia and gained a fantastic reputation (both for his personality and for his ability to finish films quickly, under budget), but he was unsatisfied. Not willing to keep directing whatever was given to him for the rest of his career, Castle decided to leave the studio to begin producing and directing his own films.
Castle’s first foray into horror came in 1958 with Macabre. The film was a huge gamble for Castle and his family, as he mortgaged his house in order to buy the rights to the story that would serve as the film’s basis. To ensure that theaters would be packed and he would make a profit off of the film, Castle turned to his good ol’ pal publicity, offering $1,000 life insurance policies to audience members. Nurses were stationed at theaters, and attendees were asked to fill out beneficiary forms in case they died of fright. Castle’s trick worked, and the film was a total hit. Macabre cost only $100,000 to produce… and it picked up a cool $2 million at the box office.
Having had so much fun with Macabre, Castle decided to continue with the spooky, gimmicky films, producing House on Haunted Hill next. This film used “Emergo” technology, which allowed the monsters to leave the screen and visit the audience, with a glowing skeleton floating above the heads of audience members during the scene in which a skeleton emerges from a vat of acid in the film.
Columbia was so impressed with the success of Macabre and House on Haunted Hill that they wanted Castle back and began financing his films. Next came The Tingler, which is one of my favorite films of all time. The film had a couple of gimmicks going for it: a partially colorized “acid trip” scene, a planted audience member who would pretend to faint, and Castle’s newest campy creation, “Percepto.” Percepto administered small electrical jolts to certain audience members in a scene where the film’s title-character monster gets loose in a movie theater. People would see the film multiple times hoping to get a “Percepto” seat. In the documentary Spine Tingler!, John Waters (another famed director of campy wonders) describes a memory of getting to the theater early and specifically searching for a seat with the little device attached to it.
More gimmicks followed.
13 Ghosts (1960) had “Illusion-o,” a set of glasses that would allow the audience to see images from the spirit world. Characters in the film wear a higher-tech version of the “Illusion-o” device.
Homicidal (1961) had a “fright break” where those who were too scared to stay for the ending could exit the theater and stand in the “Coward’s Corner” to wait for a refund. The “Coward’s Corner” was devised as a way to dissuade people from getting refunds because it would shaming them. Castle also came to require different colored tickets for different showtimes, to stop people from watching the film twice and getting a refund for the second showing.
Mr. Sardonicus (1961) had a “punishment poll” which allowed audience members to vote for the villain’s fate. It is debated whether or not an alternate ending for the film was ever actually produced. No such ending has even been found… but, of course, Castle explained that every single audience simply chose punishment for the villain. Castle also said that this was one of his favorites of his own films.
Zotz! (1962) allowed each audience member to take home a “magic” glow-in-the-dark coin. Zotz! stands out in Castle’s filmography because it is fantasy rather than horror and it is a remake of an earlier film. Many of Castle’s films were based on stories or novels.
13 Frightened Girls (1963) was publicized by a hunt for 13 pretty girls from 13 different countries who would appear in the film.
Strait-Jacket (1964) relied on the gimmick of an aging, ax-wielding Joan Crawford until at the last minute Castle ordered that cardboard axes be handed out to audience members. According to the Castle documentary, Crawford had a whole lot of control over this film and Castle gave into all of her demands, so her press tour served as the film’s greatest promotion.
I Saw What You Did (1965) was promoted with enormous plastic telephones and a “shock section” at the back of the theater where seat belts were installed on the chairs. The “shock section” gimmick was devised when the telephone company got angry about prank calls attributed to the enormous phone displays.
Bug (1975) was Castle’s final gimmick film, advertised with a million-dollar life insurance policy claimed to be taken out on the film’s starring cockroach. Audiences were also given a check list of places that you should check for bugs after the film. Just the thought of a search for roaches gives me the heebies, so… nice job, Mr. Castle!
William Castle directed 63 films during his career, less than half of which utilized the gimmicks he is most famous for. After losing the chance to make his first true “A” picture with Rosemary’s Baby, with the studio opting for Roman Polanski to direct and leaving Castle in the role of producer, he returned to making largely gimmick-free B movies.
Castle’s career was a constant struggle between the campy horror films he was so brilliant at producing and his desire to become a true “A”-level director. I think, though, that he’d enjoy being remembered for his fantastic Classics of the Corn, like The Tingler or House on Haunted Hill, just as he loved cooking up those gimmicks when the films were originally released.
Many critics have dismissed Castle’s films as not being able to stand alone without the gimmicks, or not being worth anything but the value of the gimmicks. Here I must disagree. The Tingler was the first William Castle film that I saw. I had no knowledge of the director. I only chose the film because I was already a fan of Vincent Price. I instantly fell in love with it, and it has been a favorite since. It was until a whole two re-watches later that I decided to research the film more and discovered William Castle’s brilliant knack for creative stunts in this and other films. Some people don’t “get” the appeal of campy films, and to each their own… but William Castle’s talent as a director should not be dismissed due to his even greater talent for crafting brilliant publicity stunts. Are William Castle’s films masterpieces of cinema on par with his friend Orson Welles’ picture Citizen Kane? No. But they’re in a class all they’re own — and an incredibly enjoyable class at that.
FUN WILLIAM CASTLE VIDEO TREATS:
Spine Tingler!: The William Castle Story – This is a fantastic documentary and includes so many more great stories that I could never fit into a single post. I learned from this film that revival theaters have, in fact, done screenings of Castle’s films with the gimmicks… and I am incredibly jealous of everyone who attended those screenings. This is a fantastic doc. Watch it!
TCMDb William Castle Profile