Somewhere in New York City a giant green glowing skeleton launched in the faces of a movie theatre chock full of screaming, laughing horror fans. And I'd be remiss in my treatment of your horror education if I didn't stop my own lesson plans and tell you a little bit about the master of horror and showmanship behind the said giant glowing skeleton... Mr. William Castle.
You see, the Film Forum repertory movie theater in NYC just wrapped up their 2 week program of filmmaker William Castle's line-up of horror and shock schlock films, which included things like joy buzzers in the seats, creatures on wires that fly over the audiences' heads at strategic scare moments in the films, and even special ghostvision glasses that allow the audience to see "ghosts" in the films.
So who is William Castle? Well if the 19th century circus world had P.T. Barnum as their king of gimmicks, and now we have James Cameron leading the pack of gimmickeers this millennium waving his 3-D flag proudly, then mid-20th century film has William Castle. If you've been into horror a while, then I'm sure you know who I'm talking about, but if this name is new to you, BOY are you in for a treat!
This otherwise pedestrian filmmaker of staid, genre fair from the 1950s and 1960s may not have ben Orson Welles, but he did know how to put asses in the seats of movie theaters. Many of Castle's modestly budgeted films included not just the "film" in the program, but also a host of gimmicks and advertising silliness to intrigue people, get them to come, and then leave them laughing on the way out.
John Waters said the campy Castle was, "without a doubt, the greatest showman of our time. King of the Gimmicks. William Castle was the best. William Castle was God. I wish I were William Castle." And coming from someone as cheap with the gimmicks and campy as Waters, that's saying a lot.
"So what the hell did Castle actually do," you ask?
In his 1959 horror classic, The House on Haunted Hill, Castle started the film with a warning from himself, with a wink and a nod to the audience that they were in for some serious terror. What followed during the film was a giant glowing skeleton on a wire that startled and ultimately sent audiences roaring with laughter. Filmed in "EMERG-O", because the skeleton emerged from the curtains and rolled out at you on a wire. Ha!
Castle's 13 Ghosts (1960) came with special glasses that allowed audience members to see the ghosts in cheap quasi-3-D, and he even patented this technique and called it "ILLUSION-O". Lots of cheap "boo" scares and a few genuinely creepy moments as the protagonists encounter the 13 ghosts in their recently inherited haunted house.
In 1964, Castle made the Robert Bloch (writer of Psycho)-scripted shocker Strait-Jacket, and made box office history by popping this warning on his own movie posters "WARNING: Strait-Jacket VIVIDLY depicts axe murders!" You can imagine the ghoulish curiosity that this inspired.
Heck, one of Vincent Price's most beloved roles is in Castle's film The Tingler. Castle had theaters owners install buzzers in the seats, ensuring a shocking experience for all when the Tingler was let loose in the theater itself.
Funny thing is, every once in a while, Castle skipped camp and created cinema. Check what Time magazine said about his 1961 Psycho rip off Homicidal: "Surpasses Psycho in structure, suspense and sheer nervous drive! There are moments of heart-stopping terror as the heads roll, at times almost literally."
Castle's reign as the king of camp lasted a good decade and provides us now with a great list of goofy-ass, campy films that, even though were meant to be seen with a crowd, are still fun today. And no horror education is complete without some of Castle's films under your belt, so here they are.
Some William Castle Must-Sees!
1) 13 Ghosts (1960) (the original piece of shit, not the new piece of shit)
2) The Tingler (1959) Vincent Price as mad scientist and SHOCKING scares!
3) Mr. Sardonicus (1961) In the theatrical run, there were two endings and the audience got to vote on Castle's "Punishment Poll" to see how the villain fared.
4) Macabre (1958) guy has to find his buried-alive-by-a-madman daughter!
5) The Whistler (1944) A guilt-ridden man hires a hitman to kill him... BY FRIGHT!
6) The House on Haunted Hill - (1959) Vincent Price, a haunted house and a million bucks. Nuff said.
7) Strait-Jacket (1964) Joan Crawford AND brutal axe murders?? Get the popcorn!
8) The Night Walker (1964) Barbara Stanwyck's last film appearance was in this shocker about a woman haunted by her dead husband.
9) Let's Kill Uncle (before Uncle kills everyone) (1962) Great murder set pieces as two teens try to kill their uncle before he can kill them over the $5 mil inheritance.
10) Homicidal (1961) Castle couldn't make this Psycho clone fast enough, and somehow it paid off. A forgotten gem, if you ask me (and Time magazine).
So get the popcorn and pop in some retro horror fun. Don't expect it to be scary though. Just get a good laugh. Oh and I recommend keeping your laptop handy so you can google up what live audiences got with the show that, sadly, we don't as home viewers...unless you're in NYC the next time Film Forum wires up their skeleton and fires up the tinglers.
Gaudium Per Atrox.