William Castle pioneered the promotional movie gimmick in the 1950s and 1960s. He began by working on Broadway before heading to Hollywood to produce and direct “respectable” projects, including producing on Rosemary’s Baby and working as assistant director to Orson Welles. A showman at heart, Castle modeled himself after P.T. Barnum by turning his films into spectacles. He didn’t have movie premieres; he had “screamieres.” The stunts often overshadowed the cheap, shlocky movies they were promoting. Below is a primer to five of Castle’s most bonkers stunts.
The Tingler (1959)
Perhaps Castle’s most infamous and ambitious gimmick was for his film The Tingler. Filmed in “Percepto,” (another gimmick - the movie wasn’t shot in any special way) The Tingler was about an alien creature that would take up residency in your spine, and could only be killed by screaming. Towards the end of the film, the creature “gets loose” in the theater. Some theaters had seats that had been rigged to vibrate at random once the tingler was “loose,” which yielded shocked and surprised screams from moviegoers. Castle’s Tingler gimmick was the inspiration for Joe Dante’s 1993 film Matinee.
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
One of Castle’s more absurd stunts, House on Haunted Hill was filmed in “Emergo.” All this meant was that, during the film, an inflatable glow-in-the-dark skeleton would zoom into the audience on ropes. It scared some, but it inspired many others to throw their concessions at it.
Macabre was the first example of Castle’s showmanship. He convinced famous insurer Lloyd’s of London to make out an insurance policy for $1000 for every person in the United States. The policy would only pay out if you died of fright during Macabre. Lloyd’s of London didn’t see this as just another movie stunt, so they insisted on provisions against people who had preexisting conditions or committed suicide during a show (sounds like the insurance policies of today.) To be on the safe side, nurses had a visible presence in theater lobbies, and there was always a hearse parked outside. Lloyd’s of London never had to pay out on the policies.
13 Ghosts (1960)
An ambitious stunt, 13 Ghosts was filmed in “Illusion-O,” which actually was a special film process (sort of). Audience members were given ghost viewers/removers that were essentially like the old red and blue 3D glasses. Looking through one color would “reveal” the ghosts, while looking through the other would hide the ghosts if you were too scared.
Mr. Sardonicus (1961)
In Mr. Sardonicus, the titular character digs up his father’s grave to obtain a winning lottery ticket. In his glee, his face freezes in a grotesque smile. The film would then “stop” so that Castle himself could come onto the screen and offer the “punishment poll.” Audiences would be given glow in the dark thumb-shaped cards which they would use to decide Sardonicus’s fate: a cure, or a gruesome death. A slightly different version was created for the drive-in, in which audiences could vote using their car headlights. Rumor has is that the cure ending was never screened - no audience ever gave Sardonicus a reprieve.