[23 January 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
He was the king of ballyhoo, a man who could make the most mediocre horror film seem like a true entertainment event. From his beginnings in theater to his earliest days in Hollywood, he never once balked at hyping a project to guarantee an audience’s attention. Over the course of his incredible career as an actor, producer, director, and all around cinematic raconteur, he lifted efforts both superior and sloppy to a level of legitimacy they may never have reached otherwise. Yet today, in an era which desperately needs his brand of carnival barker bragging, the next William Castle is nowhere to be found.
Oh sure, there are certain pretenders to the throne, company chiefs and genre filmmakers who feel a certain kinship with Castle’s sledgehammer approach to marketing and the media, but not a single one possesses the true key to his genius: guts. Indeed, the man responsible for The Tingler, The House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, Homicidal, and Mr. Sardonicus, among many others, took both parts of the term “show business” to heart. While he was always interested in the money side of cinema, he also realized that cash only comes with a promise of pleasure. And if he couldn’t guarantee said enjoyment up on the screen, he would find a way to provide it within the filmgoing experience itself.
Castle’s first gimmick film, 1958’s Macabre, centered its storyline on a doctor’s daughter who is kidnapped and buried alive. The abductors warn that the doctor has only five hours to find her, or she will die. Realizing the movie’s limited appeal (it’s not a very good thriller, relying on a flimsy flashback format which completely undermines the suspense) Castle struck upon a brilliant idea. He would take out an insurance policy with Lloyds of London, indemnifying the audience against “death by fright”. He then advertised the ploy, hoping for a big draw. Though it was one of his least successful efforts, in the end, it put Castle’s name on the genre map. Where once he was a journeymen director helming successful Hollywood noir and b pictures, his name was becoming a universal fright film fixture.
But his next scheme put him over the top. Looking for a way to promote his latest release The House on Haunted Hill (1959). An And Then There Were None style mystery where an eccentric millionaire offers five guests $10,000 to spend one night in his supposedly spooky home, Castle came up with the brilliant idea of bringing the movie experience directly into each theater. Calling his creation “Emergo” he offered movie houses a plastic glow in the dark skeleton, rigged to a series of wires, that would “emerge” from behind the screen to fly over the crowd. It would be timed to a specific moment in the movie where a similar situation was occurring.
While smart aleck teens soon caught on, bringing slingshots to fire at the obvious prop, moviegoers couldn’t get enough of the film’s event-oriented approach. In a time when films played at one locale for several weeks – what distributors referred to as “road showing” – Castle had fans foaming for a chance to be part of his cinematic stunts. The House on Haunted Hill was a blockbuster, and rumor has it that the movie’s massive grosses drew the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, who determined that his next film should mimic the Castle style. The result was Psycho.
Thankfully, the Master of Suspense didn’t copy Castle’s next trick. For a movie about a monster that lives on fear called The Tingler (1959), the filmmaker asked that theater seats be equipped with electronic motors. At the appropriate moment, the projectionist would push a button and a mild joy-buzzer like ‘shock’ would surge through the crowd. Unfortunately, several of the devices malfunctioned, giving patrons a little too much bang for their buck. While The Tingler was a hit, the “Percepto” plan was mothballed.
The rest of the ‘50s and ‘60s saw Castle try and pair up his pictures with new and more novel attention grabbers. 13 Ghosts (‘60) saw the introduction of Illusion-O (nothing more than old fashioned 3D style cardboard ‘viewers’ which allowed audience to ‘see’ the title ghouls), while 1961’s Homicidal (a Psycho rip-off) introduced the “Fright BreaK”, a 45 second intermission where patrons who felt faint could casually leave the theater. Those who did, however, found themselves shipped off to something called “The Coward’s Corner” (a roped off area of the lobby) where ticket buyers could mock and ridicule them as they waited to be seated.
Perhaps one of Castle’s riskiest gambits was the “Punishment Poll”. Used for a film entitled Mr. Sardonicus (1961), the final act intermission was supposed to allow the audience a chance to ‘vote’ on the title character’s final fate. If the printed cards the crowd held up had more “thumbs up” than “thumbs down” Sardonicus would be spared. Too many “thumbs down”, however, and the character would meet his demise. The funny thing is, Castle never shot an ending where Sardonicus was saved. So convinced of a movie patron’s bloodlust and the desire to see the villain pay, the director only filmed Sardonicus’ fatal finish.
By the mid ‘60s, Castle was running out of ideas. A less than successful comedy called Zotz (1962) featured a magic coin promotion (a piece of plastic copying a prop in the picture) while cardboard axes were handed out for the Joan Crawford slasher epic Straight Jacket (1964). By the time of I Saw What You Did (1965), an idea for placing restraints in certain sections of the theater (for individuals who might be “scared out of their seats”) was advertised, but quickly abandoned.
Besides, by now Castle had bigger filmic fish to fry. Lucky enough to get his hands on a galley version of author Ira Levin’s latest novel (he of A Kiss Before Dying and No Time for Sergeants fame) the director had his sights set on bringing Rosemary’s Baby to the big screen. Unfortunately, his reputation as a cinematic jester preceded him, and Paramount’s Robert Evans balked. Castle could produce Baby, but another filmmaker had to be found. Roman Polanski was eventually hired, and while the two men battled over the film’s tone and the story’s treatment, the results were a legitimate critical and commercial hit.
Castle struggled to maintain his new higher profile, but producer efforts like 1969’s Riot (a decent prison flick) and the creation of a Night Gallery-like horror anthology series for television (Ghost Story) did little to solidify his standing. After 1975’s Bug (about killer cockroaches unleashed upon the world), he left the industry. Sadly, he died of a heart attack in 1977 at age 63, and with him went the last bastions of old fashioned motion picture hucksterism.
While no one dared imitate Castle’s singular stunts, they sure took lessons from his promotional approach. Drawing equal influence from the exploitation arena, your standard trailer (a nice little mini movie which more or less explained the film being featured) turned into a brilliant bit of bait and switch. Such classic come-ons as Last House on the Left‘s “Remind Yourself: It’s Only a Movie” and the amazing ad campaign for It’s Alive (featuring a black backdrop, a bassinette, and a bestial hand dangling over the side) both owed a huge debt to Castle’s creative push.
In today’s conglomerate-oriented moviemaking model, there is really no room for a William Castle. Even someone supposedly as in tune with the fear fanbase as Rob Zombie can only try to exude a larger than life artistic image – and even then, his efforts are hemmed in by a system that stays strictly within the boundaries of high concepts, viable franchises and sure thing sequels. About the closest anyone comes to being a Castle companion is Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman. He recognizes the limited appeal of his company’s canon and is not beyond staging elaborate stunts and pre/post production ploys (his latest oddball epic, the zombie chicken flick Poultrygeist, let fans register to be part of the cast) in order to draw attention to his otherwise outsider efforts. But aside from keeping his cult in regular working order, Kaufman has yet to take Troma beyond the geek and freak dynamic.
With the arrival of DVD, a format that makes distribution a Rom drive reality, the true moviemaking independents need a significant showman’s boost in visibility. Granted, the Internet and it’s myspace marketability allows for a certain sense of awareness, but now, more than ever, cinema needs someone with Castle’s desire to make both movies and the movie-going experience fun again. Studios are so certain that they’ve micromanaged and focus grouped a film down to its sure financial ends that they forget to build in some actual enjoyment. And an unknown title sitting on a shelf has no heavyweight champion other than a usually weak webpage – and, if they’re lucky, a review or two—to trumpet its talents. What we need today is a man who is willing to subject himself to ridicule, disrespect, and misrepresentation, all in the name of motion picture propaganda. Be it on the commercial or home theater front, we need another William Castle. Gimmicky or not, he remains a true benchmark in the saleable cinematic shuck and jive.