Blu-Ray: ‘William Castle at Columbia Vol. 1’

❉ Nobody did it better or had more fun than William Castle, the PT Barnum of celluloid shock.

“What’s happened to the ludicrous but innovative marketing techniques of yesteryear that used to fool audiences into thinking they were having a good time even if the film stunk? Did the audiences care? Hell, no. They may have hated the picture, but they loved the gimmick, and that’s all they ended up remembering anyway.”

“Without a doubt, the greatest showman of our time was William Castle. King of the Gimmicks, William Castle was my idol. His films made me want to make films. I’m even jealous of his work. In fact, I wish I were William Castle… Forget Ed Wood. Forget George Romero. William Castle was the best. William Castle was God. “
– Quotes from ‘Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters’, 1988

“Oh and PLEASE don’t reveal the ending of Homicidal to your friends! Or they will kill you. And if THEY don’t….*I* will….”
– William Castle, directly to camera at the end of the trailer for ‘Homicidal’, 1961

“The Tingler/ The Tingler/ The spine-tingling thing called The Tingler…/The monster fear creates in us/ Lies asleep and waits in us…”
– Lobby Spot song from The Tingler

When was the last time you were really scared in a cinema? I mean REALLY scared? Like you didn’t know what was going to happen to you? Didn’t know if a hand was going to reach out from the screen (or worse, from under your chair) and grab you? When the thin scrim of rational thought that normally separates you from the fictional events you’re watching melts completely away and you feel a presence in the room with you, something coming towards you, only you, something awful and tangible, something that can frighten the very life out of you even as you expel the air from your lungs in a scream?

Some of you may have never had this experience. Some of you never will. Our era has built itself a Fortress of Cynicism against such notions: increasingly it feels like films (particularly horror films) are coming to be seen as problems to be solved, silly irrelevances to be mocked or sneered at. Maybe this idea isn’t so new: there have always been people who take pride in announcing “I* wasn’t scared! Not for a second!” when the monster lunges from an unexpected corner, or the homicidal maniac swings an axe.

William Castle knew this audience member. He knew them intimately, because those were the people he wanted to come to his films and finally feel something like real unease (maybe for the first time in a cinema) while watching his movies. Did he achieve these frissons d’horreur with the skill and craft of his film-making, the ingenuity of his scripts, the haunting atmospheres and ghastly imagery of a true master?

Weeeeellll…let’s find out, shall we?

The first of two Blu-Ray box-sets (the second is due at Christmas this year) ‘William Castle At Columbia’ brings together four of the master showman’s best-loved monochrome shockers from the era when he was at the peak of his powers: the startlingly daft but crudely effective The Tingler (1959), the cartoonishly gothic 13 Ghosts (1960), the tense, bizarrely shocking (and shockingly bizarre) Homicidal (1961) and the quaintly old-fashioned, even traditional, Universal-horror-style Mr Sardonicus (1961).

Sadly, his two previous shockers Macabre and House on Haunted Hill (both 1958…he really churned them out) have not made this particular box set, being made under the aegis of Castle’s previous studio Allied Artists. This is a shame, because it was on those two that Castle really began to hone his skills as a cinematic huckster, a PT Barnum of celluloid.

Macabre bolstered its slight but gripping tale of premature burial with a $1 million insurance policy (from Lloyd’s of London, no less) against anyone dying of fright in their cinema seat (nobody did), while House on Haunted Hill presented ‘EMERGO’, a patented theatrical gimmick where a huge skeleton would seem to emerge (ooooh RIIIIGHT!) from the screen and fly at the audience on wires.

Emboldened by the massive financial rewards and the welcoming screams of his audiences Castle pulled out a doozy for his debut at Columbia. The Tingler features an insane, almost dreamlike plot from Castle’s regular screenwriter Robb White in which brilliant, driven pathologist Vincent Price discovers that the tingling sensation one feels at the base of the spine during episodes of heightened fear is actually caused by a slimy, centipede-like horror that physically manifests itself in the body and can only be dismissed or stunned by a scream. Naturally it gets loose (in a cinema no less!) We see the awful, shivering bug crawl jerkily across the projection lamp in silhouette and the lights go out as Price frantically warns us that “The Tingler is here! In this cinema! Scream! Scream with all your might!”

And here was where Castle’s masterstroke came in: he and his team had carefully planted joy-buzzers under a certain percentage of seats so that a select elite of audience members would get a nasty surprise and a lot of spilled popcorn in their lap, a trick he’d given the rather grand name ‘PERCEPTO’. Even removed from the cinema setting (and potential electrical jolt), this sequence is still queasily effective in a darkened sitting room: the moment the film breaks down and blackness engulfs the screen has a weird, simple power to it that John Carpenter or David Lynch would be hard-pressed to match. The film also features some lovely bitchy dialogue between Price and his wanton wife (the criminally unremembered Patricia Cutts), and cinema’s first-ever acid trip. Almost a decade before Peter Fonda would open his third eye in Roger Corman’s The Trip, Vincent Price was screaming ‘The walls….the WAAAAAALLLLSSSS!” as his LSD-addled mind imploded on itself (some of this scene can currently be glimpsed in the Tate Modern as part of Christian Marclay’s 24-hour installation The Clock, for any of you culture-vultures out there).

1960’s 13 Ghosts is The House On Haunted Hill reformatted to fit a family narrative, and re-tweaked with a gimmick that could only have emerged from the 3D era: Castle’s patented ‘ghost viewer’ (or to give its proper, none-more-Castle name ILLUSION-O) was a bit of cardboard with one piece of transparent red plastic and one piece of transparent blue plastic in the windows. The idea being that if you wanted to SEE the titular ghosts (with names like ‘The Clutching Hands’, ‘The Floating Head’, ‘The Burning Skeleton’ and, er, ‘Emilio’) you’d look through the red plastic: if you were the sort of person who paid money to watch a horror movie about ghosts, but somehow were too much of a wuss to actually see what they looked like, you could look through the blue window. The Blu-Ray offers us three ways of viewing the film, one with the red filter (ghosts ‘on’) one with the blue filter (ghosts ‘off’) and a straight black and white version. Trust me, you’ll want to see the red-filtered version, for after all who can resist the site of a ghost lion-tamer looking for his own head down the throat of a (swear to God) ghost lion?

The next film Castle made is probably his most famous/notorious to the casual fan. Homicidal was inspired by the success of Hitchcock’s Psycho the previous year and there’s more than a hint of score-settling homage about it. As well as being (arguably) the film that launched our idea of what a horror film is nowadays, Psycho borrowed liberally from the playbook Castle himself had established: with its director’s public pleas not to reveal the ending of the film (‘It’s the only one we have!’) and strict ‘No one will be seated once Psycho has begun’ policy it seemed like the Master (Castle was an avowed and lifelong Hitchcock obsessive) was being taught by the pupil.

Castle’s answer is like someone (Robb White again) had written a script based on listening to a garbled tape recording of someone else’s drunken or delirious misremembering of the the events in Hitchcock’s film: there’s a glamorous blonde in trouble, a sinister wheelchair-bound old lady, a clean-cut, slightly fey mummy’s boy with temper issues, and a knife stabbing someone (several someones in fact) over and over again. There’s even an ingenious ID reveal towards the end, which it’s very tempting to spoil right here: let’s just say if you haven’t worked it out by the time the film’s gimmick, the ‘FRIGHT BREAK’ rolls around, you’re in for a rather lovely shock.

Perhaps the most memorable, simple and (dare one say it?) elegant trick in Castle’s magical trunk the Fright Break gives us a genuinely nervy 45 seconds to bail on the film and get our money back at the box office if we’re having a hard time trying to stomach the (not actually all that bad) crescendo of terror we surely MUST be feeling before the film’s daft but eerie climax. You’ll stay put of course: No-one wants to walk the Walk Of Shame on yellow footprints in the cinema aisle to ‘Coward’s Corner’, where you must sign a certificate declaring that you are an Official Coward for the 75 cent refund.

The last corner of this particular jigsaw is provided by Mr Sardonicus, another Gothic melodrama which looks to the past (the Universal horrors of James Whale and Tod Browning, the expressionist nightmares of FW Murnau and Robert Weine), the present (its use of a main character who wears an expressionless mask to cover hideous disfigurement seems to be a nod to its near-contemporary, Georges Franju’s haunting Eyes Without A Face) and the future (one can imagine another adaptation of the odd Ray Russell short story it’s based on starring Peter Cushing as the heroic surgeon and Christopher Lee as the mad, cruel, deformed Sardonicus in lurid Hammer Technicolour a decade later). Here it’s the stolid, frowny Ronald Lewis as the surgeon who is blackmailed into trying to save the ravaged, skull-like features of the dourly sinister Guy Rolfe: it also features a ludicrously fun star turn by the great Oscar Homolka as Sardonicus’ one-eyed, Igor-like manservant who takes great pleasure in applying live leaches to the face of a distressed serving wench amid much other disgusting behaviour.

Made (like all Castle’s films) on a shoestring budget, Mr Sardonicus rises above these strictures by liberal use of stock footage (at least one establishing shot of 18th century ‘London’ is clearly pilfered from the opening of The Ghost and Mrs Muir), a general tone of quite well-crafted eeriness, a couple of nicely-timed, still fairly unpleasant shocks (Sardonicus’ face, once revealed, is rarely forgotten) and possibly the most accomplished ensemble cast of the four films. Rolfe invests Sardonicus with an unnerving blend of loathsomeness and pathos which helps with our final gimmick from the box set: The PUNISHMENT POLL! Castle appears before the end of the film to count the polling cards which had been handed to each audience member: thumbs up to let Sardonicus live, thumbs down to let him die. Castle insisted that two endings had been shot for the film to reflect the poll results (and it seems that inveterate Castle cheerleader John Waters for one believes that two versions of the ending exist). But of course, no one has ever seen the (obviously non-existent) ‘thumbs up’ version: Audiences aren’t going to watch someone be an absolute bastard to everyone else in the film for two hours without SOME retribution.

What do we take away from a marathon viewing of these four Castle classics? Apart from having a lot of ghoulish, not-too-serious fun, and a giggle or two at the ludicrous concepts and shameless hucksterism on display, we are really left with a sense of how much fun it must have been to be William Castle. Like Hitchcock before him Castle is the real star of the films, and his own ultimate gimmick. Some of the nicest moments in this set are him presenting the films in increasingly novel ways: pricking his own finger while embroidering the word HOMICIDAL, giving his skeleton office staff a break from dictation (and it IS a skeleton staff: you’ll see), or wandering over ‘London Bridge’ (in Burbank, probably) during a right pea-souper to conduct his punishment poll. The wealth of supplementary materials, commentaries, trailers and documentaries bolster the image of nice-guy chancer who knew deep-down he was never going to create high art so concentrated instead on making everything fun, novel, exciting like a rollercoaster, spooky like a ghost train. He made later forays into more artful pieces (like his surreal, little-seen Marcel Marceau vehicle Shanks) and production: famously HE is the real midwife of the classic 1967 adaptation of Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, but had to cede the director’s chair to Roman Polanski. Which may have been humiliating, but certainly proved lucrative (it was the biggest hit of his career).

He never hit that big again, but the overwhelming affection and esteem he’s held in by scores of later film-makers is a still greater reward. Joe Dante’s fantastic 1994 movie Matinee is a nice companion piece to any Castle marathon, featuring John Goodman as a barely-disguised Castle clone pushing his latest atomic monstrosity MANT! (half man, half ant) into Florida theatres with gusto (and a guy running through the aisles in a giant ant costume, natch). Dante shows up in the Blu-Ray extras of course along with the ubiquitous John Waters, John Landis, Leonard Maltin etc. All of them recall their interactions with Castle’s gimmickry fondly and with a lot of excitement.

Sadly we live in an era where 3D is the biggest gimmick going (and that’s just a re-heating of an old recipe). Nobody nowadays has the time or the inclination to really INVOLVE the cinema audience anymore. John Waters tried his own Castle-style gimmick with his SMELL-O VISION cards in 1981’s Polyester, and those of us who stayed up late as kids to watch horror double bills on BBC2 on a Saturday night may recall funky 1974 werewolf romp The Beast Must Die having its own version of the fright break the WEREWOLF BREAK. But these efforts are few and far between. Maybe everyone can see that they couldn’t hope to steal William Castle’s thunder. Nobody did it better, and even fewer have had the sort of fun he did.

In one of the short movie reels from the time Castle asks an audience member “Tell me, what did you think was the most delightful piece of mayhem in Homicidal?” It’s possible he summed his whole oeuvre up in those two words. Mayhem it may have been, but delightful it certainly remains.

❉ ‘William Castle at Columbia, Volume One’ (Limited Edition) was released on Blu-ray by Powerhouse Films/Indicator Series, 22 October, 2018. 343 min.

• High Definition remasters of all four films
• Original mono audio
• Two presentations of 13 Ghosts: the original ‘Illusion-O’ presentation and the alternative black-and-white version
• The Tingler audio commentary by Jonathan Rigby, author of American Gothic: Six Decades of Classic Horror Cinema, and Kevin Lyons, editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Film and Television
• Homicidal audio commentary by author and film historian Lee Gambin
• Mr Sardonicus audio commentary with Daughters of Darkness’ Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger
• Spine-Tingler! The William Castle Story (2007, 82 mins): Jeffrey Schwartz’s acclaimed documentary on Castle, featuring interviews with John Landis, Joe Dante, Roger Corman, Stuart Gordon, Leonard Maltin, Budd Boetticher, Bob Burns, David Del Valle, Fred Olen Ray and John Waters among others
• Larger Than Life: The Making of ‘Spine-Tingler’ (2007)
• Kim Newman on ‘The Tingler’ (2018): an appreciation by the critic and author of Nightmare Movies
• Scream for Your Lives!: William Castle and ‘The Tingler’
• I Survived ‘The Tingler’ (2007): an interview with actor Pamela Lincoln
• Unleashing Percepto (2007): an interview with publicist Barry Lorie
• Stephen Laws Introduces ‘13 Ghosts’ (2018): an appreciations by the acclaimed horror author
• The Magic of ‘Illusion-O’: William Castle and ’13 Ghosts’
• Psychette: William Castle and ‘Homicidal’
• Stephen Laws Introduces ‘Homicidal’ (2018)
• The Punishment Poll (2007): an interview with publicist Richard Kahn
• Taking the Punishment Poll: William Castle and ‘Mr Sardonicus’
• Jonathan Rigby meets ‘Mr Sardonicus’ (2018): an appreciation by the film historian and author of American Gothic
• Ballyhoo!: Bob Thomas recalls the time he interviewed William Castle
• Original theatrical trailers
• Trailer commentaries with Sam Hamm, Stuart Gordon and Joe Dante
• Promotional and on-set photography, poster art and archive materials
• Limited Edition box set exclusive booklets with new essays by Kat Ellinger, Dan Whitehead, Rebecca Nicole Williams and Jo Botting, archival interview materials, contemporary reviews, and film credits
• UK premieres on Blu-ray
• Limited Edition box set of 6,000 numbered copies

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