“I am William Castle, the director of the motion picture you are about to see. I feel obligated to warn you that some of the sensations, some of the physical reactions which the actors on the screen will feel will also be experienced for the first time in motion picture history, by certain members of this audience. I say certain members because some people are more sensitive than others. These unfortunate sensitive people will, at times, feel a strange tingling sensation. Others will feel it less strongly…”
We just couldn’t have a month long celebration of horror films and not mention William Castle. Sony has now given us an excuse to feature him in our “31 Nights Of Terror”. Somehow, I think Castle would be loving a promotion like this one. Somewhere Castle is nodding his head in approval.
“… But don’t be alarmed. You can protect yourself. At any time you are conscious of a tingling sensation, you may obtain immediate relief by screaming. Don’t be embarrassed about opening your mouth and letting rip with all you’ve got because the person in the seat right next to you will probably be screaming too. And remember that a scream at just the right time may save your life.”
William Castle was a showman extraordinaire. He was the Barnum and Bailey of the horror screen in the 1950’s and 60’s. Under Castle’s big top you weren’t merely watching a movie. He drew you in and made you feel a part of the screams. He brought fun to not only the horror genre. Castle made all kinds of films, but each of them had that silly element and/or some kind of gimmick that packed them into those seats each time. He was a man who really made movies with the audience in mind. He considered moviemaking ballyhoo and wasn’t shy about the fact that his gimmicks often brought them in more than the movies themselves. While it’s certainly fair to say that Castle put together some stinkers, there were some genuinely classic films that have stood the test of time long after his barker routine was finished. He idolized such legends as Orson Welles, with whom he worked, and Alfred Hitchcock, a man he often copied.
“Do you believe in ghosts? Some people believe in them. Others do not. Personally, I do. And, I feel sure that when you leave this theater you, too will believe in ghosts.”
Castle lacked self confidence in the early going. He always feared that maybe he wasn’t quite good enough to succeed. Even with the great amount of success he did find, he always wanted to be taken more seriously by his colleagues and the critics. Many of his confidence issues stem from the fact that he was orphaned at an early age and lived in fear his whole life of losing his family. He never had the chance to win over a proud parent’s approval, so he sought it from the audience. He lived for the applause. He would travel from city to city to personally oversee his openings. He enjoyed watching the audience reaction and taking his bows with the fans. Only Hitchcock was a more identifiable director in the days when filmmakers were not as well known as they are today. His trademark Churchill cigar and his face leaning upwards was recognized the world over before he was through. He almost always filmed a personal introduction to each film explaining to the audience what new motion picture breakthrough they were about to experience and warning them of the dangers of excessive fright. He appeared in the trailers and almost all of the posters and lobby cards. William Castle was a franchise in and of himself. He was a brand. When you went to one of his films, you knew what you were in for.
Collected here find some of Castle’s best … and worse efforts.
13 Ghosts: (1960)
Not to be confused with the remake staring Tony Shalhoub, this is an absolute cornball classic. Dr. Zorba (Morrow) is a paleontologist who isn’t doing so well paying the bills. He’s a loving husband and father, however, and so his family takes the occasional repossession of their furniture in stride. While blowing out his birthday candles, Young Buck Zorba (Herbert) wishes for a big house where no one can take the furniture away. As if by magic a messenger arrives with notification that Dr. Zorba has just inherited an old mansion from his recently deceased uncle. At the office of Ben Rush (Milner), old Uncle Zorba’s lawyer, the family receives the deed with the restriction that they must live in the house or it reverts to the state. They are also told that the house comes with its very own ghosts, 13 to be exact. It appears that Uncle was a bit of a collector, of ghosts. The family also gets a wooden coffin-like box which contains a strange set of eyeglasses. These were developed by Uncle. Anyone wearing them can see the invisible ghosts. But, it’s not the spooks that the Zorbas really need to fear. Someone’s after the fortune that Uncle was rumored to have stashed away in the house.
This was actually a good story that was buried by the gimmicks. The cast was solid all the way down to the children. Buck calls the house’s old caretaker a witch, an inside joke, but it shouldn’t take a house to fall on you to figure it out. Most of the film involved rather amusing appearances by the ghosts. Martin Milner got to play against type, and it was effective casting to say the least.
The Gimmick – Illusion-O: Each member of the audience was handed a special 2 strip viewer. The top strip was red; the bottom was blue. Whenever a character put on the special glasses, you were instructed to use the viewer. Castle gave you a choice. If you wanted to see the ghosts, look through the red strip. If you were too frightened, looking through the blue strip would make them invisible to you. It was a simple color process much like 3D, but it was clever none the less. Unfortunately, the viewers, or replicas, were not included in the set.
13 Frightened Girls: (1963)
This is not a horror film at all. It’s a spy spoof staring a group of young teenage girls. Candy Hull (Dunn) goes to Mrs. Pittford’s (Varden) Boarding School. She specializes in diplomat’s daughters and has a fine selection of girls from all over the world, 13 to be exact. On holiday Candy finds out that her father’s assistant, on whom she has a huge crush, is in danger of losing his job. Wally (Hamilton) lets Candy overhear that he needs certain valuable pieces of intelligence to save his job. She decides that her role as a diplomat’s daughter and friend to the other girls allows her access to the other embassies and begins to spy. She funnels the information to Wally under the code-name: Kitten. No one knows who Kitten is, but she’s making a huge name for herself all across the intelligence community. Now the Chinese want her dead. They call on their best assassin, The Spider. Candy is suddenly in over her head, and playing spy isn’t so much fun any more.
This is likely the least known of the collection, and for good reason. The Nancy Drew plot line stretches beyond any point of credulity. It’s a silly farce for the most part and probably only of interest to the teenage girl set. Look for Amity’s mayor Murray Hamilton as Wally.
The Gimmick – International Talent Contest: In each of the 13 represented countries a talent contest was held to find the girl to play that diplomat’s daughter. It was a clever scheme that not only got him very low cost talent, but generated international interest in the picture before it was even filmed. There are even alternative scenes filmed to more prominently highlight each nation’s girl, and they are included in this collection.
This is a hard film to describe without giving away many of the juicy plot twists and surprises. It was intended as a shameless rip-off of Psycho. Castle was jealous of the lines for Psycho, which was playing about the time that 13 Ghosts was opening. Even though he had good box office himself, he was fascinated with the success of the Hitchcock thriller. There are many elements here the two have in common and even some blatant shot for shot copying.
The Gimmick – Fright Break: Castle inserted a one minute fright break before the big shocking final scene of the film. If anyone in the audience believed that they could not handle the last shock they could go now to the “Coward’s Corner” where they would be refunded their ticket price. Changes had to be made to the plan when it was discovered people would watch one showing, stay for a second and get their refunds during that fright break. Certificates were then given out that you had to have in order to redeem your money back. Each showing used a different color certificate.
Straight Jacket: (1964)
Lucy Harbin (Crawford) is an aging actress who has had some kind of a breakdown. She is now returning home from a mental institution. Her doctor is concerned for her mental stability when she reports seeing some strange bloody things going on in the house. Has she begun killing?
Castle became obsessed with What Ever Happened To Baby Jane. He decided he had to have a film with Joan Crawford. It was a smart move, but a living hell for Castle and pretty much everyone else involved in the picture. She interfered with his direction and even set design. She got the actress playing her daughter fired when she thought her looks were upstaging her own. She even forced a rewrite of the final scene so that Diane Baker wouldn’t get the last effective scene. No one from the production has had anything nice to say about Crawford, but one can’t deny that she eats this part up.
The Gimmick – Joan Crawford: For a man who was basically a low budget director, getting Joan Crawford right after such a pivotal performance was what brought the audience in to the theaters.
The Old Dark House: (1963)
Tom Penderel (Poston) has an unusual living arrangement with his flatmate Casper Femm (Bull). Tom gets the flat at night and Casper during the day. When Casper appears worried and asks Tom to spend the weekend with him at his family home, Tom thinks it’s a grand idea. There’s even the promise of an attractive cousin Cecily (Scott) to sweeten the pot. When he arrives at the estate he finds a very run down old house. What’s worse, he discovers that Casper has just died. Stuck in the house due to severe weather, Tom becomes involved in a rather ancient family ritual. It seems that they may only live in the house and partake of their share of the family fortune by spending every night there. At midnight they gather in the study. Anyone who does not make the midnight chime is cut out of the will. Now a lot of folks aren’t making the deadline, because they’re dropping dead. Someone wants the family fortune all to themselves, and now Tom is caught in the middle of the crazy family game.
This film was taken from the novel by J.B. Priestley called Benighted. The same source served for the James Whale 1932 version with Boris Karloff. As much as I like Castle, this one doesn’t hold a candle to the Karloff film. There is none of the atmosphere here, and it’s all played far too much for silliness that the deaths are never that frightening. Poston is actually a good foil in the picture, and this would have made a better outright comedy. The film was a rare co-venture with Hammer films.
The Tingler: (1959)
Dr. Chapin (Price) is a medical examiner who works both at the prison autopsying executed criminals and in his own lab where he studies fear. He believes that fear causes something to grow in the body that is strong enough to break the backbone if unchecked. He believes that screaming destroys the creature and thus saves the lives of frightened folks. At the prison he runs into the relative of the most recently electrocuted murderer. Ollie (Coolidge) invites him home for a cup of coffee after Chapin gives him a ride into town. There Price meets Ollie’s wife, who is a deaf mute. Together they run a theater under their apartment. The wife goes into a terror shock when Chapin cuts his hand on a saucer. Chapin treats her and heads for home. There he has his own troubles. His wife Isabel (Cutts) is a cheater, and she flaunts it. Isabel’s sister is their ward and in love with Chapin’s lab assistant. Together they study fear. When Chapin gets a call that Ollie’s wife has mysteriously died, he discovers a living creature attached to her spine, which he calls a Tingler. Because she was a mute, she could not scream when frightened, and the Tingler survived. After Chapin’s wife tries to kill him with the Tingler, he decides to put it back, but it gets loose in the theater below Ollie’s apartment.
This is easily the best in the collection. Price is perfectly cast here and eats up every scene. The Tingler is about the most lame looking creature I’ve ever seen, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all insane and silly, but everyone plays it straight. You can see the lines pulling the immobile rubber creature across the floor. This version contains the red blood scenes in the otherwise black and white film. It’s a classic and worth the collection just for it.
The Gimmick – Percepto: Electric buzzers were wired beneath select seats in the theater. When the Tingler gets loose in the theater, the lights would go out in your movie and the film would appear to break. The next thing you saw was the outline of The Tingler moving across the blank screen. Price’s voice would warn you that the Tingler was loose in your theater and command you to scream. That’s when the seat buzzers would go off, shocking the unsuspecting occupant.
Mr. Sardonicus: (1961)
Baron Sardonicus (Rolfe) is a feared man in the village where he lives. His face has been frozen in a horrid grimace so that he wears a mask when in public to hide his horrible visage. Sir Robert Cargrave (Lewis) has been summoned by an old flame to come to the estate. Cargrave has developed a new procedure that can loosen muscles and might help to restore the Baron’s face to normal. When he fails, the Baron threatens to kill his lost love Maude (Dalton).
There is a certain Phantom Of The Opera element at play here. The masked hideous fiend and the love triangle all play into the same story. It’s an odd story that never really works. Sardonicus is cruel, and we’re left to try and figure out if his deformity made him so or was the result of his own evil.
The Gimmick – The Punishment Poll: As you enter the theater your given an old Roman gladiator style thumbs up or down cardboard. At one point in the film you are invited to vote on how the film should end. Thumbs up and Sardonicus would be spared. Thumbs down and he dies. The idea was that there were two endings but Castle knew that no audience was going to vote to spare the nasty villain. What fun would there be in that? So, don’t go looking for that alternate ending. The smart money says it never existed.
Professor Jones (Poston), no not that professor Jones, studies and teaches ancient languages. He lives with his niece and is a health nut. He is up for the Dean position as the current one is about to retire. His chief rival is a rude elitist old codger named Kellgore (Bakus). One morning his niece gets a package from her beau who is a former student of her uncle’s and is now out on a dig somewhere. The package contains a strange amulet. It has strange pictographs surrounding a giant word, ZOTZ. When Jones investigates the find, he discovers it has given him powers. While in possession of the item, any living thing you point at will double over in great pain. If you speak the word ZOTZ, the object of your attention will slow down in time. If you do both (point and say ZOTZ) the living thing you point at will die. The find has him acting strangely, and Kellgore is trying to use the odd behavior to get the deanship for himself. Jones goes to the Pentagon in the hopes of selling the secret to the military, but they just think he’s crazy. Unfortunately, a Russian spy there observes his power, and now the Russians try to kidnap the unwitting professor, putting both his niece and love interest in danger.
This is again no horror film. It is amusing but is quite a frivolous romp for the most part.
Tom Poston is again a wonderful foil, but the film wears thin too easily.
All of the films are presented in their original widescreen aspect ratios. For the most part colors are good, when the film is in color and the studio used relatively clean prints. The films are mostly very short, so you won’t find any compression artifact to distract from the prints even though they come two to a disc.
The mono tracks work well enough in these films. Dialog is fine, as are the occasional score moments. It’s old material, so don’t expect anything dynamic at all. The tracks are clean of noise, which in itself is something for this kind of an archival collection.
Many of the films come with trailers and vintage promo pieces that are a sweet bonus when it comes to William Castle. The man understood the value of a catchy promotional campaign. You’ll love looking through these nice treasures from the past.
Spine Tingler – The William Castle Story: (1:21:44) Found on the bonus 5th disc, this hour and a half feature tells you everything you ever wanted to know about William Castle. Film historians, colleagues, and family members give candid reminiscences of the ultimate showman. There’s plenty of vintage clips and photographs. It talks about his ups and his downs and is quite educational. You really can’t afford to miss this one. Combined with The Tingler, this is worth the price of the set.
What can you say about William Castle that he hasn’t said himself? After all his films and his success speak volumes for the man. He understood his craft and never lost sight of his audience. There are two notable exclusions from the collection, but they were not Sony films. I Saw What You Did and The House On Haunted Hill are right up there with The Tingler as classics today. There’s never been anyone like him, and I suspect there never will be. For one thing, the times have changed. Hollywood doesn’t have room today for a William Castle. Thanks, Sony, for giving us this wonderful collection just in time for our Halloween viewing. “Happy haunting, and goodbye for now.”