“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…”
Horror fans feel very strongly about William Castle. Now Mill Creek has put together five of his films on two DVDs. It’s a bare-bones collection, to be sure. But there are always a few extra chills when you’re talking about William Castle.
“… 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.
Here’s what you get:
13 Ghosts: (1960)
Not to be confused with the remake starring 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 two- 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 starring 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 ripoff 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 get your money back. Each showing used a different color certificate.
The Old Dark House: (1963)
Tom Penderel (Poston) has an unusual living arrangement with his flat-mate 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.
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 you’re 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.
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’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, Mill Creek, for giving us this wonderful collection. “Happy haunting, and goodbye for now.”