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Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story


by Richard von Busack

Remember Tim Burton’s Ed Wood arguing that the naïve folk artist director Wood had some parallels to Orson Welles, on the grounds that Wood, too, was a complete filmmaker? William Castle, profiled in the film Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, demonstrates that Castle actually learned from Welles in his role as showman of genial oversized fraudulence.

Moreover, the men collaborated on The Lady From Shanghai, in a sense (unwillingly on Castle’s part; he’d bought the book it was based on, and hoped to direct). Throughout Castle’s uniquely crazy career, he never forgot the essential appeal of Welles: the importance of heavy theatricality. Castle was a far more successful money man than Welles, though. As a producer, he was nicknamed “the Earl of Deferral”. Of all his successful tricks, Castle’s most clever was pretending to be a comfy, easy-going producer with a mile-long cigar…when in real life he was pestered with scads of anxieties about success.

Orphaned at 11, William Schloss was born the year the Great War began; that war, and the anti-German sentiment the war started, is one possible reasons he anglicized his perhaps too Kafkaesque name. He was a New Yorker, and the born character actor type; a flamboyant figure with a stocky body, an easy to caricature face, a massive jaw and gleaming eyes. He did some acting, but ultimately became an impresario, renting a theater and staging a play he wrote just before World War II. The star of his show had escaped Nazi Germany; Castle decided to drum up publicity by vandalizing the theater with swastikas. This made it one’s duty against the fascists to see the show.

Hollywood couldn’t help noticing Castle. One of his first breaks was a job as dialogue director on George Stevens’ Penny Serenade; after he overstepped his bounds on his first day at the job, Castle had reportedly his bacon saved by Cary Grant himself. At Columbia, Castle was an inveterate, and lightly talented, B-movie director who worked in almost every genre. One fan interviewed here, David Del Valle, argues that that Castle learned some important lessons during these years on the assembly line: “Follow your instincts, take a chance, and make sure your name is all over it.”

Terry Castle, the showman’s daughter, says her father had the luck to marry well. Castle met his wife through circumstances that sound like the happy ending of the film The Palm Beach Story. Ellen Castle allowed her husband to stake the house as a gamble on the horror film Macabre (1958). (Macabre’s plot device—a burial alive by kidnappers—has become a perennial in the films, as in The Vanishing and the recent Buried.) After raising the $100,000 budget, Castle doubled-down by putting a Lloyds of London insurance policy of $1000 for anyone who died of fright watching the film.

This irresistible gimmick lead Castle to an almost decade long search for ideas to lure people into theaters. Among them was “Emergo”—an inflatable glow-in-the-dark skeleton that coasted out of the screen during The House on Haunted Hill (1959); the vox populi Punishment Poll for Mr. Sardonicus (1961) and “Percept-O” . This was a method of electrically buzzing the butts of viewers during the key scenes in Castle’s perhaps most beguiling film, the proto-psychedelic film The Tingler (1959): its star was the richly-syllabled Vincent Price, surely the Orson Welles of horror.

Castle’s Homicidal (1961) involved the most risky ballyhoo: a “fright break” that allowed viewers who were too terrified to go on with the film to ask for their money back. Audiences figured out they could do this by sitting through one and a half shows, so Castle instituted a complicated plan of hazing: those wanting a refund had to “follow the yellow streak” painted on the theater’s carpet to sit in a cardboard booth that displayed them like a carnival attraction: “Look at the coward!” blared a recorded voice.

Promotion-lovers will find it was all downhill from there for Castle, whose later gimmicks were mere giveaways of plastic and cardboard novelties. However, Castle’s greatest financial and artistic success was ahead of him: purchasing and flipping the rights to 1967’s Rosemary’s Baby. That’s Castle on-screen, smiling into a phone booth where Mia Farrow is having an attack of the terrors). Most of his later films were of interest only to the cult: Shanks (1974) was an interesting starring vehicle for the eminent mime Marcel Marceau, and Strait-Jacket (1964) was a vehicle for Joan Crawford at her most keyed-up.

Interviewed here is John Waters, one of the first to write about Castle at length. This low budget documentary by Jeffrey Schwarz has its limitations; a heavy reliance on talking heads and 3D-treated black and white photos/ And there’s no excuse for blowing the secret of Homicidal …and does Psycho have a more entertaining rival, by the way? I wish Schwarz could have avoided another spoiler, the berserk money shot from Mr. Sardonicus. It’s not at all a bad Gothic, based on a short story good enough for the fiction editors at Playboy.

Lastly, Castle’s own memoir, Step Right Up, I’m Going to Scare the Pants Off America contains a wonderful tale. Right after Sharon Tate was found dead, a tearful Roman Polanski came into Castle’s office, begging him to swear Castle hadn’t used murder to promote Rosemary’s Baby. That anecdote, unfortunately not retold in Spine Tingler!, may be in poor taste…but doesn’t it suggest the size of Castle’s legend? Doesn’t it suggest his incredible showmanship, his vast desire to promote a film at any cost?

(Plays Oct 31 at 8pm Eastern Time on Documentary Channel, 197 on DISH Network, and 267 on Direct TV)