William Castle wasn’t merely a filmmaker: He created a cinema experience when his latest movie came to town. He devised amazing gimmicks that made people feel that they weren’t passively watching in the dark. They were given technology to see spooks, the chance to put a character to death and a jolt from below. The William Castle Film Collection provides the eight films he made for Columbia at the height of his fame when he became as much of a cinema icon as Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney.
Castle had been a director of B-movies for 15 years when he realized that if you wanted to be spectacular, you had to create a spectacle. In 1958, the youth of America indulged in Universal’s classic monsters on TV and Famous Monsters magazine at the newsstand. How would Castle get these folks to leave their TV to see his scary movie? He took out insurance on Macabre, his first horror film. In this case he gave each viewer an insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London that would pay $1,000 if they died from fright during the film. He had ambulances and nurses at the box office. It became a hit. House on Haunted Hill featured “Emergo” where a skeleton would come out of the screen without you having to wear 3-D glasses. It was only an inflatable skeleton on a wire. While people weren’t that scared, they did get a thrill nailing it with their popcorn. It became a group activity before Rocky Horror. Unfortunately these two films aren’t included in the William Castle Film Collection since they were released by Allied Artist Pictures (although House can be found on numerous public domain DVDs). The success of these two films landed him a deal with Columbia where he didn’t get creatively squashed by the studio system.
The Tingler (1959, 82 min.) reunited Castle with Vincent Price for a cinematic jolt called “Percepto.” Price is a scientist who discovers a strange organism living in the spines of humans. It grows when people get fearful, but deflates when people scream. A deaf-mute woman can’t have release and thus the Tingler grows enormous and escapes from her skin. It’s like an evil worm. What’s worse is that it rampages in a movie theater – possibly the one you are watching the movie inside. This is when Percepto comes into play. Castle had a few chairs in each theater wired up to vibrate during the climatic scene. Audience members really did give a major screen when they thought something was coming at their rump. 13 Ghosts (1960, 85 min.) is an economic ghost story powered by “Illusion-O.” Donald Woods works at a museum and can’t really support his family. The rented furniture is repossessed. They’re about to become homeless. But his Uncle has passed away and left him a fully furnished mansion that’s kept by Margaret Hamilton (The Wicked Witch of the West). While this seems like great news, turns out the place is haunted by ghosts that the uncle was studying with hi-tech goggles. The family can’t afford to be scared off by the ghosts cause they need the shelter. Can they make peace with the spirits? Illusion-O was a special viewer handed out to audience members. During ghost sequences, the black and white film went to color. The viewer had red and blue windows. The audience member could choose to see the ghosts. Unlike the previous DVD release, they didn’t include a reproduction of viewer. You can reproduce the effect with any 3-D glasses.
Homicidal (1961, 87 min.) gives us a bloody tale of gender bending. The film is dismissed by prudes as a rip-off of Hitchcock’s Psycho, but it isn’t a tracing. A strange woman wants to have a quicky marriage to a hotel employee. During the ceremony she stabs to death the justice of the peace. What is this all about? The original promotion of the film included William Castle declaring, “A word of warning! Please don’t reveal the ending of this picture or your friends will kill you – if they don’t, I WILL!” So let’s skip any such spoiling for fear of the ghost of William Castle getting his revenge. The big gimmick this time was a “Fright Break” clock right before the climax of the film. If you were either too scared, you could leave your seat at this time to get a full refund. But there’s a catch. You had to stand in “The Coward’s Corner” until the theater was empty. Everyone in the theater got to stare at you. You want to be pegged as the coward of the county? Mr. Sardonicus (1961, 89 min.) came with the punishment poll. The audience got to decide if the evil Mr. Sardonicus received a happy ending or suffered for his crimes. Castle gave out glow in the dark cards of a thumb. Before the final moment, Castle came on screen and took a vote so the projectionist could run the winning ending. Strangely enough, there was no happy ending for the man. He was wicked. He dug up his father’s grave in search of a lottery ticket. The shock gave him a really demonic smile that froze. He begs a doctor for a cure. But can he really be saved? Zotz! (1962, 87 min.) has Tom Posten (Newhart) in possession of a ZOTZ coin that’s filed with secret powers. This turns into an espionage thriller. Castle gave away the coins to theatergoers, but none had the same effect. The Old Dark House (1963, 86 min.) is a remake of the James Whale film. Tom Posten sells a car to an eccentric Englishman and gets to meet the family. It’s rather like a British Addams Family including having Charles Addams illustrate the opening credits.
13 Frightened Girls (1963, 89 min.) is a spy thriller involving the daughters of diplomats that attend an English finishing school. Kathy Dunn is the American gal who stumbles upon a Chinese plot while visit at friend at the Chinese Embassy. Khigh Dhiegh (Hawaii Five-O‘s Wo Fat) wants Dunn dead. Dunn does a fine job in a role that seemed destined for Hayley Mills. Strait-Jacket (1964, 93 min.) has the gimmick of seeing Joan Crawford go nuts. She’s just got out of the mental home after axe murdering her husband and his girlfriend. She fears a relapse. Don’t get between Joan and her axe. Robert Block, the writer of Psycho, typed up this script. It’s joyful over the top in acting and attitude. This also describes William Castle. He wanted to make sure we all enjoyed ourselves while watching his films. William Castle Film Collection is a chilling retrospective of his greatest chills and gimmicks.
The video on all the films is 1.85:1 anamorphic. The transfers look good with just enough detail so you can see Joan Crawford’s eyebrows wiggle. The audio is Dolby Digital Mono. The sounds of ghouls, ghosts and killers come through clearly.
Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (81:41) is the perfect documentary about the filmmaker. I caught this at Durham’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival and kept thinking this would be perfect in a boxset. It is. William Castle is shown as a man who relished showbiz and his family. Through interviews and vintage footage, we get a sense of the various ways he promoted his films. There’s plenty of praise from John Waters, John Landis and Leonard Maltin. You might want to watch this after you see the films on the other DVDs. Segments of the documentary are sliced up into the bonus features for each film. There’s a commentary track featuring Terry Castle and director Jeffrey Schwarz.
The Magic of Illusion-O (7:44) is about 13 Ghosts. It’s taken from Spine Tingler!
13 Ghosts Theatrical Trailer (1:51) lets Castle explain to viewers that they have a choice to see the ghosts or not.
Original “British” trailer introduction for 13 Frightened Girls (0:39) has Alexandra Bastedo talk about winning a contest to be in the film. She doesn’t want us to be too frightened.
Original “Candy Web” trailer for 13 Frightened Girls (2:32) is the British title for the film.
Original “Candy Web” theatrical opening message from William Castle for 13 Frightened Girls (1:01) teases the audience with the prospect of using their Danger Card.
Original “Candy Web” theatrical closing message from William Castle for 13 Frightened Girls (0:33) has him explain how to lick the card.
Alternate opening (British) for 13 Frightened Girls (3:50) has a girl with a British accent give the opening narration. The British girl also drives the bus down the hill. Each of the alternate openings has a different actress behind the wheel.
Alternate opening (Swedish) for 13 Frightened Girls (3:50) has a girl give the opening narration in Swedish.
Alternate opening (French) for 13 Frightened Girls (3:50) has a girl give the opening narration in French.
Alternate opening (German) for 13 Frightened Girls (3:50) has a girl give the opening narration in German.
13 Frightened Girls Theatrical Trailer (2:35) gives us the ladies.
“Psychette: William Castle and Homicidal (7:41) deals with the gender bender.
Homicidal Youngstown, Ohio Premiere (5:02) covers Castle’s visit to hype the film.
Homicidal Theatrical Trailer (0:23) lets us know there shall be knife action.
Battleaxe: The Making of Strait-Jacket (14:40) lets us see how Castle worked without a pure gimmick.
Vintage Featurette: “How to Plan a Movie Murder (4:35) shows a meeting between Castle, Crawford and writer Robert Bloch.
Strait-Jacket Theatrical Trailer (2:15) has Joan Crawford going nuts.
Joan Crawford Wardrobe Tests (3:29) are scary.
Joan Crawford Axe Test (0:38) rolls a head.
Strait-Jacket TV Spots (0:23) tempts the home viewers.
The Old Dark House Theatrical Trailer (2:48) lets us know this will be more goofy than scary.
Taking the Punishment Poll (7:37) is the Mr. Sardonicus segment of the documentary.
Mr. Sardonicus Theatrical Trailer (3:34) has Castle refuse to show the evil smile of the villain.
Ghost Story: The New House (47:47) is the pilot episode of a supernatural series produced by Castle. Sebastian Cabot is the host of this otherworldly anthology.
Ghost Story: Graveyard Shift (50:13) gets the introduction as Circle of Fear. John Astin and Patty Duke Astin star in the episode.Castle makes a cameo. John Astin guards a movie studio.
Scream For Your Lives: William Castle and The Tingler(15:37) takes us back to the time Castle wired the seats.
Alternate Drive-In Sequence for The Tingler (0:50) has Castle telling people to turn on their car headlights to keep back the Tinglers. People scream that they’re in the back of cars.
Original “Scream” Sequence for The Tingler (0:45) has Vincent Price telling people to scream for their lives.
Tingler Theatrical Trailer (2:23) has Castle warn of a shocking sensation if you see the film.
Zotz! Theatrical Trailer (2:40) asks what Zotz is.
The William Castle Film Collection is this Halloween’s pure treat. The movies go from the shock of Homicidal to the jolt of The Tingler. This is a matinee thrill that you can bring home. The bonus features give a great idea of what extent Castle went to lure crowd out of their houses and into the air conditioned theater. Lately there’s been a lot of chatter about what needs to be done to get people to stop watching TV (or the Internet) and get them to go down to the movie theater. William Castle had the answer: make the audience know you care they came. The eight films need to be watched with a large group of folks in your living room.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment presents William Castle Film Collection. Starring: Vincent Price, Tom Posten, Joan Crawford and William Castle contents: 8 Films on 5 DVDs. Released on DVD: October. 20. Available at Amazon.com
Tags: John Landis, Vincent Price, william castle