If H.G. Lewis is the Godfather of Gore, then William Castle must be horror’s lovable Grandfather … or at least its sneaky uncle. And just like family, we sometimes take him for granted, relegating him to the bowels of schlock cinema – a term that celebrates the gimmickry of niche movie making but not its inherent ingenuity.
The name William Castle has become synonymous with classic horror, but not dared spoken in the same breath as Hitchcock or even Terence Fisher for that matter. No, Castle is the midnight movie madman who elevated audience exploitation to an art form and invented the twist ending decades before M. Night Shyamalan pitched The Sixth Sense to Disney executives. Now, when one name splashes across the screen, it elicits groans from the audience (been in a theater showing the Devil trailer lately?), but when the name William Castle pops up, a sinister smirk creeps onto the faces of moviegoers, and when Castle introduces himself onscreen, you feel as if a dear old friend has just dropped by for a much needed, long overdue visit.
Over the last couple of weeks at the Film Forum in New York City, we were lucky enough to enjoy an extended stay from Mr. Castle in the form of a fourteen-film retrospective, and the seven films below perfectly illustrate the thrill and the skill that were on display every night courtesy of William Castle and Repertory Director Bruce Goldstein.
“The more adventurous among you may remember our previous excursions into the macabre – our visits to haunted hills – to tinglers and to ghosts. This time we have even a stranger tale to unfold … The story of a lovable group of people who just happen to be homicidal.” Hitchcock was always kind of a creep, but when William Castle utters these words at the beginning of HOMICIDAL, you can’t help but think how endearing and lovable the man seems to be – his pleasant demeanor and infectious smile invite the audience to settle in and really enjoy going to the movies.
This PSYCHO inspired tale probably started shooting before Hitchcock’s masterpiece of suspense even left theaters. HOMICIDAL unabashedly lifts scenes and setups from PSYCHO, but it definitely comes into its own as the film plays on: it’s much more twisted, surprisingly tense during certain moments, and it’s a classic example of why Castle is the “King of Showmanship.”
At the beginning of the third reel, just as one of our main characters approaches the house that hides unspeakable horrors inside its doors, the “fear clock” pops up on screen. Viewers have 45 seconds to flee the theater and run out to “Coward’s Corner” in the lobby, where they can breathe easy until the film is over. At this very moment inside the theater at Film Forum, a couple leaped up, screaming and throwing popcorn throughout the auditorium. It was the husband that was frightened, as he screamed, “I thought we were seeing NANNY MCPHEE! I just had heart surgery! You people are disgusting!” We laughed at the staged outburst, and the “couple” turned out to be Repertory Director Bruce Goldstein and none other than Terry Castle (William Castle’s daughter) as the accommodating wife. And yes, after the movie ended, you could find both of them sitting patiently in “Coward’s Corner”.
The ending is shocking and I won’t give it away here, mainly because William Castle appeared on screen at the end of the film and told us not to. Besides, all of you have probably already seen it, right?
We then took our seats for the second film of the double feature, introduced by Terry Castle herself!
“Whenever his movies would open, he would take me to the theaters and we would count how many people were in the line … $1.50, $3.00 … but it wasn’t so much about the money as it was about the heads.” Terry Castle had a great childhood. She grew up on movie sets, meeting famous actors and actresses, and she is a perfect example of how the wonderfully macabre world of horror can be quite a positive influence on a developing mind. She turned out great!
Terry was nice enough to share some of her memories involving the making of STRAIT-JACKET. “I am not an actress and Bruce made me act like his wife today (a reference to their antics earlier in the evening) but it wasn’t my very first acting role. My very first acting role came during STRAIT-JACKET, or was actually supposed to come during STRAIT-JACKET because at six years old I really wanted to be an actress.” Seeing how the opening sequence of the film features a young daughter witnessing Crawford butcher her husband and his mistress with an axe, William Castle naturally saw a perfect opportunity for his daughter’s screen debut. “He cast Diane Baker playing Joan Crawford’s daughter and I happened to look a lot like her when she was a little girl,” Terry claims. “So my Dad said, ‘I have the perfect part for you.’ I was going to walk in – and I didn’t know all the details because my Dad wasn’t that perverse – but he said, ‘You’re going to walk in and see your mother chop up your Dad and his mistress into little pieces!’ So my Dad would say ‘Action!’ and I would walk in and he would hit the bed with a baseball bat and my eyes would fill up with fear and terror … I was brilliant.”
Of course, all this fake killing on set started to have an effect on Terry, and she wound up being a little frightened by Crawford as the days went on. “I remember one day coming on the set and it was absolutely freezing cold because Joan had to have the set cold because it made her skin tighter. Then Joan called me over and I sat on her lap, and I started to cry and I ran out of that set. And I never, ever acted again … until tonight!” She later regretted the decision to not appear once she saw the film. “My Dad did take me to see STRAIT-JACKET in the movie theaters, and when the little girl who played my part came on, I told my Dad that I could have played that much better.”
For those who don’t know, Joan Crawford’s husband owned Pepsi, and if you pay attention you can definitely see some strategically placed six-packs of the classic soda pop in various scenes throughout STRAIT-JACKET. Interestingly, Terry also mentioned a gift that Joan Crawford had bestowed upon the Castle family. “Joan Crawford gave us this really cool Pepsi machine that was a refrigerator. It was like an ice box almost with a silver lid that you would put Pepsi’s in. But instead, we used it for our milkman who would deliver milk and eggs, and he never knew he was placing our milk inside a Pepsi machine given to us by a Hollywood legend!”
STRAIT-JACKET features Crawford in one of her last roles, and just like many older actresses she turned to horror and William Castle in her late years. She gives an incredible performance here, and my only complaint while watching it was the fact that some people in the audience felt they were still watching HOMICIDAL and chose to be above the movie instead of being respectful. It might have played better if STRAIT-JACKET played first and then HOMICIDAL in retrospect. A fantastic film that is available on Netflix Instant by the way …
Terry also went on to say how impressed she was with what the Film Forum had put together to pay homage to her father. “I had the honor to see what Bruce has in store for you for the rest of the week, and I think I have to stay. It’s unbelievable. It’s everything my Dad did, but a little bit better.”
The “Punishment Poll” is the gimmick here – a card that is passed out to each member of the audience, to be used at some point in the film so that a vote can be taken to give “mercy” or “no mercy” to the heartless, tortured Mr. Sardonicus. The man who shares the film’s title must wear a wax mask (a mask that looks suspiciously like the filmmaker) because he has been horribly disfigured after seeing the face of his dead father after defiling the man’s grave to retrieve a lottery ticket – a ticket that is wholly responsible for the status and wealth that Mr. Sardonicus now enjoys.
Through a combination of psychological experiments (and rigorous massage), Sardonicus’ features have returned to normal, but he finds himself unable to speak or eat. He winds up alone, with only his minion to keep him company and the film fades to black … or does it?
Castle appears on the screen and asks us if Sardonicus has been punished adequately. Ushers fill the room with flashlights and ask us all to hold our cards high … higher! Higher! Everyone giggles and no one votes to give poor Sardonicus a reprieve. In fact, it is unclear if an alternate ending showing the “mercy” ending was ever shot in the first place. Castle knows his audience!
The film starts up again, and we see Sardonicus sitting at his massive dining room table, desperately stuffing food into his face, unable to open his mouth and gain sustenance. His unappreciated minion watches with quiet pleasure as he dines …
HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL
“We had turtle soup. He was a great chef.” Terry Castle had turtle soup with Vincent Price. I never dined with the man myself unfortunately, but I did see HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL in bone-chilling Emergo! Towards the end of the film, a skeleton rises from the grave and begins to stalk the conniving Annabelle Loren, who is suddenly in danger of being frightened to death. At that moment, inside the theater a skeleton emerges from the right side of the screen and floats towards the audience via a rigged pulley system. We screamed. We laughed. We … Emergo’d. In one of the best reveals in horror history, Price appears controlling the skeleton with the intent on giving his wife – who has been trying to kill him the entire movie – a taste of her own medicine. The combination of what was happening inside the theater and simultaneously up on the screen made for one of the most memorable moments we’ve ever had at the movies, bar none.
No gimmicks tonight. Just great filmmaking. NIGHT WALKER features Barbara Stanwyck in her final film role. She went on to work in Television but this film was her send off, and it is definitely a career highlight in my opinion. Almost playing like some kind of black and white precursor to A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, Stanwyck’s Irene Trent is haunted by her dead husband’s ghost, whose corpse is horribly burned after expiring in an accidental explosion at the couple’s home. Like nearly all of Castle’s movies, the reveal is classic detective exposition that pulls the curtain back on what you thought you were viewing for the last hour and a half. Great stuff and highly recommended viewing.
LET’S KILL UNCLE
Featuring a cameo from William Castle dying in a car wreck during the first scene, LET’S KILL UNCLE is the closest thing the director ever came to a black comedy. Nigel Green’s brilliant performance as the calculating Uncle hellbent on killing his nephew for a hefty inheritance is actually reason enough to watch this forgotten gem. Green tries everything from hypnotism to a pool of sharks (well, one shark) to kill the kid Barnaby, but Barnaby has his friend Chrissie to help thwart his evil Uncle, and the two conspire to turn the tables and take out the diabolical grown up before it’s too late.
Spine-tingling Percepto! The far-out miracle of Psychedelorama! I’m going to level with you … Seeing THE TINGLER in the theater will always be a disappointment. It’s been built up in the minds of horror fans to the point where we envision everyone being electrocuted and the screen catching fire as giant mechanical spine-attaching creatures run loose in the theater. No one gets electrocuted (not all the chairs are rigged and if they are, you’ll get a small vibration from a suped-up hand-buzzer); the screen does not go up in flames (although the original blood-splattered color sequence and Vincent Price’s very first acid trip is pretty exciting); and there’s only one Tingler let loose to terrorize the audience (but it is quite thrilling when someone gets attacked).
The Psychedelorama (patent pending), I assume, was when the film stopped and the Film Forum staff demanded that we scream for our lives. We did. And it was glorious fun. We did notice a wire tubing running down the length of the theater, but none of us felt a “shock” and we took up an entire row that night. A man a few rows ahead of is suddenly attacked! He turns to face us, and the Tingler – at least two feet long and terribly slimy – has seized him! He couldn’t scream at first, and we all feared for his life, but we all managed to let out a yelp to help. It wasn’t enough to loosen the grip of the fright-feeder, and the man rushed out into the lobby to seek medical attention most likely.
It was still a blast, just don’t let your expectations run wild. Frankly, the Film Forum and ultimately William Castle are the ones to blame for turning up the level of excitement to eleven. I saw THE TINGLER at the historic Paramount theater in Austin, TX years ago, and I can say that the experience here in NYC was much more intimate, more thought out, and better executed albeit still somewhat of a letdown.
“I had a charm bracelet and after every film, instead of other girls who would get little Eiffel towers and cute little golden gate bridges, I would get axes, devils, coffins, and skeletons but no tingler!” Why couldn’t all of us grow up like Terry Castle did?
In a time where cinema chains across the country are desperately trying to keep butts in seats, it’s this kind of theatricality that is sorely lacking in today’s movie going experience: instead of feeling involved, giddy and connected to one another, we’re actually getting more removed, irritable and annoyed when the lights go down in our local cineplex. We need the lighthearted craftsmanship of William Castle now more than ever. At times, his films played to the lowest common denominator, but they never undermined the audiences enjoyment; Castle never talked down to the moviegoer and that respect permeates down from the projector to the seats below. The Film Forum was packed every night I attended, filled to the brim with horror fans that were thrilled to be at a venue determined to keep Castle’s vision alive – a spirit of filmmaking that wants to laugh with the audience instead of laugh at them. A statue of William Castle basks in the moonlight inside the pantheon of B-movie auteurs, and his legend continues to grow with each passing year.
“But thank you guys so much for coming. It’s a real honor for my family. He died thinking he was incredibly unsuccessful and look thirty three years later you guys are here and you’re laughing!” -Terry Castle
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