William Castle's Daughter Terry Castle Talks Her Dad, His Movies, His Gimmicks, and His Resurrection!
Many genre fans today know the name William Castle, but not so many are aware of his full and lasting impact on it. Back in the late Fifties and on through the Sixties, his was a name that was synonymous with horror films. Further, his name was – and remains – one that defines the term “spectacle” in modern film history. Castle was a man who never forgot that “show” is the first word in “show business.” He knew, instinctively, that if you gave the movie-going audience a decent show, the business part would take care of itself. Give the audience their money’s worth and they would love you forever.
And so, in 1955, after an already successful career in film, he noticed lines that wound around the block for a small French film called DIABOLIQUE and he leapt into horror filmmaking with both feet. Since he knew he couldn’t compete with bigger budgeted films or those that were more widely distributed, he decided to give the audiences something more. He decided to give them a little “ballyhoo,” offer them the old “razzmatazz,” a bit of what they used to call “the business.” He decided to give them a Show.
And so, until his death, he did just that by offering audiences $1,000 life insurance policies in case they were to die of fright during his movie (MACABRE), by creating “Emergo” which brought the terrors on the screen out into the theater with the help of a plastic skeleton on wires (HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL), by engineering Percepto which wired specific seats with a buzzer (THE TINGLER), handing out “ghost viewer/remover” glasses so audience members could see or not see the ghosts in his film (13 GHOSTS) and even offering a Fright Break so scaredy-cat folks could walk the yellow line out of the theater and, after spending time being subjected to public ridicule in The Coward’s Corner, actually get their money refunded. His antics defined the “B” movie-going experience for that era.
Now, at Film Forum in New York City from August 26 – September 6th, 2010, a program of Castle’s creations are being presented in their original format; with new prints and even the time-honored gimmicks. There have even been hints that William Castle himself will make his presence known at a showing or two – despite him being dead for over thirty years.
I know … I know … impossible. I mean, the man died in 1977. But, when you consider that there has been a lot of online activity under Castle’s name lately (a web site, a blog, a Facebook page, even a Twitter account), the man who knew a thing or two about piquing the audience’s interest may still have a few tricks up his sleeve.
As a result of the Film Forum shows, Dread Central was offered a chance to have a chat with Castle’s daughter, Terry, who is an authority on all things William Castle and, of course, we jumped at the chance. Terry Castle is a delight and very much her father’s daughter. She is bright, easy to laugh, and has enough moxy to pull off exactly the kind of stunts her father did so long ago.
Dread Central: Terry, I wanted to get a little bit of background on you. I mean, growing up with your dad. He’s such a huge figure both physically and in American Cinema. Can you talk a little bit about what your childhood was like?
Terry Castle: It’s funny because he was such a huge figure. He was actually quite tall and quite big and he had this unbelievably magnetic personality, but he was my dad. It’s so funny because there’s that larger than life figure – the character who my friends would always want to come over and see him and not me – but there was also the man who was my Daddy. I couldn’t have had a better, kinder, nicer dad and a better childhood. So, it was sort of a funny split. Here he played in such a macabre world, but he was a great guy and a champion of the underdog.
Dread Central: Were you brought to sets and things like that?
Terry Castle: Family was everything to my father. I mean, Joan Crawford would call him and invite him to a dinner party and he’d say, “I’ll only go if I can bring my girls.” I learned at a very young age to not enter a set when the red light was on. I’m terrified of red lights to this very day. I walked in once when the red light was going and I got in trouble. I’m telling you that when I come to a stop light now I’m scared.
Dread Central: Would he ever bring you onto the productions?
Terry Castle: Absolutely! It was more than that. It was funny because I was very young when the early movies were made, but I have an older cousin and they would come over to the house and he would read them scenes and ask, “How does this play?”
Dread Central: Did you ever try acting?
Terry Castle: Growing up with this larger than life father who made films, I was of course going to be an actress because that was just my destiny, right? It was either that or a ballet dancer and being a ballet dancer just wasn’t as pretty. Now, dad was doing a movie called STRAIT JACKET which starred Joan Crawford (which was his biggest gimmick of all according to John Waters) and Diane Baker and I happen to look very much like Diane Baker as a kid. So, my dad said, “Ok, here’s your chance.” What I was supposed to do was walk into the room and watch my mother (who was played by Joan Crawford) hack her husband and her husband’s lover to death. [laughs] I practiced that scene over and over for six weeks. I would walk in. My dad would have a baseball bat and hitting the bed with it. He didn’t tell me the specifics of it at the time, but I knew something bad was happening. I was supposed to open my eyes very wide and gasp with terror. It was supposed to be the most horrifying thing, but I wasn’t supposed to say anything and then… “Cut! Cut! Cut!” and that would be it. I had this down to a science. So, the day they brought me to the set, unfortunately Joan Crawford was there and she came and had me sit on her lap. Well, I took one look at her and I was so terrified. Needless to say, I didn’t go on and that career was over. Plus, the set was so frigid. I mean, it was freezing in there because Joan Crawford made the set so darn cold because she wanted her skin to stay fresh and tight. I had goose bumps the size of Mount Rushmore. I haven’t acted since.
Dread Central: But you’ve been behind the camera with co-producing the HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL and 13 GHOSTS remakes, correct?
Terry Castle: Yes, I have and I worked for Nickelodeon for many years. I worked on a series with D. J. MacHale called ARE YOU AFRAID OF THE DARK? They were really fun to make and D. J. is a great guy and a great writer.
Dread Central: Are you planning at all to do any more remakes of your father’s work?
Terry Castle: I’m really ready for some new William Castle films. The idea of remaking THE TINGLER does not sit well with me. I mean, that’s one that can’t be remade. It’s perfect the way it is. But there is one film of his actually that I would like to remake and that is LET’S KILL UNCLE because I didn’t like the way my dad made it to be honest, it’s an unbelievable book and needs to be retold.
Dread Central: It seems like the landscape is so ripe for it what with the current 3D craze. I mean with the release and popularity of PIRHANA 3D, it just seems like a perfect time.
Terry Castle: The idea of augmented reality is really interesting to me and I know that if Dad was back from the grave, which I’ve heard that he is, he would really want to be playing with those sorts of toys. I’m not sure he’d be playing with 3D, although he’s played with 3D in his life many, many, many times. It would excite him to see what the possibilities were, but the idea of augmented reality would really get him excited. I mean, can you imagine what he would do with phone apps on your phone?
Dread Central: Uncle Creepy here at Dread Central hit it on the head when he recently referred to your dad as The Godfather of Viral Marketing.
Terry Castle: He really was. This is why he went to every single theater, he talked to every single kid who would talk to another kid who would talk to another kid who’d say, “You got to go see this! There’s a skeleton that comes down in the middle of the theater” or “I got my butt buzzed!” or “You should’ve seen so-and-so… he had to sit in The Coward’s Corner!” It was viral marketing and it was done on the cheap. I mean, it was done inexpensively, but it was done with such passion. People come up to me today – mostly men – and they’ll say, “Oh, my god… I can’t believe you’re William Castle’s daughter. I was wearing…” and they’ll know exactly what they were wearing when they saw specific films. “I had on my blue jeans and blue shirt and my mother dropped me off at the theater in Youngstown, Ohio and I didn’t sleep for a week after I saw HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. It was such an incredible event that it has stayed in their minds. And they’re so loyal, these fans.
Dread Central: A friend of mine said once that horror fans are incredibly loyal, but they are also incredibly forgiving. You can make a film that is less than stellar, but they still love it and they appreciate any attempt to give them the kinds of films they enjoy.
Terry Castle: Well, that’s the whole idea. Within this genre, people want to suspend their disbelief. That’s the whole fun of it, right? That’s why you can be forgiving.
Dread Central: Well, not only is horror fun, but it also allows a creator such as your father to address big topics – Life, Death, Grief, Loss, Loyalty, Jealousy – all of those things that seem a little ham-fisted in drama or thrillers, in horror you seem to be able to address those because you’ve already bought into, for example, a thing that grows on your spine when you’re afraid and then gets out into the theater. You’ve already, as Hunter S Thompson said, “Bought the ticket, now take the ride.”
Terry Castle: I hate to get all historical on you, but I also find that horror films really reflect the times. 1968 to me was such a pivotal year for what was going on with horror films when you look at what was going on in the world. It’s so reflective. You had the Tet Offensive and then you had Robert Kennedy’s assassination and then, at the same time, you have ROSEMARY’S BABY come out and then you had NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and the whole world changed.
Dread Central: I was just going to say, isn’t that what George Romero has been doing for the last forty years? Every decade he comes out with a zombie film that somehow reflects the time in which it was made.
Terry Castle: To me it’s astonishing. What’s so interesting about NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and why it was so important to my dad’s life was that, up until then there was a sense of innocence and kids would be dropped off at the theater to watch a Saturday feature or a double feature. Then, some kids were dropped off in 1968 to go see NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and I remember going to see it and it was truly horrifying. I mean, these kids were traumatized. It changed horror films forever.
Dread Central: As did ROSEMARY’S BABY which was a film your father produced. I remember that furor…
Terry Castle: It was huge. First of all, it was the first time you heard the word “shit” in a film. My dad got such hate mail from The Church. I think kids today need the same sort of experience that we had. It’s just so much fun going to see horror films, but maybe I feel that way because my father was who he was.
Dread Central: Well, I think that what’s interesting is how much your father’s films were a reflection of him and of the way movies were once made. Today… it’s all filmmaking by committee and focus groups.
Terry Castle: [laughs] I can’t believe you’re saying this. I remember sitting around the table and… My dad died, you know, in 1977, when I was nineteen. It was mortifying in the end for him because that was exactly what he would say, that films were being made by committee. He said, “Harry Cohen [Columbia Pictures studio boss] was the biggest asshole, but I knew where I stood. Now, you’ve got twenty people in the room, nobody’s read your script or the book, and they’re all commenting on it, Everyone wants to give you notes.” The other thing is… My dad was an orphan and he had a lot to prove and the gimmicks that he did pull off weren’t easy at that time. To get exhibitors to electrify seats was not an easy feat. I mean, he went to war to get done what he wanted to get done. For example, in HOMICIDAL, during The Fright Break where he offers your money back if the film was too scary and you can’t stay to see the end, but you have to walk the yellow line and go stand in The Coward’s Corner… Theater owners thought he was absolutely crazy. They really put up a fight and I have all these letters saying, “What are you crazy, Castle? Do you know how hard it is to get their money? You’re going to offer them their money back? They’re going to leave!” And, in fact, at a theater in Youngstown, Ohio, he had some studio executives with him and at the climax of the film where my dad’s voice comes up and says, “This is the Fright Break” and you hear his voice and the clock is ticking, the entire theater got up and actually left. The manager of the theater came running to him and said, “Don’t you understand what happened? They had sat through the earlier performance…” My dad was so cute, he was like, “They’re just a bunch of swindlers in Youngstown, Ohio!” After that, they changed the ticket color stubs and it worked fantastically. But he had chutzpah and he had tenacity. He was definitely the PT Barnum of movies.