Reviewed by Johnny Butane
Featuring appearances by Forry Ackerman, Joe Dante, John Landis, John Waters, Terry Castle
Directed by Jeffrey Schwartz
At the recent Boston Underground Film Festival, Spine Tingler made its East Coast debut. Now, I have to admit, I’ve never been a huge fan of William Castle movies. Of course, being born in the 70’s, I missed seeing them in the best situation: the theater, where every new Castle movie opening was an event unto itself. After watching Jeffrey Schwartz’s Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, though, I now understand that it’s not the movies that you need to like; it’s the man himself. Which by all accounts wasn’t hard to do.
Orphaned at a young age, Castle learned very early that the one thing that made him truly happy was applause. Making a crowd respond to something he was responsible for was the ultimate joy for Castle, something he pursued in every aspect of his life. He started off his filmmaking career churning out constant B-pictures, movies that could be made cheap and quick to play after the A picture in a double feature. Eventually he tired of this uninspiring work and, having learned almost every aspect of filmmaking, realized that what an audience really wanted was to be scared. And scare them he did, just not like anyone expected.
His first gimmick was for Macabre, for which he went to Lloyd’s of London and took out a $1000 life insurance policy. Patrons were told before the film that their lives would be insured for that amount (a document they had given us before the screening as well) and their beneficiary would get the cash if they were to die of fright during the movie. Of course, no one did, but they came out in droves to see what could possibly be so scary, and a legend was born.
If you take nothing else away from Spine Tingler!, it’s that Castle was and is a very well-loved man, both professionally and personally. He was an easy man to work with, always smiling and in good spirits no matter how a shoot was going, and no one interviewed for the documentary gave even the slightest indication of putting on a front for the cameras. These are all people who found William Castle to be a source of real joy in their lives, be they his former stars, his family, or lifelong fans like director John Waters, who deservedly gets a lot of screen time throughout.
For the most part the documentary never gets into the politics of the time in which Castle was making his films, either assuming the audience was well aware of them or not finding it relevant to the story being told. The only case when world events were mentioned was the JFK assassination, which understandably caused a tidal wave of change as to how things were done in America. The effects were almost immediate for the showman; even though he still managed to make hit movies, things were just never the same.
But he was born to be out there, making sure people knew he had another picture and always finding new ways to involve the audience. The only time he let a film truly speak for itself was Rosemary’s Baby, which he had bought the rights for very early on with the intention of directing, thus showing the world that he could make serious, what he called “important”, horror as well. Spine Tingler puts a good spin on the whole situation, with Castle recognizing the talents of young Roman Polanski at the time, who the studio insisted direct with Castle only left as producer, but the fact remains that Rosemary’s Baby was something he always wanted to be his, and when it wasn’t, I think it changed something fundamental in the man.
The recollections of those who worked with Castle are, of course, great to hear, but even better are the stories told by filmmakers like John Waters or Joe Dante (whose Matinee was a love letter to Castle and his works) — people who grew up in a time when the man would go from town to town for every movie he opened to see how the crowd reacted to his latest gimmick. These are the ones who saw it all first-hand and, at some point in their lives, realized they, too, wanted to make movies just like Bill Castle did.
Spine Tingler is a funny, touching and intelligent piece of documentary filmmaking that perfectly captures the life of a man whom most of us only know as “that gimmick guy”. Now a whole new generation of fans can see why William Castle was so special in the history of movies and likely lament that there really never can be another like him. Movies will never have that much showmanship entangled with them, and while that’s a sad fact, I for one am glad we have a film like Spine Tingler to remind us what it was like back then.
4 1/2 out of 5
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