Patrons Reading This Article Must Be Insured in Case of Death by Fright!!!
William Castle, the Prince of Paltry Promotions, Returns This Week (in Spirit) at SF's Castro Theater
By Richard von Busack
The movies of William Castle are often forgettable. In contrast, his promotions are deathless. Very few entrepreneurs in the history of movies were as adept at selling the sizzle of a steak, even a steak cut (as was sometimes the case with Castle's movies) from the flank of a horse.
William Castle's career as a movie maker has already inspired one picture, 1993's Matinee starring John Goodman. Castle (1914-1977) was much as Goodman portrayed him, a benign trickster figure who identified with P.T. Barnum; his highly entertaining and recently reprinted autobiography even has the carnyesque title, Step Right Up, I'm Going To Scare the Pants Off America.
Castle's nerviness was best demonstrated at the peak of his career, when he shepherded Polanski's Rosemary's Baby to the screen. This, at a time when the cinema was far more in fear of the Catholic Church than it is now. Rosemary's Baby was promoted by teaser ads with the silhouette of a black cradle and the caption "Pray for Rosemary's Baby"--extreme by 1966 standards, but perhaps modest by Castle's usual methods of getting as many butts into as many theater seats as he could.
Most accounts track Castle's great promotions as beginning with Macabre (1959). It should be noted, though, (and Castle did) that as a young theatrical producer, he painted swastikas on a Connecticut theater he was renting, to convince the press that he'd been vandalized by fascists who didn't want the public to see his play. (Naturally, a proudly anti-fascist throng turned up that night in support.) Castle might have been a little unscrupulous. One of his screenwriters, not a fan, remembered that Castle always used to call himself "The Earl of Deferral." ("Deferral" is a movie financing practice that means delaying costs to the last minute and beyond.) Still, you could never fault him for lacking a sense of drama.
Castle came to Hollywood to work at Columbia Studios in 1939, as an acting coach. At the time, every studio had divisions that produced fast, cheap entertainments to make up the bottom half of double bills, and Castle worked on more than a few of these. The B market dried up after studios were forced in 1947 by the Supreme Court to divest themselves of their theater chains. Castle moved on to low-budget features. During this time, Castle's name appeared on such pictures as Serpent of the Nile and Cave of Outlaws. By the end of the 1950s, Castle had gotten into television producing, where he probably would have spent the rest of his life if he hadn't seen the crowds attending the imported French shocker, Diabolique.
Castle mortgaged his house to make the thriller, Macabre (1959), independently--then had the inspiration to insure the lives of its viewers with Lloyd's of London for a $1000, in case they died of fright. The gimmick took. Macabre was a hit, and Castle was well on his way to fame.
Smiling like a freshly-bribed alderman, smoking a $5 cigar and making egregious puns about the movies at hand, Castle began to appear in pre-title sequences and advertisements. for his films, deploying a rainbow of inspired gimmicks to sell them. The House on Haunted Hill (1960) (Frank Lloyd Wright's landmark Ennis House played the title role) was a story of various ne'er-do-wells spending a night in a haunted mansion for cash; the movie comes to a complete stop in a pool of acid in the basement, from which a skeleton emerges to menace the living. Vincent Price never looked less interested, but "Emergo," Castle's trick of sending an inflatable skeleton floating down into the crowd on a guy-wire, drew in both the curious and the amateur pea-shooter marksman. Price perked up for Castle's next work, The Tingler, a much more wild tale about a critter that lives in the spinal chord. This beast, "The Tingler" can only be laid to rest by a good, loud scream. The Tingler sports an LSD sequence, as well as a sudden burst of color amidst the black and white, in honor of Hitchcock's ending to Spellbound. To aid the surprise, Castle had installed "Percepto!", a jumbo joy-buzzer that jolted audiences out of their seats at key moments. The Tingler has the mark of Castle at his best: a berserk, dead-serious plot and a gritty willingness to give the audience a good shock, one way or another.
The peculiar selling point of 13 Ghosts was "Illusion-O," a hand-held viewer featuring two strips of cellophane (sort of like vertical 3-D glasses) that made the tribe of spooks haunting a family visible. The family itself is named, for no apparent reason, after Greek philosophers; in the story, Uncle Plato has just cacked and left the family a mansion haunted by a baker's dozen poltergeists.
In Homicidal, a movie about a schizophrenic killer, Castle outdid himself. Some have dismissed Castle as the poor man's Hitchcock (an insult "to both poor men and Hitchcock," wrote one observer) and Homicidal has been dismissed as a Hitch-rip. But the Castle movie has its own style, and Jean Arliss is a memorably frightening, frozen-faced killer prowling the Danish-themed tourist trap of Solvang, California. Typically, Castle sold the movie with a "Fright Break," a 60-second interlude that allowed those who couldn't stand the terror to depart in peace. If this wasn't enough, "patrons" could also retrieve their price of admission if they were too frightened to go on watching the movie--that is, after they'd followed the "Yellow Streak" down the theater's aisle to the "Coward's Corner" in the lobby, where they were supposed to sit like chimps in a cage,as a recorded announcement bellowed, "Look at the coward! See him quiver in the Coward's Corner." Refunds tended to drop off after that.
Mr. Sardonicus, is a fine gothic that would have been perfect for Vincent Price. Sardonicus, a 19th century rake, has been punished for his many misdeeds with a case of "risus sardonicus," a paralytic leer. Ghoulish makeup and the villainy of Oskar Homolka, as Sardonicus's one-eyed henchman, add to the fun. The old Viennese ham has a field day here, menacing a tied-up babe with leeches. Sardonicus's sufferings could be ended or prolonged depending on the "Punishment Poll" (a cardboard fist with a thumb pointing up or down), which Castle counted from his vantage point on screen. The punishment poll, like the cardboard hatchets handed out as a souvenir of the invigorating axe-murder picture, Straight-Jacket, (1965) starring Joan Crawford, marked the end of Castle's more bizarre promotions.
After that, Castle was content to coast on his notoriety, though he had the sense to purchase Ira Levin's novel, Rosemary's Baby. while it was galley form. He never abandoned horror or horror comedy; Bug (1975) his last film, featured a plague of fire-starting insects attacking Riverside, California.
Bizarre promotions are nothing new in movies; David O. Selznick once flew the entire town of Zenda, Kansas, to Hollywood to attend the premiere of his version of Prisoner of Zenda. On a smaller scale, other producers tried gimmicks that deserve mention, such as Mike Todd Jr.'s 1960 Scent of Mystery, shot in "Smell-O-Vision," a "technology" that released different piped fragrances during the course of the picture. John Waters, William Castle's number-one fan, honored this process with his scratch-and-sniff card for "Odorama." The 1966 Chamber of Horrors had a "Fear Flasher" and a "Horror Horn," which warned you to close your eyes during the gruesome parts of the show. And the German import Mark of the Devil (1974) gave members of the audience special vomit bags in case the gore upset their stomachs.
These were nice tries, but none, obviously, had the intrepidness of Castle's methods. Somewhere, there must be a theater manager willing to hire live lap-dancers to take the patrons' minds off the dialogue of Showgirls; or to turn the fire sprinklers on the Saturday night audience at Waterworld. Meanwhile, the Spirit of Film Promotion, so well served by William Castle while he lived, sits imprisoned in the Coward's Corner, waiting to be released.
House on Haunted Hill (Oct. 13 at 7, 9 pm, Oct. 14 at 1,3,5,7 and 9 pm), Mr. Sardonicus Oct. 15 at 12:10, 3:50 and 7:30 BILLED WITH Straight Jacket (Oct. 15; 2, 5:40 and 9:20 pm ), The Old Dark House (Oct. 16 at 7:15 pm) BILLED WITH 13 Ghosts (Oct 16 at 9 pm). Macabre (Oct 17 at 7:30 pm) BILLED WITH Homicidal (Oct. 17, 9 pm). The Tingler (Oct. 18 at 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9; Oct. 19 at 7 and 9 pm) with effects recreated by Irritronix. The Castro Theater is located at the Market and Castro Streets in San Francisco; call (415) 621-6120 for more information.
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