When you think about the filmmakers who have given us the greatest spectacles of all time, you probably think of people like Steven Spielberg or James Cameron. Hell, if you've recently been clocked upside the head with a two-by-four, you might even think about Michael Bay. When it comes to pure, unadulterated, attention-grabbing stunts, though, there's one man who stands above all others: William Castle.
In the '50s and '60s, Castle was known to B-movie audiences everywhere as a director who added an extra attraction to every film he produced. The idea was to lure in audiences with outlandish displays like Macabre's $1,000 Lloyds of London insurance policy for any audience members who died of fright during the show, or House on Haunted Hill's promise that the monsters would emerge from the screen to wander the theater and "meet the public." Admittedly, that last one basically amounted to a fake skeleton slathered with glow-in-the-dark paint rigged up on a wire above the audience, but it worked and gave Castle the nickname "King of the Gimmicks." These five, however, go even further over the top.
One of Castle's earliest successes, 13 Ghosts told the story of Buck Zorba, a young boy who used a pair of "ghost goggles" to navigate through a haunted house stocked with an assortment of spirits that included a murderous chef, a burning skeleton, a ghostly lion, and other challenges suitable for a party of four third-level adventurers. In order to draw the audiences into the film -- or at least get them into the theater with a paid admission -- Castle gave viewers their own "Ghost Viewer" and even appeared in the film with his typical charm to explain how it was used.
The film used the same sort of red overlay that was used for 3D pictures, with the difference being that you were only supposed to look through one lens at a time. With the red lens, you could join Buck in seeing the ghosts. With the blue lens (the "ghost remover"), they were rendered invisible, which Castle promised would prevent heart attacks among his more sensitive audience members.
Here's what makes it genius: It's completely pointless. Not only were the "ghosts" clearly visible without the use of the red lens, nobody who doesn't want to see a ghost is going to go into a theater to see a movie called 13 Ghosts. There is no reason at all to have a little cardboard and cellophane "ghost viewer" thrown in, but as you might imagine, the kids loved it.
Castle's favorite trick was to get the audience involved in the events of the film, and in Mr. Sardonicus, he took that to the logical extreme. The title character -- who was actually Baron Sardonicus, a title that was probably too far over the top even for Castle -- was stricken with a paralysis that twisted his face into a horrifying grin when he dug up his father's grave to steal a lottery ticket. The makeup, worn by Guy Rolfe, is actually pretty terrifying and was so complex that he could only wear it for an hour at a time, opting to spend most of the movie with his face covered rather than deal with it.
As the movie explains, he attempted to cure himself through cruel experiments on young women, tortured his subjects, threatened to mutilate his lovely young wife unless her ex-boyfriend could cure him, and was generally a pretty lousy dude. That's where the Punishment Poll comes in.
At the climax of the film, Castle himself comes onscreen to have a little chat with the audience, telling them that the fate of Sardonicus is in their hands. Each audience member was given a card with a picture of a thumb on it and told to hold it with the thumb up if they thought Sardonicus should be given a break and shown mercy, and to hold it with a thumb down if they thought he needed to be punished even more. Castle would then "count" the responses (from the screen) and then introduce the appropriate ending.
As you might expect, Sardonicus always got the bad ending. The thing is, that was the only option. Despite Castle's claim that he actually did film a happy ending for the Baron, no such ending was ever screened, or even found. And considering that there's no real break between Castle's gleefully sadistic vote tally and the ending, it's pretty safe to say it never existed to begin with.
In 1961, a year after the release of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho, Castle released Homicidal, a movie with some pretty striking similarities. You could charitably call it a good-natured homage, but it's worth noting that back then, Time magazine called it one of the best films of the year and said it "surpasses Psycho in structure, suspense and sheer nervous drive." That's not a bad endorsement, and Castle was so sure of his success that his gimmick for this one involved a money-back guarantee. The idea was that before the climax, the film would stop for a "Fright Break," and if anyone was too scared to continue, they could leave and get their money back -- a direct response to Psycho's legendary warning that no one would be admitted once the film started.
And it was a disaster.
When the movie was first screened, the audience bailed on it en masse during the Fright Break, but it turned out that they were running a con on Castle. According to Spine Tingler!, Jeffrey Schwarz's amazing documentary on Castle's life and films, the people who left were actually people who had paid for an earlier show and never left, sitting through it twice to get their money back and a free night on the town. This, of course, is a problem, but Castle had the solution: Making actually leaving the theater and getting the refund a truly awful experience.
Thus: the Coward's Corner. In order to get your refund, you not only had to leave the theater during the Fright Break, you had to follow a yellow line to a section of the lobby that had been roped off and labeled as the Coward's Corner, complete with speakers piping in the clucking of chickens, waiting there until the end of the movie while everyone else filed past you. And if that wasn't enough, you still had to sign a certificate admitting that you were a coward before you could get the money.