5 Great Moments From the World's Craziest Filmmaker
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.
13 Ghosts and the Illusion-O "Ghost Viewer"
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.
Mr. Sardonicus and the Punishment Poll
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.
Homicidal and the Coward's Corner
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.
Not for Children and the Fake Nazi Hate Crime
OK, so this one's not actually tied into a movie, but I'm including it here for the sheer, unmitigated moxie of it. Before he got into films, Castle got his start leasing a theater in Connecticut from Orson Welles. He wanted to produce plays, and in 1939, he set his sights on actress Ellen Schwanneke, who had recently fled Nazi Germany, and offered her a starring role in a play called Not for Children.
There were two slight snags. One was that Not for Children did not, technically, exist. Castle had yet to actually write it, and while that's a pretty big snag when it comes to putting on a play, it's relatively minor in the scheme of things. The second problem was that Schwanneke had just received an invitation from Adolf Hitler to return to Munich for a reunion tour of her most famous play. If she had returned, there's very little possibility that the Nazis would have allowed her to return to America.
But Castle was never one to miss an opportunity, so he decided to intervene on Schwanneke's behalf. He wrote a telegram to Hitler vowing that she would never return to Germany to "grease the wheels of the Nazi war machine," because, incidentally, she was busy starring in Not for Children, the new play at the Stony Creek Theatre. There's a lot of speculation on whether he actually sent the telegram or just leaked it to the press, but it got attention. The day after it ran, the theater was vandalized, with the box office smashed up and swastikas painted on the walls.
Here's the twist: Castle did the vandalism himself as a publicity stunt. And it worked. Not for Children was a guaranteed success ... after he took a weekend to write it.
The Tingler and Percepto!
In Spine Tingler!, filmmaker John Waters calls 1960's The Tingler "the greatest movie ever made." It's certainly one of Castle's biggest hits and features the most brilliant gimmick of his entire career.
Here's the plot: Vincent Price plays a scientist who discovers The Tingler, a creature that lives in your spine and feeds on fear. The more scared you are, the more it grows, until it crushes your spine and you die of fright. But! The creature can be weakened by screaming, so if you just scream whenever you get scared, you'll be fine. Price, as Dr. Warren Chapin, extracts a Tingler for study, but of course it escapes and causes all manner of trouble before the film.
The advertised gimmick was called "Percepto!" and it basically amounted to theaters wiring a few chairs with giant joy buzzers so that audience members would feel a "tingling" during the climax of the film. But that's only part of it.
The real genius comes from how it actually works in the film. The Tingler doesn't just get loose, it gets loose in a movie theater, and when it does, the screen goes dark, and Vincent Price's voice booms over the speakers, telling both the theatergoers in the movie and the audience watching them, "Scream! Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in the theater!" As goofy as those sentences might be, Price sells the hell out of it, and in a pitch-black theater where you start feeling your seat buzzing and hearing the screams of theater employees planted in the audience, that's a hell of an experience.
Don't get me wrong, I don't think anybody actually thought a crazy fear monster was crushing their spine, but you can't tell me that's not a thousand times more fun than, say, anything that happened in Avatar.