Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Gimmicks of William Castle

I think it is safe to say that most film buffs would prefer that movies have success at the box office because they are actually well done, with great scripts, great casts, and great direction. Sadly, that is not always the case. In many instances movies are hits simply because of great marketing. A great marketing campaign can turn even the worst turkey into a bona fide, box office smash. There was perhaps no one better at marketing motion pictures than horror producer, director, and screenwriter William Castle. In fact, Mr. Castle is probably as well known for the various gimmicks he used to promote his films as he is for his films themselves. And Mr. Castle's gimmicks were surprisingly effective, turning his low budget features into modest box office hits. Fortunately, most of William Castle's movies also happened to be quite good.

"The King of Showmanship" literally worked his way up in the entertainment industry. He started working on Broadway while a teenager, where he did everything from acting to designing sets. He was only 18 when he directed his first stage production, the stage version of the classic Dracula. Eventually William Castle left New York City for Hollywood. He was 23 when he made his film debut as an actor, in an uncredited role as a reporter in When Love Is Young (1937). He received his first writing credit in 1942 for the story North to the Klondike. It was in 1943 that he directed his short, "Black Marketing." From the Forties into the Fifties William Castle directed several B-movies, including three different films in "The Whistler" series (including the first one) and three different ones in "The Crime Doctor" series. He broke into production with The Lady From Shanghai (1947), on which he was an associate producer as well as a second unit director.  He produced the TV show Meet McGraw and produced and directed episodes of the TV show Men of Annapolis before he became an independent director and producer.

It was the success of French chiller Diabolique (1955) in the United States that inspired William Castle to produce his own low budget horror movie. William Castle bought the rights to 1951 novel The Marble Forest. Although credited to the pen name Theo Durant, The Marble Forest was actually the creation of several members of a California branch of the Mystery Writers of America, each of who wrote a chapter. It was editor William White (perhaps better known by his pen name, Anthony Boucher) who saw that the book's tone remained consistent from chapter to chapter and made sure continuity was maintained from chapter to chapter. To pay for the film's production costs William Castle and his wife Ellen mortgaged their home.

To promote Macabre (as the adaptation of The Marble Forest was titled) William Castle came up with the first of his many gimmicks. As stated in the film's original trailer, the life of every member of the audiences of Macabre would be insured for $1000 by Lloyd's of London should they die of fright watching the movie. William Castle went the additional step of having nurses present at certain showings of Macabre just in case the unthinkable should happen. Perhaps the most flamboyant part of the promotion of Macabre occurred at a Minneapolis theatre where William Castle had himself sealed inside a coffin. Unfortunately, Mr. Castle would remain locked in the coffin while the theatre ran Macabre. In the end William Castle's gimmicky promotion of Macabre would pay off quite well. With a budget of only around $90,000, the film grossed $5,000,000 in its initial release. Allied Artist promptly struck a deal for another movie from William Castle, as well as another gimmick.

William Castle's next film would also be one of his best known, House on Haunted Hill (1959). While Macabre was based on a novel, House on Haunted Hill was an original screenplay by William Castle's fellow producer Rob White, in which an eccentric millionaire (Frederick Loren played by Vincent Price) invites five people to spend the night in a haunted house with him and his fourth wife Annabelle (Carol Ohmart). House on Haunted Hill would have one of William Castle's more interesting gimmicks, a process called "Emergo." Essentially, Emergo was nothing more or nothing less than a pulley system installed in theatres that would allow a plastic skeleton to fly over the heads of the audience at the proper moment.

As one of William Castle's better movies House on Haunted Hill probably did not need a gimmick, but Emergo certainly didn't hurt. House on Haunted Hill performed even better at the box office than Macabre had. Arguably, it was the film that established William Castle not only as an independent producer, but as a showman extraordinaire.

William Castle's next film would also be one of his best known, and also one of his most original. The Tingler (1959) centred on the titular parasite present in all human beings that feeds on fear and can even shatter the spinal column. It can only be stopped by screaming. The Tingler would star Vincent Price, in his second and last William Castle movie, as the coroner and scientist Dr. Warren Chapin who discovered the Tingler.

In keeping with the characteristics of the film's monster, The Tingler had one of William Castle's more famous gimmicks. A bit of World War II surplus, small motors that had been attached to the wings of aircraft, were attached to the underside of various seats in select theatres. At a point in the film when the Tingler had escaped into a cinema, the lights of the theatre would go dark as Vincent Price in the role of Dr. Chapin warned the audience (both in the movie and in the theatre), "Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic. But scream! Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in this theatre!" At that point the motors under the seats would be activated, their vibrations simulating the effects of the Tingler. William Castle termed this process "Percepto." While the nature of Percepto was not revealed in the film's advertising or trailers, it was highly touted nonetheless. In promoting The Tingler William Castle did not stop with Percepto. At select theatres he also planted individuals in the audience who would scream and faint at the proper time. The individual who had "fainted" would then leave the theatre by ambulance.

Even without the gimmicks and even given it is one of William Castle's best films, The Tingler would be remembered as it made film history.  It would depict the first portayal of LSD use in a major motion picture. All in the name of science (Dr. Chapin was, after all, researching the existence of the Tingler), at one point Vincent Price's character drops acid.

The gimmick in William Castle's next film, 13 Ghosts (1960), would not be nearly as spectacular as that of The Tingler. The film dealt with a haunted house, hence the ghosts of the title. This leant itself to the film's gimmick, Illusion-O. 13 Ghosts was a black and white film, although the ghosts had been tinted a pale blue. Audience members were then given a special viewer with a red filter and blue filter (similar to 3-D glasses of the time, although the movie was not shot in 3-D). Through the red filter viewers could see the ghosts. If they thought the ghosts were too terrifying, then they could look through the blue filter and they would disappear. Here it must be pointed out that the ghosts could be seen without the special viewer, as repeated showings on television have proven over the years!

William Castle's next film, Homicidal (1961), would start with a rather simple gimmick that would become more complex after the movie's initial showings. At the climax of the film there would be a "Fright Break." At that point the movie would pause for 45 seconds, a clock would be superimposed on the screen, and the sound of a heartbeat would fill the cinema. William Castle's voice then told audience members that those too frightened to watch the rest of the movie could then leave and receive a full refund. Unfortunately for William Castle, the idea of the Fright Break very nearly back fired.

It was at one of the first showings of Homicidal, one in Youngstown, Ohio, that Mr. Castle noticed an inordinately large number of theatre patrons were leaving during the Fright Break and asking for a refund. In all 1% of the film's viewers were leaving during the Fright Break. To solve this problem, William Castle developed the idea of "Coward's Corner." Those who wanted to leave during the Fright Break had to follow a series of yellow foot prints on the floor of the auditorium to the box office. Over the box office hanged a sign which read "Coward's Corner." What is more, the box office or "Coward's Corner" would be bathed in a yellow light and there a recording repeated over and over, ""These cowards are too frightened to see the end of Homicidal. Watch them shiver in the Coward's Corner. Coward...coward....coward." At Coward's Corner there would be a nurse who would take the audience member's blood pressure. Since audience members would have to undergo the humiliation of being branded a coward to receive a refund, the number of people leaving during the Fright Break dropped to less than 1%.

William Castle's next film, Mr. Sardonicus (1961), would again be based on a literary work. The story "Sardonicus" by Ray Russell appeared in the January 1961 issue of Playboy. The story centred on a European baron whose face was frozen in a perpetual grin (a condition called "Risus sarconicus," previously explored in the Victor Hugo book The Man Who Laughs, its various film versions, and The Joker in "Batman" comic books). Studio bosses at Columbia were apparently unhappy that Mr. Sadonicus had a decidedly dark ending, which led to William Castle's gimmick for the film: the Punishment Poll. Audience members were given  a glow in the dark card with a fist with the thumb extended on it. At a certain point in the film viewers were asked whether Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) should be shown mercy (in which case audience members would display their cards with the thumb up) or should receive punishment (in which case audience member would display their cards with the thumb down).

William Castle always insisted that an alternate ending to Mr. Sardonicus, one in which Baron Sardonicus has a happy ending, was filmed. Despite this, it seems unlikely that any other ending than the one in which the baron gets his just desserts ever existed. At the very least none have materialised. Of course, whether an alternate ending to Mr. Sardonicus was filmed is perhaps a moot point. No audience ever voted that Sardonicus should be shown mercy.

William Castle's next film, Zotz!, would be a sharp departure from his previous productions. Zotz! was a fantasy comedy based on the novel of the same name by  Walter Karig. The film centred on a magic coin. Because of this, William Castle had thousands of plastic replica of the Zotz! coin manufactured and distributed to theatres, to be given out both before and during the movie's run. Billboards were also erected in the weeks prior to the film's debut, with only the word "Zotz!" emblazoned on them.

William Castle's next film, 13 Frightened Girls (1963), would lack any real gimmick.  The promotion of the film made a great deal out of William Castle's search for actresses to play the thirteen girls of the title. William Castle's next film, the 1963 remake of The Old Dark House (1932), also featured no gimmicks. Sadly, the era of William Castle's gimmicks, which perhaps reached their peak with House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, and Homicidal, was coming to an end. Sadly, both films would not perform as well as William Castle's previous films, leading some critics to believe that he could not have a hit without a gimmick.

Fortunately, William Castle's next film would be a bit more successful. For Strait-Jacket (1964) Mr. Castle was able to cast a screen legend in the film, none other than Joan Crawford. Initially William Castle had wanted Grayson Hall in the lead role in the film, but she wanted to return to the theatre instead. Joan Blondell was then cast in the lead role, but in the end she was prevented from taking the part (stories vary as to why). In the end the role went to Joan Crawford. Because William Castle thought the script was particularly strong Strait-Jacket was intended to have no gimmicks. This having been said, cardboard axes were reportedly given to audience members at certain theatres.

William Castle's next film, The Night Walker (1964), also starred two big name stars: Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck (in her last role for the big screen). It also lacked any sort of gimmick. It would be I Saw What You Did (1965) that would feature William Castle's last big gimmick. I Saw What You Did dealt with teeangers making prank calls (which naturally goes wrong), so William Castle had intended to promote the film with a special phone number that people could call. Unfortunately, the phone company blamed I Saw What You Did for an increase in prank calls leading up to the film's release, so the phone company quickly turned on William Castle. Mr. Castle then came up with another gimmick for the film. Seats in rows of select theatres were outfitted with seatbelts, which would prevent viewers from being "scared out of their seats." The film also featured Joan Crawford. Although top billed, she actually only appeared in the film briefly.

I Saw What You Did featured the last of William Castle's great gimmicks. His next several films, whether directed by him (Let's Kill Uncle, The Busy Body, Shanks, et. al.) or produced by him (Rosemary's Baby, The Riot) included no gimmicks. It was only with the last film produced by William Castle, Bug (1975), that he would return to gimmicks. That having been said, the gimmick of Bug paled in comparison to those of The Tingler or Homicidal--William Castle simply advertised that the film's giant cockroach was insured for $1 million.

William Castle's gimmicks were certainly effective, boosting the box office of B-movies that might have otherwise been ignored by film goers. Indeed, they turned watching a movie into a event, at which a skeleton might fly over one's head or one might feel one's seat vibrating. If there was downside to William Castle's gimmicks, it is that it could be argued that they detracted from the movies themselves. Even today more attention is often paid to Mr. Castle's gimmicks than are to his films.

Indeed, while I have little doubt that gimmicks were much of the fun of watching one of William Castle's movies, the truth is that many of his movies did not need gimmicks at all. His very best films (House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, Strait-Jacket) boasted good scripts and good casts, with a nice balance of frights and high camp. Today they remain very entertaining films and many of them can quite rightfully be called classics.  William Castle may have earned the title "King of Showmen" because of his gimmicks, but he will be remembered for a series of well done horror B-movies.

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