The legend goes like this: In 1939 a young William Castle anxiously awaited reviews for the Broadway play hed produced, but the drama, set in prewar Germany, failed to impress critics. Determined to save his investment, Castle called some friends, dressed them as Nazis and had them vandalize the theater with swastikas and anti-Semitic slogans. The next morning, he called a press conference to answer the death threats hed received. Castle vowed the show would go on, that he would risk everything to protect his artistic freedom. The production ran successfully for almost a year, and thus one of the most shameless film promoters of all time was born.
After coming to Hollywood to work as an acting coach, Castle discovered he had a knack for cheap science fiction and horror. He landed a job directing for the television series Science Fiction Theater along with famed horror director Jack Arnold (Creature from the Black Lagoon, Incredible Shrinking Man), and then mortgaged his house to make the 1958 low-budget thriller, Macabre.
As a publicity stunt, he took out a $1,000 insurance policy with Lloyds of London for any viewer who died of fright while watching the film. The ploy worked, the movie was a hit, and by the late 50s Castle had established himself as a B-movie mogul. Producing and often directing instantly forgettable horror films, he concocted elaborate promotional stunts to pack his theaters.
Castles gimmicks were both outrageous and brilliant. In The Tingler (1959), a bizarre tale about an insect-like creature that attaches itself to the spinal cord, Castle unveiled Percepto! an oversized joy buzzer wired to the seats that jolted audiences during suspenseful moments. For 13 Ghosts (1960) he unveiled Illusion-O! a special bifocal handheld viewer that would reveal or hide the ghosts on screen, depending on the viewers courage level. For 1961s Homicidal (a cheapo rip-off of Hitchcocks Psycho) Castle concocted a 60-second Fright Break, for anyone who couldnt take the terror and needed to leave the theater. He offered to refund the price of admission ... but only after the audience members walked the Yellow Streak down the theaters center aisle and sat in the Cowards Corner, as a recorded announcement mocked, Look at the coward!
Copying Hitchcocks wry introductions on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Castle appeared in pre-title sequences and advertisements for his films. Smoking five-dollar cigars and smirking like a naughty schoolboy, he made bad puns about his latest work of genius. In the mid-60s, the producer capitalized on Joan Crawfords stalled film career to cast her in shockers like Strait-Jacket and I Saw What You Did. The audiences came in droves.
Ironically, the producer was responsible for bringing to life one of cinemas true horror masterpieces. As his career was winding down, Castle secured the rights to Ira Levins novel, Rosemarys Baby. Realizing he wasnt suited to direct the film himself, he recruited a young Roman Polanski. It appeared to be a poetic coda to an otherwise low-rent career. True to his nature, however, Castles last film was the horror-comedy Bug, a 1975 film about a plague of fire-starting insects in Riverside, California. The press made a big deal about the million-dollar cockroach insurance policy for the films star, a cockroach named Hercules.
Though often referred to as a schlockmeister, Castles movies werent really that bad. Sure, the sets were rinky-dink and Vincent Price couldnt look more bored if he tried in The House on Haunted Hill (1959), but most of the films are good campy fun and, occasionally as with Homicidal or Strait-Jacket deliver unexpectedly creepy moments.
In celebration of Halloween, The Detroit Film Theatre has put together a triple feature of Castles early hits including original gimmicks. The theater has actually gone to the trouble to produce reproductions of the original Illision-O! viewer, which will be distributed to the audience. There will be a fright break, and a nurse will be on hand to check your blood pressure and distribute certificates of cowardice. And, this is a perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime chance to revisit the amazing technology of Emergo! if you want to know what that entails, youll just have to show up. If youre not too scared.
Homicidal, 13 Ghosts and The House on Haunted Hill will show at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 p.m. Friday-Saturday, Oct. 28-29, and at 5 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 30.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].