Schlock therapy

DFT resurrects William Castles’ retro-shock gimmicks

Oct 26, 2005 at 12:00 am

The legend goes like this: In 1939 a young William Castle anxiously awaited reviews for the Broadway play he’d 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” he’d 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 Lloyd’s 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.

Castle’s 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 viewer’s courage level. For 1961’s Homicidal (a cheapo rip-off of Hitchcock’s Psycho) Castle concocted a 60-second “Fright Break,” for anyone who couldn’t 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 theater’s center aisle and sat in the “Coward’s Corner,” as a recorded announcement mocked, “Look at the coward!”

Copying Hitchcock’s 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 Crawford’s 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 cinema’s true horror masterpieces. As his career was winding down, Castle secured the rights to Ira Levin’s novel, Rosemary’s Baby. Realizing he wasn’t 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, Castle’s 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 film’s star, a cockroach named Hercules.

Though often referred to as a schlockmeister, Castle’s movies weren’t really that bad. Sure, the sets were rinky-dink and Vincent Price couldn’t 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 Castle’s 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, you’ll just have to show up. If you’re 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].