Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story (2007) Jeffrey Schwarz

The first film I ever saw of William Castle’s was “13 Ghosts” back in 1960 at a local theater in Brooklyn called The Culver. Audience members were given viewers containing both a red filter and a blue filter that you would look through depending on if you wanted to see the ghosts or not after being prompted to do so by the movie. While it worked, the entire idea was not exactly state of the art special effects, even for 1960. But it was fun and “Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story” is even more fun and filled with memories, interviews and plenty of footage from Castle’s classic “B” filmography. For younger viewers and the uninitiated, terms like “Illusion-O,” “Percepto” and “Emergo” will be new but don’t worry it’s all engagingly explained.

Those familiar with only Castle’s horror films may be surprised to discover his earlier films and his association with Orson Welles. He was a second unit director for “The Lady from Shanghai.” Castle had purchased the screen rights to “If I Should Die Before I Wake” by Sherwood King, the source novel the film was based on,  and asked Welles to pitch the story to Harry Cohn of Columbia with the idea Castle himself would direct. It didn’t work out that way though with Cohn deciding to go with Welles directing. Continue reading

Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Roman Polanski

Spoiler Alert!

Ira Levin’s novel “Rosemary’s Baby” was a major best seller back in 1967 and became an extraordinarily popular movie by Roman Polanski in 1968. Read the book and see the movie, they were interchangeable at dinner conversations. Like most products that become a phenomena, timing and luck play an important role in its success. Levin’s novel struck some kind of cord with the public that was hungry for something dark. Also, in the mid 1960’s there was the  “God is Dead” faction, a theological movement that surfaced in some academic circles and became a national controversy after a cover story in Time magazine.

Low budget horror producer/director William Castle brought the novel to the attention of Robert Evans at Paramount who purchased the film rights for Castle with the understanding that he would produce the film but not direct. Evans wanted a class production and Castle was known for his artless low level though entertaining productions like “House on Haunted Hill”, “The Tingler”, “Macabre” and “Homicidal.” According to Christopher Sandford in “Polanski” his biography of the director, Castle wanted to film “Rosemary’s Baby” in the “Illusion-O 3-D” process he pioneered in the 1950’s and have Vincent Price star (by the way look for Castle’s cameo appearance standing outside a phone booth when Rosemary is desparately calling a doctor for help). Evans instead presented the novel’s proofs to Roman Polanski a director he admired for his work in “Knife in the Water” and “Repulsion.” Polanski would write the screenplay sticking closely to the novel.

Polanski opens the film with a long panning shot of the New York City skyline settling on the foreboding Bramford Apartments (The Dakota). Like D.W. Griffith pioneered in so many of his films Polanski will close the film with a reverse panning shot moving away from the Bramford across the City skyline. The plot is a woman’s living hell, literally and figuratively. Rosemary’s world quickly turns into a nightmarish downward free fall. After moving into a new apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan called The Bramford (in reality The Dakota) with her unemployed actor husband Guy, they set out to start a family and have a baby. The bright sunny atmosphere soon darkens as their elderly new neighbors, the Castevet’s take an interest in the Woodhouse’s. Guy’s struggling acting career suddenly begins to get some breaks when a rival actor for a part in a play mysteriously goes blind (Tony Curtis, his voice heard only on the phone). Odd noises are heard in the Castevet’s apartment next door, and a young tenant Rosemary becomes friendly with  unexpectedly commits suicide.

Rosemary is impregnated after a hallucinatory nightmarish dream, raped by the devil aboard JFK’s yacht. Some weeks later Rosemary, pregnant and under the care of Dr. Saperstein (Ralph Bellamy) a demonic obstetrician who despite her losing weight, abdominal pain and cravings for raw meat tells her that there is nothing wrong. Rosemary’s suspicions grow but it is too little too late, she is soon in labor. When she awakens she is told the baby died. Days later she hears a baby crying next door. Soon Rosemary will come face to face with a coven of devil worshippers praying to a new born child, her child, the son of Satan. They urge her to come see the baby, a mother’s instinct wins out as the film ends with Rosemary rocking the cradle.

“Rosemary’s Baby” is a great horror film for anyone, but it can also be read as a feminist woman’s nightmare, after all it is her career struggling husband who arranges to have her impregnated by the devil and then forcing her to be left in the hands of a demon doctor and strange neighbors, all to advance his career.  The fear of rape, an unwanted pregnancy, and the fear of an abnormal deformed childbirth are also filtered in. Rosemary becomes isolated, trapped with no family or friends to confide in or help her. Her husband who should be her most trusted ally is in on the dark plan. Unlike most horror films that build up to a fright and relieve the tension before starting again, Polanski continuously builds the tension never letting the pressure  loosen for one second.

Though Polanski did not consider “Rosemary’s Baby” a personal film but more as a gateway into Hollywood, he did find themes or motifs that he could relate to, alienation, paranoia (Repulsion, Knife in the Water, The Tennant), apartments as a refuge from outside dangers (The Tennant, The Pianist, Repulsion), sexuality (Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Chinatown, The Tennant) and isolation (Frantic, Cul-de-Sac, Repulsion, The Tennant). Black humor is also a common thread in much of Polanski’s work (Cul-de-Sac, Chinatown, The Fearless Vampire Killers) here clearly demonstrated in the parody of the birth of Christ (most likely the scenes for why the film was condemned by the Catholic Church). Also in the “Is God Dead” Time magazine cover Rosemary browses at in the doctor’s office.

Polanski at first wanted a more full-bodied woman than the elfish Mia Farrow for the role of Rosemary, Jane Fonda, Tuesday Weld were names that came into play. Farrow whose claims to fame were the success of the TV show “Peyton Place” and her marriage to Frank Sinatra instead got the job. It was a fortunate choice. Her waif like little girl innocent look, part of which came naturally and part the way Polanski dressed her up contributes enormously, offsetting the dark mood that surrounds her throughout the film. Interesting enough Polanski’s slow meticulous work habits caused the film to over run its shooting schedule. Farrow was supposed to begin work on husband Sinatra’s new film “The Detective” right after finishing “Rosemary’s Baby.” When the film over ran its schedule conflicting with Mia moving on to “The Detective”, Sinatra demanded she walk off the Rosemary set which she refused to do. Their marriage ended soon after. Jacqueline Bisset replaced Mia in the Sinatra film.

John Cassavetes was not the best choice for the role of Guy Woodhouse, not that he is bad, he is an interesting actor and has an obvious demonic look in some scenes, maybe just a little too obvious. Possibly an actor with a more innocent though egotistical look would have fit the part better. The supporting cast is fine, Ralph Bellamy is perfectly devilish at Dr. Saperstein and Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer as the next door neighbors look as kindly crazy as they do scary. Elisha Cook Jr. has a small part as does former Playboy Playmate of the Year (1968), Angel Dorian who plays the neighbor Terry Gionoffiro who meets an untimely suicidal death. There is an inside joke with Dorian in one scene where Rosemary tells her she looks like the actress Victoria Vetri, Dorian’s real name which she eventually went back to when she made “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth.”

“Rosemary’s Baby” was greeted with mostly rave reviews and a large public willing to wait in long lines at theaters to see the new born child. “Pray for Rosemary’s Baby” became a common chant. The film was part of the New Hollywood that began to emerge in 1967 with “The Graduate” and “Bonnie and Clyde”, the youth audience had discovered the film. “Rosemary’s Baby” became another notch on the belt that killed the production code with its nudity and triumph of evil over goodness.

The film also ignited the popularity of horror films with satanic or occult themes. It is questionable as to whether films like “The Exorcist”, “The Omen”, “Don’t Look Now”, “The Other” and many other lesser rip offs would have made it to the screen if not for the monumental success of Ira Levin’s book and the Polanski film.

The 1980 death of John Lennon in front of The Dakota subconsciously now adds another level of eerie darkness to the scenes that take place early in the film in front of the infamous gothic building.

****1/2

William Castle

Only as a producer did William Castle ever make a truly great horror movie.  That was because he had the fortunate luck or the insight to have a great horror novel as the foundation and a master of the macabre as the screenwriter and director.  The film, of course, was “Rosemary’s Baby,” directed by Roman Polanski from Ira Levin’s best selling book.  If “Psycho” ushered in the era of the modern day horror films, “Rosemary’s Baby” gave the genre a more sophisticated acceptance than previously existed, at least for a few short years.

    Now, I am not here to damn William Castle but to praise him.  Yes, his works are mired with dull direction; bad acting and certainly some of the scripts could have or should have been better. But, surprisingly, films like “Macabre,” “The Night Walker,” “The Tingler”, House on Haunted Hill”, “13 Ghosts”, “Strait-Jacket”,  and “Homicidal” hold up today better than expected.  The “Night Walker”, with a script by Robert Bloch, and an excellent cast headed by Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor is certainly still a terrific thriller, as is “Strait Jacket,” again scripted by the talented Robert Bloch. This film starred Joan Crawford and Diane Baker.  Certainly, the casting of these excellent actors was an advantage, which enhanced both of these films. In Matthew Kennedy’s new biography Joan Blondell: A Life Between Acts” Kennedy tells the story that Blondell was all set to play the role eventually portrayed by Crawford until either Crawford assumed the role was hers after talking with Castle at a social gathering or Blondell bowed out due to illness depending on which story is to be believed. Either way it sounds pretty enticing the thought of Joan B. in the role of the psychotic mother. Then there is “The Tingler” and “Homicidal” both still strange and scary enough to send shivers down your spine. The test of time has made William Castle’s work more appreciable.  Known best for his publicity  gimmicks, such as “Illusion O”, where in “13 Ghosts,”  filmgoers were given special glasses upon admission, giving them the choice of whether view the ghosts by wearing the glasses, or not.  With “The Tingler” the gimmick was called “Percepto” which was nothing more than electric buzzers attached to selected seats in the movie house designed send a few shock waves giving the person sitting in the seat a slight tingle.  Can you imagine doing a stunt like this today? Lawsuits would be filed quicker than a 95 mile an hour fastball! Then there was “Macabre” where Castle sold policies, insuring the filmgoer against dying of fright!  As an aside, all this is lovingly portrayed in Joe Dante’s affectionate look at schlock movie making in “Matinee.” (1993)  John Goodman stars, playing a character obviously inspired by William Castle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

              In most cases, Castle’s films have been dumped upon by critics, yet teenage audiences and quiet a few adults of the late fifties and early sixties loved these films. It would probably be politically incorrect to make some of these films today. “Macabre” with its story of a young child being buried alive would be too frighteningly real today.  Like all films, they are a product of their times. 

    Many of Castle’s films are more fun and thrilling to watch than the majority of the blood and gore stuff that is released as horror today. Unfortunately, only a few of  Castle’s films have been made available for home video, “Strait-Jacket”, House on Haunted Hill,” “13 Ghosts” and “The Tingler” with its original color sequence in tact. “The Night Walker” was released years ago in VHS but sadly has yet to see a DVD release. If you are resourceful enough you can find some of the others through private collectors willing to trade barter or sell. In 2007, a documentary on William Castle was released called “Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story.” The film had a limited release and as of now, there is no scheduled DVD release. Also worth seeking out are the trailers,   you know those “Coming Attractions,” of William Castle’s movies, some of the most entertaining ever done, this side of Hitchcock.  Also worth seeking out is his autobiography “Step Right Up! I’m Going to Scare the Pants Off America.”