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.
Castle’s first feature was a Boston Blackie film called “The Chance of a Lifetime.” He also directed four in the series of The Whistler films as well as a few Crime Doctor films along with many others in various genres. But Castle found his niche in the horror genre in 1958 with “Macabre.” Castle also figured out how to grab a targeted audience, pre-teens and teens, with various gimmicks that included a $1,000 insurance policy from Lloyds of London in case you died of fright during the movie. There were also nurses standing by in the theaters lobbies ‘just in case.’ For his 1959 film, “The Tingler,” with Vincent Price, every theater had seats rigged with a gadget that would give a slight buzz to whoever was sitting in the seat. “The Tingler,” by the way, is the first film to depict a LSD acid trip.
Those interviewed include John Landis, John Badam, Roger Corman, Forest Ackerman and Joe Dante whose own 1993 film, “Matinee” is a fictional loving tribute to Castle and his era focusing on the period during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Landis and Dante who grew up with Castle’s film seem to be having a blast recalling their childhood experiences.
Director Jeffrey Schwarz while focusing on Castle’s professional life does give us some background on the man’s private life including interviews with his daughter Terry Castle. William Castle worked for one of the most despicable men in Hollywood, Columbia honcho Harry Cohn, yet he did not let Cohn’s unsavory reputation rub off on him. From all accounts, including daughter Terry, Castle remained a good family man. Any demons he may have possessed were only exposed on the screen.
There is also get a segment on Hitchcock and the competitiveness Castle felt toward the master of suspense. After all, Hitchcock made “A” films while Castle never managed to move out of the B film category. When Hitchcock made “Psycho” in 1960 and possibly “borrowed” some of Castle’s ballyhoo and hype flair, Castle countered with “Homicidal” in 1961, a gender twisting horror film that surprising made Time magazine’s list of best films of the year. Ever the showman, Castle incorporated a ‘Fright Break’ just before the film’s final sequence, which gave audience members the chance to leave the theater before the film’s horrifying conclusion. They were even given the opportunity to be given their money back.
In the late 1960’s, Castle believed he would finally have the opportunity to direct a Grade A production when he purchased the screen rights to Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby.” Unfortunately for Castle, it was denied when Robert Evans, then head of Paramount, wanted Europe’s current sensation, Roman Polanski to direct. Castle settled for a producer’s credit, a bit part in the film and a percentage of the film’s profits.
William Castle never directed a great film but he made quite a few that were a lot of fun to watch and still are. “Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story” won the audience award for Best Documentary at the 2007 AFI Film Festival.