Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story (2007)

Famous (or infamous) for his unique marketing style, William Castle was a successful B-Movie director in the 1950s and 60s.  This bio-pic tells the story of his career from doing odd-jobs in a Broadway theater to producing a major Hollywood film (Rosemary's Baby).

Although the B-movie films he directed are not the worst examples of the genre (some are reported to be quite good), they have achieved fame as a result of the publicity stunts Castle used to promote them.  Initially, these were relatively tame - hiring nurses to revive any patrons who fainted during the film (accompanied by planting an actress in the audience to pretend to faint); taking out a real insurance policy with Lloyd's of London, insuring the lives of the audience against dying of fright; and hiring a hearse, complete with coffin, to standby outside the cinema "just in case".  It is arguably these stunts that have led people to compare William Castle to famous American showman, P.T. Barnum.  Both became famous through what might now be considered deceptive advertising - Barnum advertised a "mermaid" with a picture of a beautiful merwoman, while the reality was probably a taxidermy chimera of a monkey and a fish.
Fig 1.  Advertising Poster for Feejee Mermaid (Charleston Courier)
Fig 2.  Engraving of Actual Feejee Mermaid
William Castle continued this tradition of using advertising posters that bear little relationship to the film they are promoting (a technique embraced by many B-movies since), but his big contribution to the technique was the use of a "gimmick", which is featured prominently on the posters and other advertising for the films (a technique that doesn't seem to have died yet - see the recent trend in 3D films), in effect turning the "gimmmick" into one of the stars of the film.  Each new film brought a new gimmick, and it was his series of more technical gimmicks (all with names ending in "O") that he is best remembered for -"Emergo", an improvement upon the contemporary craze for 3D, in which objects not only seemed to come out of the screen at the audience, but actually left the screen and moved around the cinema over the audiences heads (in fact, just an inflatable skeleton on a wire than moved slowly over the audience); "Percepto", where certain seats in the cinema were fitted with mechanisms to make them vibrate in order to make the audience jump (and idealy, scream); and "Illusion-o", a modified version of red/cyan anaglyph glasses (dubbed a "Ghost Viewer") which enabled the audience to decide whether they wanted to see the special effect "ghosts" or not.
Fig 3.  Ghost Viewer
As his gimmicks were more complicated than the contemporary anaglyph 3D systems, William Castle added short introductions to his films, in which he explained not only how the gimmick worked, but also "set the scene" for the film itself, often hyping it well beyond what it actually delivered.  Through these introductions, Castle became well known to his target market (roughly speaking, pre-teens) and ended up as big a star of his films as the actual cast (hence the words "A William Castle Production" featuring prominently on the posters); this was helped by his very "hands on" marketing style, in which he would travel around the country as his film opened in different towns, personally drumming up audiences.

William Castle - Introduction to "The Tingler"

This personal showmanship is another parallel to PT Barnum, who also managed to turn his name into a synonym for a particular type of spectacle, where everyone knew that the publicity was better than the reality (indeed, in Barnums case, it was often basically a fraud) but the audience actually enjoyed being fooled, and would often go back for more.  In Castle's case, this was helped by his understanding of what attracted his audience to his films - he believed that people went to see horror films to be entertained first, rather than scared.  As a result, his films are often described by modern critics as "camp" and "silly", but this is perhaps more a reflection on changes in the cinema-going public than the talents of Castle.  However, there is no denying that as audiences became more jaded and cynical, the market for Castle's more "tame" films dryed up - his gimmicks could not compete with increasingly sophisticated special effects, especially as they always reminded the audience that what they were watching was a film (this could perhaps be compared to the rivalry in theatre between Brechtian theatre [which always seeks to remind the audience that what they are watching is a play] and Stanislavskian theatre [which emphasises realism and immersion, famous for its use of method acting]).

Perhaps the tragedy of William Castle is that the gimmicks became more memorable than the films; ask people what they loved about his films when they were younger, and the first answer will almost invariably be "the gimmicks!".  As a result, the critics almost always dismissed his work as second rate or derivitive - indeed, they dismissed him as a sort of low-budget Hitchcock, even though his film Homicidal was arguably better than Psycho (Time magazine, cited in Legends of Horror) (and Hitchcock's insistence that "no one shall be admitted to Psycho after the film has started has definite echoes of a Castle gimmick).  However, there is an argument that he was in fact ahead of his time - compare the moment in The Tingler where the monster supposedly kills the projectionist, then it's shadow crawls across a blank screen, to the scene in Gremlins 2 where the gremlins "take over" the film; or compare Sin City to the following scene (also from The Tingler).

"the tingler"
List of Illustrations

Figure 1.  Advertisement for the Feejee Mermaid from the Charleston Courier, January 1843 At: museumofhoaxes.com (accessed on 24/10/2011)

Figure 2.  The Feejee Mermaid, as depicted in Barnum's autobiography  At: museumofhoaxes.com (accessed on 24/10/2011

Figure 3.  Ghost Viewer At: http://monstersandmoviestars.blogspot.com/2011/10/31-days-13-ghosts-1960.html (Accessed on 25/10/2011)


William Castle - Introduction to "The Tingler" (2007) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7FQm30eQn7I (Accessed on 25/10/2011)

"the tingler" (2010) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LbB0b5grNLg (Accessed on 25/10/2011)

Automat Pictures (2007) Spine Tingler!: The William Castle Story (official site) http://www.spinetinglermovie.com/ (Accessed on 25/10/2011)

Vasquez jr, F (2010) Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story http://www.cinema-crazed.com/hallow_horror/spinetingler.htm (Accessed on 25/10/2011)

Zimmerman, S (2005) Legends of Horror - William Castle http://www.legendsofhorror.org/pages/castle.html (Accessed on 25/10/2011)

1 comment:

  1. Nice enthusiastic review, Dan - but is there any critical evidence to suggest that Homicidal is 'better' than Psycho - i.e. a quote or POV from a reviewer who puts this case? It's a delectable proposition - but is there proof?