Scare-masters; horror times 2
Though William Castle and Val Lewton produced classic horror films -- Castle also directed his thrillers -- their films and personalities couldn’t have been more different.
Castle was a master showman cut from the cloth of P.T. Barnum who came up with amazing gimmicks -- such as taking a Lloyd’s of London life insurance policy out on his audiences -- to attract moviegoers. Lewton was sensitive and morose and stayed in the shadows, but the series of low-budget, atmospheric horror films he produced for RKO in the 1940s continues to influence filmmakers to this day.
Both men are the subjects of new documentaries -- “Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story” and “The Man in the Shadows: Val Lewton” -- premiering Thursday at AFI Fest.
Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, “Spine Tingler” is a lighthearted look at the wizard of ballyhoo who never met a gimmick he didn’t employ. Castle filmed his 1959 camp classic “House on Haunted Hill” in “Emergo,” which was an inflatable skeleton attached to a wire that sailed over the audience. His best-known film, “The Tingler,” also from 1959, was filmed in “Percepto,” which consisted of joy buzzers attached to several seats in the theater. The buzzers would go off heralding that the Tingler creature was loose in the audience.
Schwarz discovered his subject in the early 1980s while reading an article in American Film magazine on Castle written by John Waters. “It was his love letter to his filmmaking idol,” says Schwarz. “I basically became fascinated with this guy who had invented himself. He turned himself into a walking brand name like Hitchcock. He knew how to deliver the goods to the audience.”
Castle even had theories on exactly how many scares there should be in each film. “He got it down to a scientific formula,” Schwarz says. “Just recently the Alex Theatre [in Glendale] did ‘The Tingler’ and they also did ‘House on Haunted Hill,’ and they rigged up the skeleton. The audience was ready to be scared. It’s just so much fun to have the skeleton flying over your head. I feel like a lot of what Castle was doing back in his day has been picked up by amusement parks. Disneyland and Universal -- there is definitely a Castle influence in some of the attractions.”
The showman took it upon himself to meet his fans and would release his films slowly across the country so that he could appear at the openings in the various cities. “He would tailor the ad campaign for each individual town,” says Schwarz.
Still, Castle yearned for the respect of the Hollywood community. He bought the rights to Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby” in hopes of directing it. Though Paramount allowed him to produce the film, Roman Polanski was given the directorial duties.
Castle never managed to make the transition to more mainstream fare, though, and the popularity of his films had begun to wane by the time of his death in 1977 at age 63.
“He died feeling tremendously unsuccessful,” says his daughter Terry Castle. “But it’s remarkable that his legacy has carried on. He didn’t want to be a schlock director, but I think his talent and his brilliance was in his marketing and his actual love of film and people. It wasn’t about the blood and guts, but the laugh after the screaming.”
Still, Castle has had a lasting impact on filmmakers. Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis named their low-budget horror film division, Dark Castle, in his honor. The company has remade several Castle projects, including “House on Haunted Hill.” Joe Dante even made a movie, “Matinee,” inspired by Castle and his shenanigans.
Dante was about 10 years old when he saw his first Castle film, “Macabre.” His films, says Dante, “certainly fed my love for movies in general. He was riding around on Hitchcock’s coattails a little bit, but the evidence seems to be that he enjoyed the hell out of it. In a former life he would have been a carnival showman. He was essentially selling patent medicine, and he seems to have gotten ghoulish glee interacting with the audience.”
Fear and the unknown
Lewton, who was felled by a heart attack at age 46 in 1951, never interacted with his audience. In fact, there isn’t even a recording of his voice. He let his movies speak for themselves.
Filled with shadows, evocative scores and inventive sound design, his horror films -- including “Cat People,” “The Leopard Man,” “I Walk With a Zombie,” “The Body Snatcher” and “Isle of the Dead” -- are poetic examples of fear and the unknown.
Lewton surrounded himself with collaborators he trusted, including director Jacques Tourneur, editors turned directors Mark Robson and Robert Wise and screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen. But it was his own artistic stamp that was on every film.
Like Castle, Lewton yearned to make “A” pictures, and the last few years of his life, he drifted from studio to studio. According to Kent Jones, the writer-director of “The Man in the Shadows,” Lewton died a resentful man. “He was somebody who had expectations that the world was going to behave in a certain way,” says Jones. “And when it didn’t, it really frustrated him and made him quite bitter. I think Lewton just expected more from Hollywood than it could deliver.”
Born in Yalta, Russia, Lewton was always melancholy. “But just how much and in what ways became clear going through his letters,” says Jones. “We had a lot of access to letters thanks to his son. [As] someone puts it in the documentary, he always needed an enemy, which is not an uncommon thing, but he always found himself at war with everybody [at the studios].”
Making the film, which was produced and narrated by Lewton champion Martin Scorsese, Jones discovered that “the more you see the films, the less scary they become. The more they become something else -- you are watching something very poetic that’s a gateway to something deep, more mysterious and more troubling.”