His promotion skills were scary
William Castle the filmmaker was at best a prolific schlockmeister, a B-movie journeyman with a flair for enjoyably cheesy knock-offs. But William Castle the promoter was some kind of genius, a lo-fi forefather of the modern blockbuster who understood that the best way to sell a movie was to turn it into an event.
Even today -- especially today, perhaps, with the nature of marketing evolving more rapidly than ever -- his influence lingers. A sneaky Castle-worthy viral campaign compelling fans to “demand” its presence in their towns has transformed “Paranormal Activity” from a sleeper indie into a grassroots hit.
And those stories proliferating on blogs and Twitter about medical emergencies at early screenings of Lars von Trier’s “Antichrist” -- a viewer reportedly suffered a panic attack at the New York Film Festival, someone vomited in Toronto, a few fainted in Cannes -- call to mind Castle’s gimmick for 1958’s “Macabre”: Viewers were insured against “death by fright” and real-life nurses were stationed in theaters.
Castle made “Macabre” after leaving the studio fold, in an effort to turn himself into a Hitchcock-like brand name. For the follow-up, “House on Haunted Hill” (1959), starring Vincent Price and also independently produced, he went further, introducing a newfangled “process” that he termed Emergo, which would bring the ghouls off the screen and into the theater -- i.e., plastic skeletons would dangle from the ceiling.
Sony’s new William Castle Film Collection ($80.95, out Tuesday) brings together eight movies that Castle made after returning to Columbia, along with a 2007 feature-length documentary, “Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story.”
The ‘50s were the age of the movie gimmick, with Hollywood rushing to implement such technologies as 3-D, Cinerama and CinemaScope in a frantic bid to reclaim viewers lost to the new wonders of television. But while these sensory enhancements were expensive, complicated innovations, Castle’s come-ons, which often amounted to a literal and primitive form of interactive cinema, had a charming bargain-basement quality.
For “The Tingler” (1959), in which Price plays a scientist researching the constricting effects of fear on the spinal column, Castle unveiled his nerviest stunt: a technique called Percepto that administered physical shocks to viewers -- or at least, the lucky ones who found themselves in seats that had been rigged with vibrators. The movie opened with Castle addressing the audience, warning them that “unfortunate sensitive people” would experience “a strange tingling sensation.”
“A scream at the right time may save your life!” he advised. “The Tingler” is also notable for an early demonstration of the effects of LSD, courtesy of a gamely over-the-top Price.
Viewers of “13 Ghosts” (1960), a routine haunted-house story, were given supernatural “goggles” made of cardboard and colored cellophane. They were told to look through the red filter if they believed in ghosts, and the blue filter if they didn’t. “Homicidal” (1961), a vigorous “Psycho” retread, complete with shock stabbings and kinky cross-dressing, offered the audience a 45-second “fright break” just before the climax.
Gaspar Noe’s neo-exploitation art flick “I Stand Alone” used the same trick nearly 40 years later.
“Mr. Sardonicus” (1961), whose protagonist’s face is frozen into a ghastly grin after an encounter with a corpse, culminates in a “punishment poll,” creating the illusion of a viewers'-choice ending when in fact only one existed.
The best of the non-gimmick films here -- unless you count the casting of Joan Crawford as a gimmick -- “Strait-Jacket” (1964) was Castle’s version of a prestige picture, evidently inspired by the earlier aging-diva showdown “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” He hired “Psycho” writer Robert Bloch and got Crawford to play an ax murderess. She obliges brilliantly, keeping a deadly straight face through the messy histrionics.
Castle, who went on to produce “Rosemary’s Baby,” is still remembered as a great showman and huckster. But those labels fail to convey the basic generosity and childlike innocence of his outlook. It’s true that he was always thinking up a sales pitch, but beyond that, he was a wide-eyed entertainer who believed that movies did not simply begin and end on the screen, and that the filmgoing experience was above all a communal one.