Director William Castle, king of the gimmick, gets a retrospective
Producer-director William Castle was something of a P.T. Barnum.
The master showman took out an insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London for his 1958 thriller “Macabre,” supposedly just in case anyone died of fright during the film. He created an even more elaborate gimmick for his 1959 classic, “House on Haunted Hill”: Emergo, a skeleton that flew across the audience. For another 1959 chiller, “The Tingler,” frightened audiences encountered Percepto, buzzers placed under theater chairs that would go off at the creepiest moments.
FOR THE RECORD
5:36 p.m.: An earlier version of this post said Bill Hader would introduce the double bill of “The Tingler” and “Hollywood Story” to open the William Castle film series. He will not.
Castle was the sardonically witty star of his movie trailers and would even up pop up in his films just like his friendly rival, Alfred Hitchcock.
Despite the popularity of his B movies, Castle craved respect from his peers. “He always wanted to elevate himself,” said Jeffrey Schwarz, producer-director of the 2007 documentary “Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story.”
“He was a very talented filmmaker, but he felt kind of trapped in that genre. He wasn’t able to prove he was a great director.”
Castle almost got his chance when he bought the rights to novelist Ira Levin’s “Rosemary’s Baby.” Though Castle produced the 1968 horror classic -- and has a memorable cameo -- Paramount gave the directing job to Roman Polanski. Noted his daughter Terry Castle: “We used to sit around our dining room table at night and instead of saying grace, my father would practice his Academy Award acceptance speech.”
Castle, who died in 1977 at the age of 63, never got to give an Oscar acceptance speech. But he is getting a centennial tribute from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, “Let There Be Fright: William Castle Scare Classics,” on Friday evenings throughout the month at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Bing Theater.
The opening double bill includes “The Tingler,” starring Vincent Price, and “Hollywood Story,” a 1951 film noir Castle made while at Columbia University.
Director Joe Dante, whose 1993 film “Matinee” was a homage to Castle, will introduce “House on Haunted Hill”, with Price, and the 1960 film “13 Ghosts.”
Other films in the festival include 1961’s “Mr. Sardonicus”; 1964’s “The Night Walker,” with Barbara Stanwyck and her ex-husband Robert Taylor; 1964’s “Strait-Jacket,” with Joan Crawford; and 1961’s “Homicidal.”
“He would have been amazed,” said his daughter about the retrospective.
Bernardo Rondeau, the academy’s director of programming, said Castle’s films bordered on the avant-garde.
“He’s a filmmaker working in multiple mediums,” Rondeau said. “He’s breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience directly sometimes within the film itself.”
Castle, he noted, created ways for the film experience to live “beyond the screening room, like the Coward’s Corner in the lobby, or you would take home the Illusion-O glasses,” a reference to eyewear the audience used to see the spirits in “13 Ghosts.”
The retrospective features many of the iconic trailers from his films culled from the Academy Film Archive.
“We are also going to have throughout the series what we call ‘ghoulish giveaways and frightful freebies,’” Rondeau said.
Castle had been a contract director at Columbia under Harry Cohn, churning out film noirs, thrillers, westerns and costume melodramas.
“It was a training ground,” Schwarz said. “He learned by doing. But he hadn’t broken out [as a director]. He wanted his independence. When you were a contract director, you couldn’t choose what you want to direct.”
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s classic groundbreaking 1955 French thriller, “Diabolique,” changed his career path.
“I think he saw the lines around the block for ‘Diabolique,’” Terry Castle said. Added Schwarz: “And the success other people were having in the genre. He thought, ‘Maybe this is something I can do. I can control it.’”
He mortgaged his house, which he would continue to do throughout his career, to make “Macabre.” And because his personal finances were on the line, Castle had to make sure the film was a success.
“I always say he came up with the gimmick because he was terrified nobody would go see his films,” Terry Castle said. “Once he did the insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London and insured moviegoers from death by fright, his movies became a bigger experience.”
Added Schwarz: “It got people talking and became a sensation. The movies are a lot of fun, and the gimmicks are so outrageous. The people who grew up on them still remember the experience.”
‘Let There Be Fright: William Castle Scare Classics’
Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Bing Theater, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays through Sept. 26
Tickets: $3 to $5
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