The Horror (and Comedy) of William Castle
Continuing on with this month’s contributions to our horror exloration, a look at the films of William Castle. Castle had been a director at Columbia since 1943, but though he’d made dozens of movies in all genres during this early phase, it wasn’t until he hung out his shingle as producer/director, conceiving his productions from soup to nuts, that he would make his mark in the horror field. A campy mark, but a mark nonetheless.
Castle’s first outing as a horror impresario. An inkling of how he gets off on a characteristic foot: nothing depicted on that poster above actually happens in the movie. But rest assured there’s a gimmick – – Castle claimed to have insured the picture to pay out in case any audience members died of fright. And the plot too was a typical gimmick. A doctor’s little daughter has been kidnapped and buried alive. She’ll suffocate unless he finds her in five hours. And then he proceeds to waste a LOT of time looking up blind alleys. To give you some idea of the tone of the film: JIM BACKUS plays a menacing sheriff. In years to come Castle’s films would become more enjoyable as he truly went off the deep end of gimmickry. This one falls more in the “suspense” genre — but it’s still a good time.
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Vincent Price stars in this delectable Castle vehicle, with twists and turns that are more than a little incoherent but no less rewarding for all that. Price, his estranged wife, and a motley collection of characters are locked into Price’s mansion for the night — the guests all there under the pretext that they will each receive $10,000 if they can survive past midnight. Along the way we get ghosts, skeletons, shootings, hangings and some hilariously bad melodrama. The film was remade in 1999.
The Tingler (1959)
An unspeakably good Castle feature. Vincent Price as a scientist and county coroner (how convenient) who has a theory so unscientific it may as well have been hatched by a primitive tribesman. He finds that people who died in frightening circumstances often have cracked spines. He deduces from this observation that there is a creature that lives in people’s vertebrae, and that it grows strong when a person is tense with fear. Such “fear tensions” can only be relieved by screams; when you can’t scream the creature kills you. Castle rigged the seats in the theaters to tingle (a technique he called “Percept-o”), causing random audience members to scream. Great LSD freak-out scene with Price — perhaps the first ever on film!
13 Ghosts (1960)
A poor family movies into an inherited house, only to learn that it comes complete with hidden treasure, a scary maid (played by Margaret Hamilton) and a baker’s dozen of mischievous ghosts. When it was originally released, the ghosts were only visible to the audience with special glasses, a process Castle called “Illusion-O”. Each ghost had a different personality, e.g., a lion tamer, an Italian chef, etc. Threats of violence abound. Meanwhile, whole, all-American lawyer Martin Milner helps the family in whatever way he can. H’m, I wonder what the twist will be? The film was remade with much less charm in 2001.
This is Castle’s none-too-subtle rip-off of Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho, a hit of the previous year. I don’t think I’ll be spoiling too much for you when I say the twist owes much to Psycho too, the evidence is that poster, and the very strange countenance and vocal qualities of the “woman” at the heart of this mystery. If it’s too much for you to stand, the film stops at a certain point to give you a “fright break”.
Mr. Sardonicus (1961)
A period piece! This one is almost like a fairy tale. The titular gentleman (Guy Rolfe) is a deformed, mute baron who lives in a castle. His face was frozen in a death rictus when he exhumed his father’s coffin to retrieve a winning lottery ticket. He browbeats a doctor into curing his condition. But the baron is not a very nice man. The foremost evidence of this is his one-eyed servant Krull (Oskar Homolka) who likes to torture people with leeches. In the end, the audience is given a “punishment poll” by Castle — does Sardonicus deserve to get his cure or not? The alternate happy ending was never filmed.
A harbinger of things to come — in the ’60s Castle developed a rather unfortunate penchant for comedy, usually ones that retained an element of horror or fantasy consonant with his larger body of work. Oddly, however, his non-comic films tend to be funnier than his comedies. In Zotz! a professor (Tom Poston) discovers a ring that has the power to hurt people or change their behavior. The title of the film is the magical word that allows the charm to happen. Soon governments are squabbling over access to the ring. I find the film too dull and gentle to be funny. The most notable thing about it is its cast, which includes Jim Backus as a rival professor, Fred Clark as an army general, and Margaret Dumont in one of her last roles as a dowager.
13 Frightened Girls (1963)
Generally conceded to be the worst William Castle film, although there is some stiff competition. Essentially a children’s movie with jarring Cold War overtones. Castle hired 13 cute non-actors from all over the world to play the titular girls, and that is a lot of amateur energy to have to sit through. They are all the daughters of diplomats attending a fancy girls school. One of them finds a dead body and becomes a spy! Murray Hamilton plays a secret agent; Hugh Marlowe plays the dad of the heroine.
The Old Dark House (1963)
It sounds promising: a remake of James Whale’s 1932 classic, co-produced by Hammer. But like many of Castle’s films of this period, it falls flat: weak on atmosphere or tension compared with the original until the climax, which is quite original (the hero must diffuse several time bombs all set to go off at the same time). Tom Poston and Robert Morley are notables in the cast.
Castle is back on his game in this one — even unprecedentedly so, with a bigger caliber of star (Joan Crawford) at the center and a script by Robert Bloch, who’d written Psycho. Here Crawford plays an ax murderer who is released from an insane asylum after 20 years and is reunited with her daughter (Diane Baker), a sculptor. Murders start happening again. Is it Crawford? Or someone else…? The film is also notable for having early performances by Lee Majors and George Kennedy.
The Night Walker (1964)
Barbara Stanwyck plays a woman who is the virtual prisoner of her husband, a blind, insanely jealous scientist. She is attracted to his lawyer (played by her real-life ex-husband Robert Taylor) and has endless fantasies about a perfect man billed as “The Dream”. In some of the fantasies she marries him in front of an audience of mannequins! When her husband blows himself up in a lab accident, she begins to enjoy her first measure of freedom for the first time…but that’s not how it ends. This one was also written by Bloch, and is Stanwyck’s last movie (she only did television after this). The Night Walker has long been an unavailable holy grail, both for fans of Stanwyck and of William Castle. I just discovered to my delight that it become available on DVD a few months ago! Can’t wait to see it!
I Saw What You Did (1965)
A classic of sorts, presaging a much bloodier subgenre to follow a decade and more later. Two girls are randomly making phone calls when they unknowingly utter the titular phrase to a man who has just murdered his wife. And he’s gonna come callin’. On the other end of the line, Joan Crawford plays a friend of the deceased who gets pulled into the mystery. The two parallel sides get tied neatly together in the end, if a little implausibly. Was remade in 1988.
Let’s Kill Uncle (1966)
Like most of Castle’s kid-centered films, I found this one a bit tedious. It’s a sort of a riff on The Most Dangerous Game, mixed with James Bond. A 12 year old orphan inherits a fortune, and finds himself trapped on the family island with his uncle, an international spy who tries to kill him with a series of inventive, gimmicky spy-like methods (e.g., a shark in the swimming pool). The boy’s only recourse (aided by a playmate) is to try to kill his uncle right back.
The Busy Body (1967)
Based on a Donald Westlake novel, this one deserves to be a much better movie. The fact that it’s not points right to the most interesting thing about Castle: he was a genius as a producer, but a journeyman at best as a director. He doesn’t have the chops to pull off the movie that this wants to be (he finally came to grips with this limitation a year later when he got Roman Polanski to direct Rosemary’s Baby). The Busy Body is a “Who’s Got the Corpse” farce. Sid Caesar is a nebbishy gangster who is ordered by his boss (Robert Ryan) to retrieve half a million dollars ensconced in a casket with a dead body. The killer cast also includes Anne Baxter, Kay Medford, Bill Dana, Godfrey Cambridge, Jan Murray, Ben Blue, and — in his first film role — Richard Pryor. That should add up to a whizbang comedy…but it doesn’t. He assembled the right team, all but the man behind the camera
The Spirit is Willing (1967)
A proper spook comedy, with another all-star cast. I first saw this one on TV as a kid, probably the first William Castle movie I ever saw. A family moves into a New England house that proves to be haunted by ghosts. (Presaging The Ghost on Mrs. Muir which would premiere on tv the following year). Sid Caesar and Vera Miles are the long suffering parents of the teenaged Barry Gordon (best known as the kid in A Thousand Clowns and, as an adult, one of the stars of Fish). For those in the ghostly know, there is a wonderful poltergeist angle to this set-up. All this mischievous ghostly energy surrounds the adolescent, who gets blamed for all the pranks they pull (a popular theme at the time). The cast of locals is like a catalog of comedy character actors: Cass Daley, Mary Wickes, Jesse White, Mickey Deems, Doodles Weaver, Jay C. Flippen, and John Astin.
Project X (1968)
One of the few I’ve not yet seen. A science fiction yarn set in 2118, it concerns the efforts of scientists to extract information from a spy’s brain relating to a plot by the Chinese to destroy the west, employing a bevy of futuristic inventions. This one marks the end of Castle’s continuous ten year run as both director and producer.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
Ironically Castle’s biggest success of all as producer, and it;s because he allowed a much more brilliant director (Roman Polanski) to shoot it. I’ll write about this film at much greater length elsewhere as it deserves. But it occurred to me the other day though, that despite the much different tone and style, the film does have some Castle touches. The greatest of these, it occurs to me, is the presence in the cast of Ralph Bellamy, Ruth Gordon, Maurice Evans, Patsy Kelly and Sidney Blackmer, none of whom would have been out of place in any earlier Castle picture. And of course, the cameo by Castle himself.
A real enigma and outlier in the Castlean oeuvre. Castle produced but did not direct this exploitation film in which Gene Hackman (in one of his first films) leads a prison riot, and Jim Brown plays a prisoner who tries to diffuse the situation. It’s available on youtube — I look forward to checking it out.
Castle was felled by kidney failure in the late 60s, which necessitated a five year lay off from movie making. He returned to produce and direct this characteristic weirdie which starred Marcel Marceau as a deaf, mute puppeteer who becomes the assistant of a mad scientist who is able to manipulate dead bodies like puppets. When the scientist dies, Marceau carries on his work for malign purposes of his own.
This film is the hilarious proof that the leopard cannot change its spots. Having pulled it together to make Rosemary’s Baby, Castle managed to backslide all the way back to his old ways and then some in Bug. While he didn’t direct this one, he produced and co-wrote the screenplay, which layers gimmick upon gimmick. It is not just a bug movie, a genre which has been considered gross enough as a horror premise on its own, but it’s a bug movie starring COCKROACHES, but they’re not just cockroaches, but they have the mutant ability to start FIRES, and not only does that happen, but then scientist Bradford Dillman experiments on them so they become SENTIENT and can even WRITE WORDS! Further, Castle resurrected his old gimmicky nature and announced that he had INSURED the star cockroach of the film. One thing’s for certain. Castle could take full satisfaction in knowing that his last film was fully characteristic.