William Castle: Grandmaster of Exploitation Cinema

From The Grindhouse Cinema Database

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For those of us who love B-movies and cult cinema the name William Castle (1914-1977) will conjur up thoughts of all kinds of creepy creatures and wild promotional campaigns that rivaled other famous film showmen of his day like Alfred Hitchcock. Castle may have been known primarily as the producer/director of his outrageous ouvre but when all was said and done he was really the star of them too because of his engaging, boisterous persona and intriguing methods of entertaining audiences.

William Castle was born William Schloss Jr. in New York City. After being orphaned at the young age of 13 he met the already legendary actor Bela Lugosi one day following a stage play of Dracula. It was here that Castle first realized he wanted to work in show business. A few years later, due to Castle's persistance, Lugosi recommended him for a position of an assistant stage manager on the national tour of the play. An already ambitious Castle decided to drop out of high school to take the job. Following this initial adventure he got several jobs on Broadway doing things such as building sets and acting in bit parts. After moving out to Hollywood at age 23, Castle went to work for Harry Cohn at Columbia Pictures. With Cohn as his mentor he learned many important secrets of the booming film business. Castle got his first work as an actual director on low budget B-films like The Chance of a Lifetime (1943) as well as four movies in the popular The Whistler series. He later was hired on Orson Welles' film noir The Lady from Shanghai (1947) as a second unit location scout.

From the late 50s through to the 70s, William Castle directed and produced a variety of low budget genre films (mostly horror/thrillers and science fiction) that became cult classics due to their inherant schlocky qualities but more prominently because of the various promotional gimmicks that were used to shock and thrill audiences. Castle set the mark as a one of a kind Film Showman and grabbed the attention of moviegoers across the country through his ambitious multimedia marketing campaigns that really were a form of entertainment all their own.

The following is a list of some of our favorite titles in William Castle's exploitation film catalog:

Macabre (1958)

The young daughter of Dr. Rodney Barrett (William Prince) is kidnapped by a maniac who proceeds to bury her in a coffin. The good doctor is then given five hours to find its location before the oxygen supply runs out. Barrett gets his family and friends to help him in the frantic search as various red herrings are set up to confuse them and the viewer. Castle employed a method he called "barnstorming" which involved following the film to different markets and promoting it along the way. Castle arrived at the premiere by emerging from a coffin; at a Minneapolis theater he also sealed himself in a coffin like the kidnapped child of the story. The promotions proved successful and Macabre grossed as much as $5 million.

  • TRIVIA: During its initial theatrical release, attendees were given a small badge that said, "I'm no chicken. I saw Macabre.
  • GIMMICK: A certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyd's of London was given to audience members in case he/she should die of fright. Some showings had ushers dressed as surgeons with an ambulance parked outside theaters.
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House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Vincent Price plays millionaire Frederick Loren. He and his wife Annabelle invite five people over for a little "haunted house" party. The main rule being whoever stays one night will earn $10,000 as a prize. As the night progresses, all the guests are trapped inside with a myriad of scary ghosts and other freakish frights. While exterior shots of the house were filmed at the historic Frank Lloyd Wright-designed 1924 Ennis House in Los Feliz, California, the bulk of the film was shot on sound stages, depicting the interior of the house in a combination of styles, including 1890s Victorian, with gas chandeliers and sconces. The poster for the film included an illustration of a house in yet a third style, that of a fanciful four-story Romanesque structure.

  • TRIVIA: The large grosses for this film were noticed by Alfred Hitchcock. This led him to create his own low-budget horror film - Psycho.
  • GIMMICK: Emergo - An inflatable glow-in-the-dark skeleton that would fly over the audience during certain scenes.
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The Tingler (1959)

A pathologist, Dr. Warren Chapin (Vincent Price) discovers a parasite in humans which feeds on fear that he names the "Tingler". The creature gets its name by making the spine of its host "tingle" when they are frightened. To make things worse, the more scared the host gets, the larger it grows. Robb White, the story author, said he was inspired to write The Tingler after seeing one of the rubber worms that makeup artist Dusick designed for House on Haunted Hill. There are, however, no rubber worms in House on Haunted Hill. In an interview Robb White said this movie was partly inspired by his encounter with a centipede while living in the British Virgin Islands. One of Castle's most famous cult classics and in our Top 3 favorites of his work. Bloody Bathtub: The film was shot in black and white but Castle also added one scene with color in which blood flows from a sink's water tap and a hand comes out of a bathtub filled with bright red blood.

  • TRIVIA: The Tingler is a large scale model of velvet worm, also called peripatus.
  • GIMMICK: Percepto - Castle purchased military airplane wing de-icers for their vibrating motors and had a crew install them under some of the theater seats. The devices were activated when Vincent Price tells the audience to "scream - scream for your lives!".
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13 Ghosts (1960)

When an old man dies and leaves his home to his nephew, he and the family move in unaware of they aren't the only residents. Along with a maid and some hidden treasures, the residence also contains 13 ghosts. The film stars 11-year-old child actor Charles Herbert as "Buck" and co-stars veteran character actress Margaret Hamilton as Elaine. Throughout the film Buck refers to Elaine as a witch. Though this is never confirmed, the film hints at the possibility. These inside references were an acknowledgement of Hamilton's best known role as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.

  • TRIVIA: The original theatrical version had the main title/credits sequence in color.
  • GIMMICK: Illusion-O - Each patron received a handheld ghost viewer/remover. During certain parts of the film, a person could see the ghosts by looking through the red cellophane, or remove the images if they were too frightening by looking through the blue. Because the ghosts were indeed viewable by the naked eye, the movie ran for years on television with no viewer needed to see the ghosts.
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Homicidal (1961)

A mysterious woman, a mute nurse who uses a wheelchair and an heir on the verge of gaining the family estate all stay in a large creepy mansion where strange disturbances begin to occur. As with most of his films William Castle spoke directly to the audience in a prologue similar to those Alfred Hitchcock used for his then popular TV show. William Castle told the audience: "The more adventurous among you may remember our previous excursions into the macabre - our visits to haunted hills - to tinglers and to ghosts. This time we have even a stranger tale to unfold... The story of a lovable group of people who just happen to be homicidal."

  • TRIVIA: This was one of the most successful knock-offs of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho.
  • GIMMICK: The Fright Break showed a timer over the film's finale. The audience was given 45 seconds to leave and receive a full refund if they were too frightened to see what happens. In one early showing, attendees sat through the movie a second time and left during the break to get their money back. To prevent this ripoff, Castle had different color tickets printed for each showing.
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Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

The face of Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) becomes frozen in a terrifying grin while robbing his father's grave to obtain a winning lottery ticket. He then goes mad and tries to have his face turned back to its original state with the help of a surgeon Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis). In our Top 3 favorites of Castle's work.

  • TRIVIA: When Sir Robert first arrives at Castle Sardonicus, the lighted windows make it look like a skull.
  • GIMMICK: Audiences were given the opportunity to participate in the Punishment Poll. Each person was given a glow-in-the-dark card featuring a hand with the thumb up. They voted by holding the card with either the thumb up or down to choose if Sardonicus would live or die. The story goes that no audience ever offered mercy so the alternate ending was never screened.
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Strait Jacket (1964)

Lucy Harbin (Joan Crawford) has been in a mental hospital for 20 years after being convicted of the axe murder of her husband (Lee Majors) and his mistress. Following her release she moves in at the farm of her brother Bill and sister-in-law Emily. Soon more axe murders begin occurring. Crawford replaced Joan Blondell in the role of Lucy Harbin after Blondell was injured at home prior to shooting and could not fulfill her commitment. Crawford's negotiations included script and cast approval, a $50,000 salary, and 15 percent of the profits. Anne Helm, who was originally cast in the role as Carol, was replaced by Diane Baker, reportedly at Crawford's insistence. Baker and Crawford had appeared together in the film The Best of Everything (1959). One of our Top 3 Castle picks.

  • TRIVIA: Mitchell Cox (Dr. Anderson) was not an actor but was actually the vice-president of the Pepsi-Cola Company.
  • GIMMICK: Castle had been told by producers not to use gimmicks for the film so he had star Joan Crawford go on a promotional tour to various theaters. He did however have cardboard axes made and given to theatergoers.
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I Saw What You Did (1965)

Two teenage girls Libby (Andi Garrett) and Kit (Sara Lane) play pranks by dialing random phone numbers and telling the people who answer "I saw what you did, I know who you are". One of the calls is accidentally placed to a man (John Ireland) who has recently murdered his wife (Joyce Meadows) and hidden her body. The screenplay by William P. McGivern was based upon the 1964 novel Out of the Dark by Ursula Curtiss. The film was remade for television in 1988 with Robert Carradine, David Carradine, Tammy Lauren and Shawnee Smith.

  • TRIVIA: This was Joan Crawford's last appearance in an American film.
  • GIMMICK: William Castle states: This is a motion picture about UXORICIDE!. In one promotional trailer he explains theaters will be equipped with belts for audience members "who might be scared out of their seats". This gimmick was never actually used. The trailer also has a voiceover repeating: "DON'T ANSWER IT!!!".
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Bug (1975)

During an earthquake mutant cockroaches that can create fire by rubbing their cerci together begin appearing. Most of them perish due to the low air pressure on the Earth's surface. A scientist, Dr James Partimer (Bradford Dillman) is able to keep one alive in a pressure chamber then successfully breeds it with another domestic species thus creating a highly intelligent, deadly super bug. Most of the cockroach models used in this production were made by Karoly Fogassy, whose day job was a Technical Illustrator at the University of California at Riverside. For years afterward, visitors to his studio on campus were treated to the stares of the creepy bugs. This was the last film William Castle produced before his death.

  • TRIVIA: The set of the Partimer home was originally used for the The Brady Bunch.
  • GIMMICK: Castle wanted as a "gimmick" to install brushes near the seats that would rub against theater patrons legs to simulate bugs crawling but it was turned down. A million-dollar life insurance policy was taken out on the film's star, a cockroach named "Hercules".
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Matinee (1993)

This 1993 comedy directed by Joe Dante (Gremlins) stars John Goodman as producer/director Lawrence Woolsey who was clearly a stand-in for William Castle. It will take you right back to the days when Castle was promoting his films with all kinds of crazy gimmicks like the ones we listed above. Matinee even has a film within the film called MANT which is based on classic B sci-fi films like Them!, The Fly and The Alligator People.

  • TRIVIA: The original score was composed by Jerry Goldsmith. Several cues from previous films were also used, arranged and conducted by Dick Jacobs, including "Main Title" from Son of Dracula; "Visitors" from It Came from Outer Space; "Main Title" from Tarantula; "Winged Death" from The Deadly Mantis; two cues from This Island Earth, "Main Title" and "Shooting Stars"; and three cues from The Creature from the Black Lagoon trilogy: "Monster Attack" from Creature from the Black Lagoon; "Main Title" from Revenge of the Creature; and "Stalking the Creature" from The Creature Walks Among Us.
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