William Castle is the carnival showman of horror cinema. Once a journeyman director in the B-movie basement of Columbia Pictures, he became so frustrated with his assignments that he went independent and recreated himself as a drive-in Hitchcock with a P.T. Barnum sense of ballyhoo and self-hype. It was a cagey make-over that he nurtured carefully with goofy gimmicks (his first was an insurance policy—backed by Lloyds of London—to insure all ticket buyers against “death by fright” during his 1958 film Macabre; needless to say, no one tried to collect) and personal appearances promoting and introducing his films, just like Hitchcock was doing on TV. And in some ways it trapped him in that identity: the director as huckster, successful but not taken seriously as a filmmaker. The William Castle Film Collection (Sony) collects eight newly remastered films—three of them making their DVD debut—in a box set offering a cross section of his most entertaining films, his most creative gimmicks and his most lighthearted efforts.
Among the latter are two tongue-in-cheek productions starring Tom Poston: Zotz! (1962), a whimsical fantasy about a magic coin, and a remake of The Old Dark House (1963) as a comic romp of eccentrics killing one another off for an inheritance. Both make their DVD debuts here, as does 13 Frightened Girls (1963), a light espionage thriller with a Nancy Drew heroine in the form of a diplomat’s daughter (Kathy Dunn) at an exclusive European private school who turns sweet sixteen Mata Hari. It’s not a horror film (despite the title, a reference to his earlier 13 Ghosts) and not really a thriller. The girls may be frightened in the first scene, but by the end of the film they’re just having a grand time goofing with the Chinese assassins. These are the films that Castle completists have been waiting for, but are lesser titles compared to his gimmicky classics like The Tingler (1959), Castle’s third feature in this vein and his second and final film with Vincent Price. “Ladies and gentleman, please do not panic,” Price cautions the audience. “But scream – scream for your lives!” Given that the creature of the title is a cheap rubber model that looks like a lobster crossbred with a centipede, such encouragement is necessary. Theatergoers were goosed into a reaction with a device that Castle dubbed “Percepto,” a fancy name for a small, motorized vibrator placed under select theater seats and wired to the projection booth. Home video audiences are left to imagine the effects.
If William Castle imagined himself a B-movie Hitchcock, then Homicidal (1961) is his Psycho, right down to the psychologist’s explanation at the end. This devious little gem is an inspired twist on its inspiration, kicking off with a weird little first act that pays off in a shocker of murder, and then getting stranger through the film, thanks largely to a pair of genuinely unsettling characters: the cooing killer Emily, everyone’s worst nightmare of a care-giver, and the awkward Warren, always tensed and stiff as if coiled up and ready to spring. Always armed with a gimmick, Castle created the “Fright Break” for this one, a clock countdown to “allow anyone to leave the theater who is too frightened to see the end of the picture” (in Castle’s own cheery voice-over) to leave to the theater. I guess we’re welcome to hit the stop button.
Mr. Sardonicus (1961) is Castle’s version of a Universal horror—part gothic horror, part Jekyll and Hyde, and part Eyes Without a Face—with his own sadistic slant and trademark gimmick ending (this one is the brilliant “Punishment Poll”). The acting is less interesting here and the castle location too brightly lit to get the musty, creepy atmosphere of a spooky Central European manor, but the make-up is inspired and Oskar Homolka steals the show as the long suffering, whipped-into-submission servant Krull. Straight-Jacket (1964) stars Joan Crawford (fresh from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane) in demented diva form and 13 Ghosts (1960), a mix of playful hauntings and supernatural creepiness (the disc, sadly, does not feature the “Illusion-O” process or the “Ghost Viewer” glasses of the previous DVD release).
Castle’s films are all about ideas over execution, showmanship over style. He tends to be slack in his direction, better with startled shrieks than slow building tension, but he can layer in the gruesome details and spring a shock cut with the best them. This five-disc set also includes the trailers for each film (which are an essential part of the Castle experience), the featurettes and bonus archival goodies of the previous DVD releases and the 2007 documentary Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, an excellent study of the director and survey of his career. It’s a portrait in contradiction, a man who finds success in gimmicks but so wants to be taken seriously. It’s too affectionate a portrait to really dig into Castle’s weaknesses as a director but it does acknowledge his ambition and his frustrated desire to be taken seriously with the identity he created for himself.
The William Castle Film Collection arrives on DVD on Tuesday, October 21