John Waters once stated “William Castle was my idol. William Castle was God”. Known as the ‘King of the Gimmick,’ William Castle revolutionized the world of the B-Movie. His incredible marketing campaigns and over the top personality garnered him fame and a place in cinema history. Today marks the anniversary of his birth and therefore, the perfect time to take a glimpse at his incredible body of work.
William Castle was born William Schloss on April 24, 1914 in New York City. As a young boy Castle was shy and awkward, but soon discovered the power that shock can have over an audience. At youth summer camps, he often performed various stunts demonstrating contortionist-like abilities due to being double jointed. This attraction to performance set Castle down a path that he would continue on for the rest of his life. As he got older, Castle would schmooze his way into various stage productions. Often padding his resume and straight up lying about his credentials (he claimed to be Samuel Goldwyn’s nephew for a stint) Castle landed a decent amount of acting gigs in relatively high profile Broadway plays. In 1941, Castle happened to meet Orson Welles and he took full advantage of the encounter. Welles was leaving his studio Stony Creek to film Citizen Kane, and Castle sweet talked Welles into offering him the lease on the space. Castle was now a director…at least in his own mind.
After a few stage productions of his own, Castle was invited to work at Columbia pictures and learned a variety of jobs and skills. However, Castle always had bigger dreams for himself. Eternally attracted to the dark and spooky, in 1958 he released his first self-produced film, Macabre. The film was about a girl who was kidnapped, buried alive, and her father is given a mere five hours to find and save her. Now, Castle knew that this film was a B-movie at best. But Castle also knew that perception is all in how you sell it, so rather than just releasing the film and hoping for the best, Castle launched a massive marketing campaign. He went to Lloyds of London and purchased an insurance policy that guaranteed a $1000 payout if any viewer should die of fright. Of course this was advertised on every single movie poster. When attendees survived the film, they were handed badges that stated “I’m no chicken. I saw Macabre”. Talk of this crazy movie spread and his gimmick paid off.
Next up was the 1959 Vincent Price classic, House on Haunted Hill. For this film, Castle devised a gimmick he coined “Emergo”. This was really no more than a lighted plastic skeleton that would zip across the theater ceiling at a specific time in the film, but again…it’s all in how you sell it. Soon after came the film Castle is perhaps best known for, The Tingler. Also starring Vincent Price, The Tingler tells the tale of a pathologist (played by Price) who discovers that fear is actually caused by a parasite that lives inside us all. This parasite will kill its host if not suppressed by screams. Castle went all out on this one. He created what he called “Percepto”. Devices were installed beneath random theater seats and would vibrate at specific times during the film. Bean bags on rollers would also brush past the audience’s legs while stealthy speakers would be mounted in various locations to create shrieking noises when the Tinglers appeared on screen. Audiences ate it up, and these films (that would likely have flopped without the gimmicks) enjoyed relative success. This immersive technology idea was incredibly ahead of it’s time and is an idea still being played with today. *Cough* Insidious 4: The Last Key *Cough*
Audiences were provided with “Illusion-O” glasses in 1960’s 13 Ghosts. In 1964’s Strait-Jacket (starring Joan Crawford) they were all given blood splattered prop axes. One of the best though, was in Castle’s 1961 film Homicidal. Near the end, just when the film is reaching it’s climax and the leading lady is about to enter a creepy house, a stopwatch graphic appears on screen. The ‘Fright Break’ clock ticks down for 45 seconds while Castle’s voice narrates and allows frightened movie goers the chance to get out while they still can. Part two of the gimmick, was the ‘Coward’s Corner’ that was set up in the lobby of the theater, staffed with a “nurse” to attend to anyone too scared to finish the film.
Similar to Hitchcock, Castle would often make appearances in his own films. In the 1961 film Mr. Sardonicus, Castle appears at the end of the film to allow the audience a chance to choose the fate of the Mr. Sardonicus. Everyone was given a glow in the dark card upon entering the film and they could vote thumbs up for Mr. Sardonicus to live happily ever after…or thumbs down and a fate not so nice. Now, obviously, there was no alternate ending option for Mr. Sardonicus. Castle counted on human nature to want Mr. Sardonicus to pay, and he was right. Check out the way Castle describes the voting process below.
Castle’s gimmicks obviously helped him sell tickets, but behind the scenes, they didn’t always work in his favor. When Castle read Ira Levin’s 1967 novel Rosemary’s Baby, he knew he wanted to turn it into a film. He immediately purchased the rights to the film thinking this would be his ticket to an Oscar and the industry respect he craved. However, his reputation preceded him and the studio worried that audiences wouldn’t take the production seriously with Castle as director. Instead, Castle was allowed to produce the film and Roman Polanski got the gig directing. Castle did manage to sneak in the film though with a quick cameo appearing outside a phone booth while the frantic Rosemary attempts to make a call to her obstetrician.
In his later years, Castle’s output declined along with his health. For years he suffered from a variety of mental health issues as well as uremic poisoning. In the early 70’s he managed to produce the television series Circle of Fear and the 1975 Jeannot Szwarc film Bug. In 1976, he completed and published his autobiography, Step Right Up, I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America. And on May 31st, 1977 William Castle suffered a heart attack that he would not recover from. The impact Castle had on the world of film is one that is still being felt today. He understood the power of a good gimmick. He understood the power that actively engaging the audience could have, and he wasn’t afraid to take risks and have fun with the films that he loved so much. He was a trailblazer is more ways than one. Castle himself said it best when he stated, “There is no God but gimmick. And Castle is his prophet.”