The Story of Schlockmeister William Castle, the Legendary King Of The B-Movie Gimmick
Movies have always been a major avenue of escape for all of us. Nowadays, it’s all about 3D, IMAX, and blockbuster franchises. The industry has struggled mightily the last few years, due to the popularity first of video games, and now the advent of numerous streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc.) which give the average person access to thousands of choices for far less than the high cost of movie tickets and snacks at the local multiplex.
The movie business faced similar challenges back in the ‘50s, only back then the enemy was a newfangled technology called Television. Producers were at a loss as to how they could stem the tide of losing customers, but one visionary man had a few tricks up his sleeve. That man was the legendary William Castle.
“The King of the Gimmick”
Castle was part entrepreneur, part huckster, and 100% showman. He was to movies what P.T. Barnum was to the circus. His movies, for the most part, are considered to be unadulterated trash. Fun, but trash. He mined the horror genre for most of his audacious offerings.
As a youngster, I saw many of his films on Saturday afternoons, and I loved the lurid and demented takes he gave on the tried and true horror tropes we all know so well. His goal was to do anything and everything he could to get fannies into the seats, and give the audience something over and above just watching a movie. He wanted people to have an “experience.”
Another legendary figure, Director John Waters (Pink Flamingos), was cast as William Castle in the recent hit show “Feud: Bette and Joan.” He said this about his memories of the classic Castle gimmicks in an interview with Indiewire:
“When I first saw ‘House on Haunted Hill’ as a kid in Baltimore and the skeleton went out on the wire and the thousand kids in the audience went crazy ... My whole life, I’ve tried to at least equal that cinema anarchy. I came close with the end of ‘Pink Flamingos,’ but I didn’t tie with it. He still beat me.”
Now it’s time to give you an idea of the genius of William Castle and his best gimmicks. Here goes!
This potboiler involves a small town Doctor who becomes embroiled in a revenge plot, where he endures his daughter being buried alive. He’s only given a few hours to find her before she suffocates. Pretty standard fare, right?
Castle made it an event by parking an ambulance with flashing lights and all, in front of the theater, substituting “nurses” for ushers, and giving each patron a $1000 insurance policy just in case they “Died of Fright” during the show.
Is the movie any good? Not really. But the gimmick is what the audience remembered. Star Jacqueline Scott said this about the Macabre experience in the Castle documentary Spine Tingler: “Nobody going into it thought they were going to die of fright, but everybody had a lot of fun.”
Macabre hauled in $5 Million at the box office, which was a gigantic sum back then. That was all Castle needed to know. From that point on, gimmicks were THE primary marketing strategy for all the films that followed.
House On Haunted Hill (1959)
Castle also Directed this effort, about a creepy dude who offers a group of folks $10,000 each if they can spend the night in a “haunted house.” The great Vincent Price played the evil Fredrick Loren, who had a decidedly fractious relationship with his (4th!) wife Annabelle. Lots of snarkiness between husband and wife, jumpscares, as well as a few unintentionally funny beats, but all in all it’s a solid horror flick.
The gimmick for this one was something Castle called “Emergo,” which was supposed to bring the horror right into the audience’s laps. How did he accomplish that? With a glow in the dark skeleton on a wire that was flown over the audience during a particularly scary scene, that’s how. This is what the crowd experienced back in the day:
House on Haunted Hill was also smashing success, which led to another Castle/Price collaboration, which happens to be my all-time favorite Castle film:
The Tingler (1959)
In the ultimate high concept horror movie, a pathologist stumbles upon a monster that grows within our spines when we’re afraid, and the only way to kill it is TO SCREAM. Wanna see what’s lurking in your spine? Here it is:
The pathologist, played by Vincent Price, finds a woman who is mute and can’t scream, so when her murderous hubby (who runs a movie theater) literally scares her to death, Price is able to cut the nasty bugger from her spine to study it. But guess what happens? Yep, the Tingler escapes into the movie theater. Here’s where the gimmick comes in. Castle came up with “Percepto,” which is nothing more than wiring the theater seats with buzzers to shock audience at this point in the movie.
The screen goes dark, and the voice of Price breathlessly tells the audience that the Tingler is loose INSIDE THE THEATER! When Price said, “Scream for your lives!” the projectionist would shock everyone to his heart’s content. Needless to say it was a massive hit!
Castle always looked up to the “Master of Suspense” Alfred Hitchcock, but the attraction was apparently mutual, because Hitch himself used a gimmick when his legendary movie Psycho was released.
Hitchcock enacted a “No Late Admission” policy, which drove the audiences into a frenzy. Lines formed around the block, with audiences eager not to miss the total viewing experience. The marketing ploy gave Psycho a big word of mouth buzz, which propelled it to huge box office numbers.
Castle did similar gimmicks for other films, like the “Punishment Poll” for the evil Mr. Sardonicus. The audience was prompted to use glow in the dark cards to tell the theater owner if Mr. Sardonicus should live or die, at which point the projectionist would roll the last reel that matched the will of the crowd. Even though mercy was an option, the audience NEVER let Sardonicus off the hook.
Castle had countless other gimmicks throughout his career, cementing his place as one of the most creative and imaginative movie producers in the history of Hollywood. It’s a crying shame audiences today can’t experience the fun of yesterday. Maybe one day someone will think outside the box and give the audience a wacky and fun experience like William Castle always delivered.
Photo: Cover Columbia Pictures/William Castle Productions, second Allied Artists Macabre (1958), third William Castle Productions, fourth Allied Pictures, fifth Weegee (Arthur Fellig), sixth Columbia Pictures/William Castle Productions, seventh Columbia Pictures/William Castle Productions, eighth Terry Castle