Monday, July 29, 2013

William Castle and his gimmicks

The William Castle Blogathon is an event honoring the life and career of horror film director William Castle, hosted by The Last Drive In and Goregirl's Dungeon. For a complete list of participating bloggers, click on the links to either website.

I had probably heard of director William Castle somewhere within the past three years of doing this blog, though I doubt I could've told you much about him aside from "He was the horror director with the funny gimmicks." Last Halloween, I had the great privilege of seeing one of his films, Homicidal, at a theater, the fabulous Loews Jersey City, that recreated the gimmicks used upon the film's original release. As a result, it greatly increased both my awareness of and appreciation for the man. Besides, he comes across as such a kindly, lovable (if slightly unhinged) old coot, in an Addams Family kind of way, doesn't he?

As I alluded to in my post on the movie, Castle's huckster promotions may seem corny now (and they probably seemed corny then), but give the guy credit for understanding that movies are entertainment and don't need to be taken quite so seriously all the time. That's something I fear gets forgotten quite often these days within not only horror movies, but genre movies in general. Many of them strive for what they consider a greater sense of "realness" that they forget the reasons the audience pays their money: they want a good time. The best genre movies, I believe, find the right balance between legitimate thrills and playfulness.

Castle's Wikipedia page lists eleven different gags that he used over the course of his career. Here are five examples of his most memorable ones. Granted, these probably should be experienced within the context of the movies instead of separately, but how often do Castle's movies get shown at all, much less with the accompanying gags?

- Mr. Sardonicus. Punishment or mercy for the title character? The audience decides thanks to a bunch of glow-in-the-dark cards that they hold up, and presumably, the projectionist would run the ending they choose. Of course, it doesn't help that Castle himself tended to encourage punishment when he appears on screen to explain this poll. Supposedly there was a "mercy" alternate ending, but historians are unsure.

Test screenings, of course, are common in the industry and have been for a long time, and they can lead to changes in the movie itself. When I went to a private screening of the Steve Martin comedy The Big Year, they gave us cards to fill out afterward, asking us what we liked, what we didn't like, what we'd change if we could. I didn't care for the movie much, and my comments reflected that (though I tried to be kind), but I suspect the filmmakers tinkered with the film for a long time, because it was almost an entire year before it was released.

Castle's gimmick isn't quite along the same lines; it's got more of an instant-gratification vibe to it, which perhaps suits this modern generation better. Who knows - if the talk of a possible "Choose Your Own Adventure" movie is true, maybe this kind of gimmick is poised for a comeback.

Castle's "punishment or mercy" poll

Homicidal. The "Coward's Corner" is something I could easily see being abused even back then, but again, it's about entertainment. If I had been around for this on its initial release, I would see the movie once, then see it again with friends just so we could make asses of ourselves and run out of the theater and get our Coward's Certificates. In fact, this was likely the sort of thing me and my high school friends might've engaged in if we knew about this movie and were in on the gag.

When I saw this at the Loews, there was an obvious plant in the audience who ran screaming out of the theater just so someone could do it. It got a lot of laughs; everybody realized it was all in good fun. Unfortunately, the tenor of many horror movies these days seems completely at odds with such a gag. The metaphysical, self-aware nature of the Scream films come close to capturing that spirit. Maybe there are other recent horror films that do the same. Not being a big horror fan, I wouldn't know.

The Homicidal "fright-break"

Macabre. The first of Castle's movie gimmicks, he claimed to offer attendees a certificate for a $1000 life insurance policy from Lloyd's of London in case the film made them die of fright. There were also "nurses" in the lobbies and hearses parked outside the theaters. This sounds pretty cool. If it were done today, though, they'd have to be sexy nurses, of course - I'm sure lots of guys would fake a heart attack just so they could get some mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, if you know what I mean...

In our litigious society, however, I wonder what would happen if someone really did get a heart attack? Sure, this can easily be made to come across as being tongue-in-cheek (especially with sexy nurses), but all it would take is one person with no sense of humor to sue the studio and there goes the gag. Studios are risk-averse enough as it is these days.

Director John Waters talks about Macabre

- House on Haunted Hill. Inflatable glow-in-the-dark skeleton? Excellent! If the remake used this, it would've made way more money. I could easily imagine this scaring the pants off of me in 1959... if I could imagine living in 1959. It's not much of a scare today, especially after seeing it in action in this video, but it's still a great idea, especially for a midnight screening. (Come to think of it, most of these films would make for excellent midnight screenings!) Bonus points for the name "Emergo" and of course, for Vincent Price. Apparently the Loews did this gag too, a couple of years ago. I wish I had been there for it! 

I realize there are only so many ways to make a skeleton scary-looking, but I keep thinking there should be more to this gimmick somehow. If it were a surprise, that'd work, but thanks to the internet, it's next to impossible to keep anything a secret for long. Still, I like the idea of it. I just wish it could be jazzed up somehow for maximum scare potential, in a way that didn't involve modern 3D!

Emergo in action

The Tingler. Oh my god, are you kidding me? Vibrating motors hidden under the seats that go off during the scary moments? This kinda reminds me of how they recently tried to install some kind of seats in select theaters that moved around and did crazy stuff to simulate the action scenes in movies. It didn't catch on, obviously, and if it did, they'd probably charge extra for it like they do now for 3D movies. But if I had been there for this back then, I'd have been screaming my head off like a lunatic. Once again, cool name ("Percepto") plus Vincent Price equals WIN.

This seems like the best of the gags to me. There's an element of surprise (will the Tingler be under your seat?), a physical reaction that one can't prepare for, and a full level of audience involvement. But I can also see the drawbacks: people figuring out where the Tingler seats are and bogarting them, or worse yet, posting the locations online; fights over Tingler seats, which could lead to them getting damaged. In the end, it might be more trouble than it's worth.

Castle's introduction for The Tingler

It's kind of sad that there's no interest in this kind of filmmaking and promotion in modern film, don't you think? By the same token, though, because modern audiences have become savvier and more aware of what goes on behind the camera, it's harder to lose oneself to the gags and the innocence of the spirit in which Castle made these gags. 

If Castle were around today, he'd likely be embraced by the Ain't-It-Cool and Comic-Con and SXSW type fanbase, but he'd have to work a hell of a lot harder to maintain their interest. The marketing of a film like The Blair Witch Project was a huge part of its success, but gimmicks like that are difficult to maintain over a career, which is why one only sees something like that once in a blue moon, if even that. Castle was fortunate to have made his movies when he did, I think.


  1. Excellent post! I'm envious that you got a chance to witness a screening as Castle intended. Too bad we don't see gimmicks like these anymore, but as you inferred, it was evocative of a different time.

  2. One thing I forgot to mention is that gags like these would also require the cooperation of the theater owners, some of whom may not be able or willing to refit their theaters to accommodate these gags. Getting them to convert to digital has been hard enough.

  3. Rich, your salute to William Castle's movie gimmicks was almost as fun to read about as it was to describe them; your affection for them had me smiling! Your post really evoked the fun of the likes of "Punishment Polls," "Emergo," and Castle's other fun gimmicks. It really made me think about Castle's era and the more innocent times back then. Great idea for the Blogathon, my friend!

  4. Honestly, the credit should probably go to Monstergirl. Her enthusiasm for Castle is infectious!

  5. It'd be wonderful to watch these films in theaters with the gimmicks! In the punishment poll, Castle's overall kindness when speaking is kind of scaring!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  6. Funny you should mention that: I've just learned that Film Forum is gonna show 'The Tingler' next month with Percepto in effect! (They're also gonna show 'Homicidal' with the Coward's Corner, but I've already seen that.)


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