William Castle is not regarded as a technically superb filmmaker by any measure. The gentlest thing you might hear from his most ardent critics is that he was a “poor man’s Alfred Hitchcock.” The pinnacle of his creativity, and the thing that has always made his work endearing to fans, is the special emphasis Castle placed on gimmicks to promote his films.
Well before he moved from his native New York City to Hollywood, Castle already had deep roots in the entertainment industry. Castle wrote in his memoir, Step Right Up!, that he was entranced by a production of the touring Dracula stage show that he saw in New York as a child. After the show, he went backstage to meet the star of the production: Bela Lugosi. The young Castle apparently made an impression on the actor, and he subsequently dropped out of high school at the age of 15 when, at the invitation of Lugosi himself, he was asked to join the touring production of the show as a stage hand.
Castle (born William Schloss, Jr.) became familiar with various aspects of production —set-building, writing, and eventually acting and directing— all skills which would enrich his practice as a filmmaker later on. Where Castle excelled the most, however, was in marketing. He had a knack for finding highly sensational gimmicks to promote productions, and this is what ultimately attracted the attention of Hollywood producers.
Castle cut his teeth in the big studios working under the tyranny of the infamous former president of Columbia Pictures, Harry Cohn. Castle got to work with some of the industry’s biggest stars, including Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth, and Orson Welles.
He was used primarily to produce and direct B-list films. He built a reputation as someone who was able to finish projects on time and on budget, which was of the utmost importance in the B-lots of Hollywood. Eventually, he ventured out on his own, and started to self-finance projects.
He had a major breakthrough with his film Macabre (1958), which was inspired largely by the French film Diabolique (1955). To promote the film, Castle conceived a gimmick wherein theater goers would be issued a life insurance contract, which stipulated that if anyone were to die of fright, their beneficiaries would be remunerated. What’s more remarkable than the fact that he would employ such a gimmick was the fact that he actually got the Lloyds of London to back the project! Castle wrote in his memoir that after puzzling executives with his peculiar idea, the Lloyds of London executives set a contract wherein William Castle was insured for $5,000, enough to cover five individuals. If anyone in the audience were to indeed die of fright, Castle would receive the money from the Lloyds of London, and Castle himself would then be liable for paying the beneficiary of the deceased party.
Not surprisingly, no one ever died of fright at a screening, and thus, no one ever attempted to collect insurance money.
Castle would gain even greater notoriety with his films that starred Vincent Price. The first was The Tingler (1959), about an insect which burrows in the human spine and thrives on fear. The only way to keep the creature at bay is to scream. The gimmick was called “Percepto” and it was one of Castle’s most elaborate and expensive marketing maneuvers ever. Seats in the theaters would be equipped with low voltage shocking devices that would zap audience members during a scene from the film where the entire theater would go dark, and a voice-over would caution audiences that the Tingler was loose in the theater.
Price also starred in Castle’s The House on Haunted Hill (1959), which employed the “Emergo,” a gimmick which used a pulley system to suspend a plastic skeleton over the viewing audience —in other words, it appeared to emerge from the screen.
Castle’s greatest film was potentially 13 Ghosts (1960), which made use of his “Illusion-O” trick, which used red and blue cellophane lensed “ghost viewers.” In segments of the film where ghosts appear, the screen takes on a blue tint. The film was shot using two separate color filters, one blue and one red. If the viewer were to look through the blue lens, the ghosts would disappear. If the viewer were to look through the red lens, the ghosts would become more vivid. Would anyone in their right mind go to a movie called 13 Ghosts to not look at ghosts? Presumably not, but the marketing genius is in the fact that the viewer had an option.
Even though he achieved success in his own right, Castle always dreamed of crossing over and directing an A-list feature film with A-list stars. A major turning point in Castle’s career came when he was given the manuscript of a yet-to-be published book by Ira Levin entitled Rosemary’s Baby. Castle claimed in his autobiography Step Right Up! that he was the second director to be shown the book, the first having reportedly been Alfred Hitchcock.
Ultimately, Paramount studios insisted that a director with a stronger reputation was merited by the job, and thus, Castle signed on to produce, and Roman Polanski was recruited to direct. The meticulous Polanski crafted one of the finest horror films of the sixties, and it’s one which all horror enthusiasts must see —and thankfully, sites like sites netflix and direct-ticket.net allow you to stream it in its entirety.
Castle may not be remembered as the most deft filmmaker of his generation, but he will most certainly be remembered.
Feature: Kate Voss
Gallery: Marcus Brooks