William Castle – The Work of the Legendary Horror Director
I have watched over fifteen horror films in the last two weeks. My teeth are soar and no doubt covered with cavities from the handfuls of candy corn I’ve been shoveling in my mouth. And the street I live on is lined with carved jack-o-lanterns and piles of dead leaves, which gives it a strikingly eerie resemblance to the fictional small town of Haddonfield Séries Netflix , IL. These three observations can only mean one thing; Halloween is right around the corner. Yes, that magical holiday that somehow seems to get more and more awesome every year despite growing out of trick r’ treating almost two decades ago. And even though I absolutely love dressing up and decorating for a Halloween bash and am very partial to candy, my favorite element of this seasonal celebration is no doubt all about the cinema.
Every year, I try to see as many horror films as I possibly can during the month of October leading up to All Hallows Eve. And with the number of movies that I have seen (trust me, it’s a lot), I can have a rather tricky time trying to find ones that I haven’t seen yet. What once called for me pacing up and down the horror section of my local video store for an hour picking random movies I’ve never heard of that sound interesting, has now been replaced with me spending that same hour browsing on Netflix. This year, I decided to go pretty far back on the timeline and take a break from all of the torture-porn garbage that has been getting released these past couple of years. Don’t get me wrong, as tempting as it was to see Saw 17: The Bride of Jigsaw’s Cousin, I instead decided to visit the work of an old horror legend.
That legend being none other then the “King of the Gimmick” himself. The Godfather of the B -Movie; Mr. William Castle. Thanks to the recent release of the William Castle Film Collection, the 5-disc DVD set that includes eight of the director’s finest contributions to the world of cinema, everyone now has the privilege of rediscovering one of the first film directors that understood that being scared and having fun go hand-in-hand when watching a fright film.
With over fifty movies on his resume, it’s a shame William Castle’s name doesn’t come up as frequently as Hitchcock’s or Argento’s when discussions arise on the icons of the horror genre. Don’t get me wrong, his movies were never celluloid perfection or anything like that. But certain classics like Straigh-Jacket, Mr. Sardonicus and many others possessed a campy flare that most horror buffs can’t help but pleasantly enjoy.
Having a background in theatre production, William Castle (then known as William Schloss before changing his last name to the German translation of the word; castle) moved to Hollywood at the age of 23. After using his irresistible charm to become acquainted with the great Orson Welles, he was able to get work as an assistant for the infamous director. He was even the first person to take interest in the property that would soon become The Lady From Shanghai, one of Welles’ finest movies. Watching filmmakers like Welles in action day after day gave Castle an overwhelming desire to be a director himself.
Patiently waiting for his chance, Castle’s received his education in filmmaking on the studio lots of Columbia Pictures where he would dabble in all kinds of behind the scenes work before eventually being hired on as a contract director. Back in those days, directors under a studio contract would churn out a movie every 12 to 15 days. Needless to say, Castle got his chance and was required to start whipping out cookie-cutter films on a monthly basis. The movies never garnered any attention except for all the negative reviews the critics would throw at them, which didn’t cast Castle in much of a positive light. It wasn’t until he ventured out on his own and decided that he wanted to focus on making scary movies that his presence in the film industry would be felt.
Now, if you asked any film historian who William Castle was, the first thing they would all say is “the King of the Gimmick.” You see, as much as Castle loved being behind the camera; where he truly excelled in filmmaking was marketing his final product to the public. When the director ventured away from the studio and began making pictures on his own, he always had a lot riding on them financially seeing how most of them were produced through second mortgages Castle and his wife would take out. Thus, he needed to guarantee that people would actually show up to the theater and by tickets to his movie. So he created preposterous gimmicks that would generate enough buzz to get people all over the county talking, which in turn led to big opening weekends for his films.
When Macabre, Castle’s first independent feature, came out in 1958 people who bought tickets were issued a $1000 life insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London just in case they actually died from fright while watching the movie. People were able to sign up with the nurses who were stationed right there at the movie theaters. Castle even orchestrated there to be hearses parked outside to add extra effect. All this hoopla over Macabre, a film supposedly so scary you could die from it, worked wonders for William Castle. The movie was a huge success with the public.
Castle’s next film, The House on Haunted Hill, was promoted as being filmed in “Emergo,” and exciting new technique in filmmaking where the images on the screen would emerge into real life. In a scene at the end of the film, a skeleton rises from a vat of acid and approaches one of the characters. At this point, a prop skeleton set up in the theater would be unveiled and soar above the crowd via cable. Even though some theater patrons used this gimmick for target practice with their Milk Duds, it again proved successful for Castle.