William Castle: Master of the Theater Gimmick – By Brian Morton

When you think of B movies, what do you think of first? Is it maybe low budgets? Or it could be commando filmmakers? Or maybe it’s just plain bad movies that are special in their own way. Well for me, I always think of fun, and the reason B movies are associated with fun for me is because of one man, William Castle. Now, I’ve been a fan of William Castle movies [even the remakes] since I was a kid sitting in front of the TV watching Vincent Price battle The Tingler, and the more I learn the more I realize what an influence Castle was on the movies.

William Castle was born William Schloss in 1914 in New York. Schloss was always interested in show business; he was fascinated by the circus, stage plays, and radio and, of course, the movies. While still in his teens he lied his way into many Broadway shows working as anything he could from building sets to small acting parts. Knowing that the name Schloss wasn’t a name that would be remembered easily, William changed his name to the more regal and elegant sounding Castle.

In the 1930s, Castle decided to leave Broadway and give Hollywood a try. He worked for many years on westerns, small dramas and what were known as ‘programmers’. Programmers are what they called the cheaply made movie series like ‘Crime Doctor’ or ‘The Whistler’. Castle even directed some of these, including ‘Crime Doctor’s Warning’ and ‘The Whistler’ at Columbia Studios.

Castle’s first foray into horror movies came in 1958 with ‘Macabre’. ‘Macabre’ starred Jim Backus in the story of a doctor whose daughter is kidnapped and buried alive and the doctor is given just five hours to find and rescue her. The story wasn’t really groundbreaking, but Castle increased interest in the movie by using his first, of many, gimmicks. ‘Macabre’ offered theatregoers an insurance policy from Lloyd Of London’s against ‘death by fright’. This was the first of many gimmicks that Castle used to increase interest, and frankly the fun, of his movies.

These gimmicks actually make some (myself included) a little wistful about that golden age of b movies that we, sadly, missed out on. The gimmicks were a variety of give-aways and added scares, here’s a list of Castle’s movie and the gimmicks he used to sell them:

House On Haunted Hill – This haunted house story, starred Vincent Price and used a gimmick called ‘Emergo’ which was a plastic skeleton on a wire that would swoop down from behind the screen over the audience during specific moments in the movie.

The Tingler – The gimmick here was called Percepto. The story is about a creature that grew within people when they felt fear. The movie actually had a scene in a movie theatre. In the scene, the screen goes dark and someone scream, ‘It’s got me!’ at that point in the movie, some chairs in the real theatre had been rigged with a small electric device that would give the person in the chair a shock, causing the real audience and the screen audience to feel the same fear!

13 Ghosts – Another haunted house story featured a gimmick called ‘Illusion-O’, which was polarized glasses that the audience wore that allowed them to see ghosts appear and disappear in the movie, when even the characters in the movie were unaware of them. This gimmick was given a nod in the 90s remake, when the ghost hunters had to wear special glasses to see the ghost that were haunting them.

Homicidal – During this movie the audience was given a ‘Fright Break’, which was a on minute break so that the faint hearted could go to the ‘coward’s corner’ before the movie got too intense.

Mr. Sardonicus – The audience was allowed to take part in a ‘Punishment Poll’. Everyone seeing the movie was given a card that had thumbs up and thumbs down printed on it. Near the end of the movie, the audience is asked to vote on whether the bad guy lives or dies. It’s interesting to note that although the cards were given to audiences to vote, Castle only filmed one ending for the movie!

For the 1962 movie Zotz! audiences were given plastic Zotz coins, they didn’t add anything to the movie and many people were disappointed that the coin did nothing, this was really the last gimmick that Castle used in the movies, although for the 1965 movie, I Saw What You Did, starring Joan Crawford, Castle had seat belts installed in theatres so that you wouldn’t be scared right out of your chair. It’s interesting also to note that to promote Strait Jacket, Joan Crawford traveled from city to city promoting the movie with an axe that was used in the movie. As a side note, Crawford publicly made fun of Bette Davis for promoting Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?by carrying a doll with her, did basically the same thing for this movie.

Castle was called the poor man’s Hitchcock, and he lived up to that hype, even appearing in his own movie trailers, as Hitchcock did! Castle also did walk through’s in his movies like Hitchcock did in his, either passing through a scene or standing in the background unobtrusively. And even had his own famous silhouette of himself sitting in a director’s chair with a cigar…. I’m sure you’ve seen it!

Ironically, his biggest success came with a movie that he neither appeared in nor directed. Castle produced that classic horror movie, Rosemary’s Baby, which was directed by Roman Polanski. Castle bought the rights to the story and was set to go, when the studio stipulated that in order for the movie to be made, Castle wouldn’t direct. Castle stepped aside for Polanski. Even though Castle really had nothing to do with the promotion of the film after it’s completion, he did have several bouts with a ‘mystery illness’ while the filming was going on that most people saw as a way to get word of mouth started about this ‘satanic’ film before it was even released.

Castle’s career wound down during the 70s although he did direct the 1975 movie Bug and even had his star roach, Hercules, insured for a million dollars. He wrote his autobiography in 1976 called ‘Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare The Pants Off America’. Castle died of a heart attack in 1977, soon after his book was published. The John Goodman movie, Matinee, is about a b movie producer who uses gimmicks and marketing to make money, and it’s based loosely on William Castle.

Part Carny, Part Director, William Castle was a one of a kind movie maker, who understood that sometimes it’s more than the movie that will get people to pay to see. He made going to the movies an event and, it can be argued, that his movies led the way for the mega-marketed and cross-promoted movies that we’re all familiar with today. So, the next time you’re at the movies and your soda cup has a movie ad on it, or you see the ad for the toy that ties into your favorite movie, remember that William Castle had a hand in starting it all.