Tricks and Treats with William Castle and Macabre

October 31, 2014

“How many people do you think will actually expire during the exhibition of your motion picture, Macabre?” an employee of Lloyds of London actually asked director William Castle (138). Castle replied with zero, and luckily, over the past 56 years, no one has.

 

2014 represents, among other things, the 100th birthday of showman William Castle, best known today for directing a variety of B-movies low on budget but high on gimmicks. Over the past few months, a variety of venues across Los Angeles have celebrated the infamous director, including The Academy, which hosted a weekly series in September entitled “Let There be Fright: William Castle Scare Classics;” The Cinefamily, which showed The Tingler (1959) on October 26, buzz-rigged seats and all; and the Hollywood Heritage Museum and Warner Archive, which presented a 100th birthday celebration, also on October 26, featuring Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (2007) and a screening of Macabre (1958) with special guests.

 

I attended one film at LACMA presented by The Academy, The Night Walker (1964), mostly because I will watch anything with Barbara Stanwyck (plus, her ex-husband Robert Taylor co-starred, and that was a 60s sight I had to behold). 

William Castle's The Night Walker at LACMA, presented by The Academy.

Attending the birthday celebration weeks later at the Hollywood Heritage Museum made me wish that I had taken more advantage of The Academy’s Castle series; I learned quite a bit about several of The Academy's selections in the small impromptu screening room at the Museum, which was full of enthusiastic Castle admirers and joined by Castle’s daughter, Terry; Spine Tingler!’s director, Jeffrey Schwarz (who brought a terrifying toy Tingler with him); actress Jacqueline Scott, who starred in Macabre; and Joe Jordan, the author of Showmanship: The Cinema of William Castle, all of whom shared their Castle stories with the audience.

 

In preparation for the evening, I found myself in the reference section of the Los Angeles Public Library downtown, where a librarian graciously helped me find a copy of Castle’s 1976 autobiography Step Right Up!...I’m Gonna Scare the Pants off America (which apparently was not on the shelf but rather in a super-secret section). With little time before the screening, I skimmed the chapter in which Castle discussed the making of Macabre, though his lively writing style definitely tempted me to revisit the book in its entirety…when I find the time. 

The Hollywood Heritage Museum. (Picture by Warner Archive)

When I arrived at the Hollywood Heritage Museum the evening of their Castle celebration, there was a mass of about 30 men and one woman standing outside. As I joined the line, I noticed another woman in the parking lot - three now, counting me! - checking her phone. She was dressed like a nurse...well a Halloween-style nurse. Based on my research, I suspected I knew what the get-up was for, and I ended up being right!

 

Castle's daughter Terry had graciously lent several pieces from her father's collection to the Hollywood Heritage Museum to put on display, including the original insurance policy from Lloyds of London for Macabre. After browsing through the items, the patrons were directed to the main room, which was set up as a mini screening room. Before entering, each guest was given their own insurance policy, a copy of the original handed out to Macabre patrons, by...you guessed it, the nurse! 

Apparently, the nurses stationed at the original Macabre screenings were real nurses. I'm not sure this one is.... (Picture by Warner Archive)

The first film that played was the documentary on Castle, Spine Tingler!, which was a great way to kick off the evening, particularly for someone like me who knew little about the famous director.

 

Spine Tingler!: The William Castle Story

William Castle was orphaned by the age of 11, which could explain why his family was so incredibly important to him later in life. His daughter Terry, featured prominently in the doc, said that when her father was young he realized that he possessed a strange skill: he could put his legs behind his head! His pretzel-like limbs brought the young Castle much attention and applause. Could that have whetted his appetite for a career as a showman years later?! Perhaps.

 

Castle first found work in the theater, where one event in particular would foreshadow his tendency to turn to publicity stunts to ensure an audience: he desperately wanted German actress Ellen Schwanneke to appear in one of his plays, Not for Children. However, someone else desired her too: Hitler. The dictator ordered her to return to Germany to perform, but she didn't want to go, nor did Castle want her to, and Castle supposedly wrote Hitler a telegram proclaiming that Schwanneke wouldn’t travel to Germany. The fact that she (or Castle) defied the ruler prompted the nickname “the girl who said no to Hitler.” To further his cause, Castle himself destroyed the theater, painting swastikas everywhere and trashing the place. Upon 'discovering' the damage the next day, Castle declared that Hitler couldn’t stop him or this play! If he wasn’t sure he could attract audiences before, he definitely piqued their interest now. 

German actress Ellen Schwanneke.

Castle's work on the stage attracted Columbia's Harry Cohn, one of the toughest studio bosses of all time. The night before he was to meet Cohn, Castle was in a bar and approached a ‘depressed looking’ man. That man turned out to be George Stevens, who liked Castle’s boldness enough to tell Cohn to hire him as a dialogue director for his next movie, Penny Serenade (1941). Of course, Castle had no clue what the position entailed and ended up yelling 'Cut!' during a scene with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in which Grant pronounced a word wrong. Stevens was about to blow, but Grant acknowledged that Castle was right. However, from then on, Castle kept his mouth shut on set!

 

The future director learned a lot working under Cohn; he undertook several positions on studio films and eventually began directing B-pictures and programmers. Castle deftly delivered his films on time and on budget, but he wanted more, and to break the cycle, he knew he would have to find his own material.

 

Castle was excited when he came across the novel If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King, and he brought it to his friend Orson Welles, who was also at Columbia. To Castle's dismay, the studio proclaimed that they would make the movie only if Welles directed. Despite his disappointment with the arrangement, Castle served as both producer and assistant director on the film, which would eventually be called The Lady from Shanghai (1947). Though Castle had been a friend of Welles for a few years, working with the boy genius was a great learning experience; Castle took away several important lessons from the production, like trust your instincts and make sure your name is all over everything you create!

 

The director found himself back in the world of B-pictures and programmers, when one day at the theater he noticed a line around the corner for the French horror flick Les Diaboliques (1955).

 

A light bulb went off: people wanted to be scared. 

Poster for Les Diaboliques.

Castle's first foray into the horror genre was 1958's Macabre, which I will go into more detail on later, since it was the movie that accompanied the doc that evening at the Hollywood Heritage Museum. Scared that audiences wouldn't come see the movie, Castle thought up a now famous stunt: insure each audience member against death from fright! House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler, both made in 1959 featuring Vincent Price, and13 Ghosts (1960) followed Macabre, and each film debuted with their own bizarre gimmicks: "Emergo" was unveiled in House on Haunted Hill, a trick in which a skeleton emerged from a black box next to the screen; The Tingler featured "Percepto," which was Castle's idea of putting buzzers on select seats to 'tingle' audiences; and "Illusion-O," basically consisting of two sets of 3D glasses that acted as "ghost filters" and "ghost removers,” accompanied screenings of 13 Ghosts

The aptly named "Emergo" trick during screenings of House on Haunted Hill.

Well, do you?!

In case anyone was wondering, yes, you can own your very own Tingler. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

Castle movie posters on display at the Hollywood Heritage Museum. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

The release of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960) shook Castle a bit. Taking a cue from the Master of Suspense (who was actually a friend of Castle's), the "poor man's Hitchcock" directed 1961's Homicidal, a more violent "homage" to Psycho. Castle kept up the tricks for films like Mr. Sardonicus (1961), which apparently had two different endings - one where the main character dies and one where he lives - his fate is decided by the audience in a mass vote during a pause in the movie. Though Castle's horror films were never really embraced or received well by critics, his showmanship and genius gimmicks made many of the films financially successful, which gained him some respect in the industry. 

 

However, he was still after that magical A-movie which would catapult his career. Castle took a step closer to that dream (or would it be a nightmare?) with 1964's Strait-Jacket, written by Robert Bloch (Psycho) and starring the infamous Joan Crawford, who had completed What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? two years before. I'm not sure it was exactly the experience Castle was looking for (for one, Crawford had to be handled with kid gloves) but Castle ended up giving in to her semi-outrageous demands, like ensuring her that the set would be freezing cold and editing the end scene to her liking. If Strait-Jacket didn't put Castle over the 'A' edge, the next property he found certainly would, though once again, it didn't work out quite as planned...

 

Castle read Rosemary's Baby before it was published, knew it would be a hit, and bought the rights before anyone else could. Though Castle thought it was a smart move, Bob Evans, Head of Production at Paramount (where Castle's production company had a deal) was mad that Castle didn't consult him first and ended up offering Castle a large sum to buy the rights; in exchange, Evans said he would try his "best" to bring Castle on as director. Well, that vague promise didn't turn out, as we all know the directing rights were handed over to Roman Polanski. Though he was once again upset at being passed over after he brought the material to the studio, Castle cooled down after he met Polanski; he felt Polanski had enough skill to pull the film off, and Castle settled back into a producing role, which was difficult enough considering he had his hands full trying to keep Polanski on schedule. The film was a massive hit, and while he wasn't the director, Castle's name still appeared boldly on the production credits; finally, he could count himself among the A-listers, and he gained much respect within the industry for his part in producing such an influential movie. 

Roman Polanski, Castle, and Mia Farrow on the set of Rosemary's Baby.

The recognition and esteem didn't arrive without a hitch, though. Right after the making of Rosemary's Baby, Castle fell quite ill. Furthermore, Krzysztof Komeda, the film's composer, passed away suddenly one year later of a brain clot (eerily the same way one of the film's characters dies), and of course, Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski's wife, was murdered a year later as well.

 

Castle wasn't the same after his illness and turned his focus away from directing towards producing. His last film, which he also directed, was 1974's Shanks starring Marcel Marceau. The movie was intended to be more poetic than all of his other films, which...weren't really lyrical at all. However, the film did not perform well at the box office, and Castle again fell ill during production. He passed away just three years later, in 1977, at the age of 63.  

 

Thanks to people like John Waters and revival screenings of his work, Castle's films have experienced surges of popularity over the past few decades. Though his movies were originally aimed at a younger crowd because that's the age group they could scare back in the 50s and 60s - kids aged 8-14 - the flicks and their gimmicks have brought audiences of all ages back to the theaters in droves!

Hollywood Heritage Museum President Bryan Cooper brings up the special guests. (Picture by Warner Archive)

Q&A

In between the screenings, Hollywood Heritage President Bryan Cooper brought Jeffrey Schwarz, Terry Castle, and Jacqueline Scott onstage for a short Q&A.

 

Schwarz commented on how the documentary came about: years ago, he had read John Water’s essay on Castle called “Whatever Happened to Showmanship?” in Film Comment and saw The Tingler at the Film Forum in NYC around the same time. The Tingler was screened with the buzzed seats, prompting the audience – a bunch of hipsters, according to Schwarz – to go crazy!  Schwarz knew there was something special about Castle for his films to elicit a reaction like that - and from adults, no less - decades later, and so he went to work on the documentary.

 

Castle’s daughter, Terry, who was prominently featured in the film, was asked about growing up around her father and his films. Well, for one, she was never aware of her family’s financial situation (her parents taking out several mortgages on their house, etc), as was revealed in the doc; their family life was relatively normal, she recalled, though instead of saying Grace around the dinner table, her father would rehearse his Oscar acceptance speech!

 

In regards to her father’s movies, Terry said that she frequently went to the theater with her dad and watched the audience along with him. Like Hitchcock, Castle knew how to brand himself: he made sure he was present in previews for his movies, and he was out in the theaters shaking hands with patrons; he clearly relished the promotion of his films as much as he enjoyed making them! 

 

Terry also regularly visited the sets of most of his later pictures (she was too young at the time Macabre was made), which gave her, in the case of Strait-Jacket, a “healthy appreciation for Joan Crawford…she scared me to death!” On the subject of Strait-Jacket, Terry shared one of her favorite ancedotes with the audience. She explained that her father would frequently screen films for students, and after showing this particular movie to a group at USC, a student asked about the significance of the smoke used under a train in one scene. After launching into a whole philosophical-sounding answer, Castle soon broke and admitted the real reason for the smoke: they didn’t have money for the bottom of the train! 

Q&A with Terry Castle, Jacqueline Scott, and Jeffrey Schwarz. (Picture by Warner Archive)

Understandably, the audience was shocked at this scene.

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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