Friday, April 28, 2017

Director Run-Through - William Castle


Welcome back to another entry here, and the time has come for us to discuss one of my personal favorite directors. Much like the last director I covered, this one isn't about a very prolific person but is instead more of a pronounced individual that left a large mark on the scene as a whole, and with it having been his birthday this past Monday what better way to honor him than by going for a retrospective on William Castle.


As per usual, let's get to know a little more about our chosen director:
William Castle was born William Schloss Jr. on April 24, 1914 in New York City. Orphaned at 11, Castle dropped out of high school at 15 to work in the theater. He came to the attention of Columbia Pictures for his talent for promotion, and was hired. With a German-Jewish surname, he originally translated it 'Castle' which became his pseudonym when he arrived to work in the movie business. He learned the trade of filmmaking and became a director, acquiring a reputation for the ability to churn out competent B-movies quickly and on budget. He eventually struck out on his own, producing and directing thrillers which, despite their low budgets were effectively promoted with gimmicks, a trademark for which he is best known. He was also famously the producer for Rosemary's Baby.

Now, let's get into a little more about why we're covering Castle. Once again, we're not covering a prolific director as the film's here are covering only a seven-year period of time and are pretty much consisting only of one film per year on average, so frankly there's not a whole lot of work to be said here about his work in terms of quantity here. Instead, it's rather the quality of his work, as for the majority of the films he's done there's not a whole lot of flaws to be found, and with one exception I really can't find any that aren't any good at all, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. The main reason to do this one is the opportunity to discuss something that's quite intriguing with Castle, as he's renown for the inclusion of theater gimmicks for his films that are just as famous (or in some cases, infamous) than the movie they accompanied. Now, I'm not incredibly fond of gimmicks (I'll get into that in due time) but frankly, these films are still fun even if you take into account how the films are structured in order to get the gimmick into play.

So, as usual, let's get to his films.

Macabre

Overall, this was an exceptionally flawed and not really all that worthwhile effort, as the gimmick isn't that great and the movie's little better. The central premise for this one is quite chilling, with the abduction of the daughter and being buried in a grave that requires a man and wife to find her, means we get some incredibly wonderful Gothic atmosphere with the scenes in the cemetery that are quite creepy in design and chilling in how the story's built up. These scenes here and their bantering about where she is and where to dig are really the only parts of this that are worthwhile, as the rest of the time it doesn't have a whole lot to really get interested in. As it goes around with all the potential suspects and why they're interested in seeking revenge, the flashback nature of these participants and why they're out for revenge is not in the slightest bit interesting and drags the movie to a halt as it goes about this section of the movie, dropping all potential horror angles and does so for the majority of the film's running time. Even more so, the fact that the central premise doesn't allow for a lot of time dealing with the graveyard search forces this upon the viewer, a rather unfortunate handicap right off the top. It's got its moments, but not a whole lot of them. (5.25/10)

So, what's the gimmick? He came up with the idea to give every customer a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyd's of London in case they should die of fright during the film. He stationed nurses in the lobbies with hearses parked outside the theaters.


House on Haunted Hill

This is a little flawed, but there are some good points to it. When it gets to working right, the film is really on. The biggest instance is the film's incredibly creepy finale, which is one of the most creative ideas ever used to end a film. There are a couple of really great jump scenes in here where the ghosts pop out and terrorize the characters, including one really great one near the end where several individual jump scenes converge at once to throw in a really spectacular scene. The fact that the house looks pretty creepy works for it, for the big halls and huge spaces make it stand out in the creepiness factor. This does have some great moments, but there are some problems with this one that really lowers this one. The biggest one is that film really makes no mention of the ghosts haunting the house for most of the movie. It's mentioned several times throughout that they're responsible for several past incidents in the house and it's built around them, yet they are hardly in the movie. Once the marital strife subplot is brought up, the ghost angle pretty much sinks into the background and is completely ignored for most of the film that winds up hurting the film's premise for the majority of the time. The other really big flaw is that there's a really drawn-out pace for this one. The constant dealings with the married couple, which take up the majority of the second half of the film, is completely dull and boring as nothing interesting happens during the entire part. Seeing them argue with each other is boring and slows down the film, offering nothing much interesting for the film as all the bickering and pretend-deaths get old fast and take time away from the film's purpose. These are the film's biggest flaws. (7.75/10)

So, what's the gimmick? The film was filmed in "Emergo," where a skeleton with red-lighted eye sockets was attached to a wire and floated over the audience in the final moments of some showings of the film to parallel the action on screen when a skeleton rises from a vat of acid and pursues the villainous wife of Vincent Price's character. Once word spread about the skeleton, however, kids enjoyed trying to knock it down with candy boxes, soda cups, or any other objects at hand.


The Tingler

This one provides enough entertainment to prove worthwhile. One of the best features is that there's a really new and creative idea presented in the film to inspire terror. The fact that the creature is born from the human body's attempt at processing fear, and through a sense of experiments it comes to reason that its whole being is itself entirely creative. The film's at its best during its dream sequences, which are quite creepy and more than a little different from the other types out there. The design of the creature isn't that bad either, going along with the cheesy tone here with the theater sequences at the end, quite obviously put in there as gags for the theater experience long ago. These elements help the film become quite fun, while there's not a whole lot wrong with this one. The film's biggest flaw is that this stops dead for the opening and closing monologues by featuring him talking directly to the audience. Granted, they're inherently charming in their own way, but there's just the more obvious fact that you're watching a gimmick rather than actually being around something like this in real life. The only other one that strikes the film down is that there are way too many subplots at the beginning which just drag the opening out. The beginning really should've been about the discovery of the creature and the condition that creates it, not the marital issues that plague the characters. That really makes it feel like it's a part of a really different film, and doesn't really offer a lot of good moments. Otherwise, this one was pretty good. (8.5/10)

So, what's the gimmick? The film was filmed in "Percepto." The title character is a creature that attaches itself to the human spinal cord. It is activated by fright, and can only be destroyed by screaming. Castle purchased military surplus airplane wing de-icers (consisting of vibrating motors) and had a crew travel from theater to theater attaching them to the underside of some of the seats. In the finale, one of the creatures supposedly gets loose in the movie theater itself. The buzzers were activated as the film's star, Vincent Price, warned the audience to "scream – scream for your lives!" Some controversy about this has emerged over time, however, as sources incorrectly state the seats were wired to give electrical jolts. Filmmaker and Castle fan John Waters recounted in Spine Tingler!: The William Castle Story how, as a youngster, he would search for a seat that had been wired in order to enjoy the full effect.


13 Ghosts

This one has some really good stuff about it. The single best feature is undoubtedly the special effects used for the ghosts as most of the time about them is spent seeing shadowy, translucent forms. These are done quite well, and they really give this quite a creepy feel as few glimpses of them where we can get a clean look at them, they do look quite unsettling and a little disturbing. The fact that they also make up a large amount of screen-time, resulting in some great scenes, is quite nice with plenty of fine action here in the basement, the Ouija game the children play and the séance scene has some creepy moments in it. Along with a great pace and action-packed conclusion, these are the film's best moments while this one here didn't have a whole lot wrong with it. One of the big flaws is the presence of one of the biggest leaps of logic in movie history. The clues can be found towards the end, with all the secrets, but isn't hidden and is easily found. The other big flaw is that no attempt is made to make the house seem creepy at all. This one really could've played with the atmosphere and turned up the creep factor significantly, and it doesn't do that. Some of the effects might be considered cheesy, but on the whole, the other flaws are much more harmful. (8.25/10)

So, what's the gimmick? The film was filmed in "Illusion-O," where each patron received a handheld ghost viewer/remover. During certain segments of the film, a person could see the ghosts by looking through the red cellophane or hide them by looking through the blue. Without the viewer, the ghosts were somewhat visible. The DVD release included red/blue glasses to replicate the effect.


Homicidal

Overall this one really wasn't all that great even though there are a few solid points here. The main problem here is the near-total reliance on tactics that just aren't in the least bit threatening. The majority of her interactions with others makes for a thoroughly uneventful time here with all of these segments never once doing anything to prove she's nothing but a mere loony rather than mentally disturbed. As well, there's the rather bland method of going through a really long time to finish off the investigation of her activities, as the supposedly secretive actions are announced to all at nearly every opportunity affording not only a lazily-relaxed investigation manner but also affording them an opportunity to sabotage what's going on and keeping the ruse going. There are some good points here. The film's best part is the opening, which is a shocking and quite gruesome sequence that gets the shock by nicely intermingling the calmness before the attack to a rather startling sequence, the sheer suddenness bringing about a rather creepy time here and then the act itself works with the stabbing being quite brutal and leading to a fine escape. As well, the investigation makes this one feel quite a bit more suspenseful than expected here as this slowly breaks down the inevitable which is where there's a lot to like and really enjoy here by how this sets up the story. The last positive here comes from the finale, where the big suspenseful walk-through of the house and following brawl in the living room where it gives off a great revelation to the set-up throughout here that's quite original and makes for a really fun time here. These here help this one and move it up, but the flaws are a little too much for this one. (6.5/10)

So, what's the gimmick? There was a "fright break" with a timer overlaid on the film's climax, as the heroine approaches a house harboring a sadistic killer. The audience had 45 seconds to leave and get a full refund if they were too frightened to see the remainder of the film. He came up with 'Coward's Corner,' a yellow cardboard booth manned by a bewildered theater employee in the lobby. When the Fright Break was announced, and you found that you couldn't take it anymore, you had to leave your seat and, in front of the entire audience, follow yellow footsteps up the aisle, bathed in a yellow light. Before you reached Coward's Corner, you crossed yellow lines with the stenciled message: 'Cowards Keep Walking.' You passed a nurse who would offer a blood-pressure test. All the while a recording was blaring, "'Watch the chicken! Watch him shiver in Coward's Corner'!" As the audience howled, you had to go through one final indignity – at Coward's Corner you were forced to sign a yellow card stating, 'I am a bona fide coward.' In an early showing, wily patrons simply sat through the movie a second time and left at the break to get their money back; to prevent this in future, Castle had different color tickets printed for each showing.


Mr. Sardonicus

This was a fairly pleasant and enjoyable surprise. The main factor here is in the rather nice Gothic atmosphere on display here with the typical heavy fog rolling in on the landscape variety that creates a memorable impression all the way to the incredibly chilling moments in the graveyard later on during the flashback. This redeems the film drastically by looking incredibly tense and creepy, the actions being done during this section gives off a great vibe and there's a fantastic shock within when it gets to the casket revelation. The torture chamber scenes are just plain creepy, taking place in a stone cavern within the building that manages to produce a mood of utter despair and dread, the perfect setting to cast instruments of terror. There's even a nightmare sequence that's played up even more due to the fact that the room seems to be in on it as well and does whatever it can to enhance the terror as the shorter scenes work so well. Given the great look of the paralyzed individual, there’s a lot to like here while there wasn't a whole lot here that didn't work. The main one here is that the film decides to act out the back-story rather than just say it out. They play out way too long and just could’ve used a special backstory to tell it, as instead, these scenes drag a little. It’s what holds this back, (9/10)

So, what's the gimmick? The audience could vote on the villain's fate in a "punishment poll" during the climax. Castle himself appeared on screen to explain two options. Each member of the audience was given a card with a glow-in-the-dark thumb they could hold up or down to decide if Mr. Sardonicus would be cured or died. Supposedly no audience ever chose mercy, so the alternate ending was never screened. Though Castle claimed in his autobiography that the merciful version was shot and shown occasionally, many believe otherwise. In the drive-in version, drivers were asked to flash their car headlights to choose.


Strait-Jacket

There wasn't a whole lot to this one either way. The film's only real virtues are its creepy scenes towards the end. The body count picks up slightly and there are even a few good suspense scenes thrown in from some nice stalking in the yard by the barn to the scenes by the house that are quite nice. The final twenty minutes, where the real stalking and suspense take place are the film's best moments being full of stalking, the revelation of the killer in the twist and much more to be had that make this one really fun. These here are the film's good parts as there wasn't much with the film. The film's main flaw is that it's incredibly slow and boring. The film doesn't do much of anything until the end, and there's plenty of inactivity to be had from the film during these parts. The sheer fact that nothing happens until the end makes the beginning a real chore to sit through since it takes forever to get going and seems far longer than it really is. It's nearly impossible to get any excitement out of them, since it follows the pattern of setting up a potential moment, only to laugh it off when they break it down to them being deranged but only threateningly. As there’s a problem with it being unable to really commit to a style rather than go for a more thrilling moment, these here really lower this one. (6.5/10)

So, what's the gimmick? Actually advised by his financial backers to eliminate gimmicks, Castle hired Joan Crawford to star and sent her on a promotional tour to select theaters. At the last minute, Castle had cardboard axes printed that were handed out to patrons.


And with that, that's all for this entry. See you all next time.