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Castle was His Name, Showmanship was His Game

Auditorium seats lavished in red hues and draped in rich fabrics; hot and salty popcorn drowned in melted butter and the sound of film reels flicking prints against the metal of archaic projectors were the mainstays of movie theaters all across the United States in the late 1950s and the 1960s. And these bygone venues – cinematic cathedrals, which have given way to high-priced multiplexes – were the playgrounds for filmmaker William Castle.

Castle’s life was akin to a Hollywood screenplay, as it was laden with adversity that built the youngster up into one of the most well-known and successful filmmakers in movie history, even if he was unconvinced of his impact on the industry. Tragedy struck the youngster, as he was orphaned at eleven years old, and when Castle was fifteen, he dropped out of high school to pursue a career in the theater.

Castle’s love for the theater came shortly after. “When I was thirteen years old, in 1927, I bought a balcony seat with $1.10 I had taken from my sister’s purse, eager to see the play Dracula starring Bela Lugosi,” Castle said. He was so delighted by the show that he returned to see the production almost every night for the next two weeks. It was during this time that he developed an understanding of what made an audience react to a good show, “Soon I was no longer watching the play [Dracula]; I had more fun watching the audiences,” Castle explained.

Eleven years later, Castle found himself working summer stock in Stony Creek, Connecticut and enjoying a myriad of jobs in Hollywood films. He was everything from an uncredited actor in When Love is Young (1937) to the writer of North to Klondike (1942) and, ironically, the director of The Chance of a Lifetime (1943). And it was just that – the opportunity of Castle’s career. Castle showed promise as a director of low-budget pictures, B-Movies, particularly mysteries and film noir like When Strangers Marry (1944) and The Mark of the Whistler (1944). After stints with both Universal and Columbia Pictures, it was time for Castle to step out on his own. And he literally had to bet his house on the venture, as he mortgaged his home to follow his dream of making his kind of movies. But the films he wanted to create were inspired by a foreign psychological thriller titled Les diaboliques (1955). Castle was about to thrust himself into the realm of horror.

He formed his own production company — William Castle Productions. “He has to be a psychiatrist, a mother, a father, an uncle, an aunt, a lover; he must know how to get along with actors, he must know how to handle a director,” Castle said of being a working producer. “He must know how to bully, how to fight with the studio moguls. And then when the picture is finished now he has to start all over again to get it to the proper playing time, to get it to the audience level, to get it to the people, because the people are what buy the product.”

Castle also established a working relationship with Allied Artists Pictures, as distributors. Castle was forging a legacy. And it was a future he was never completely satisfied with, despite his lasting imprint on the film industry.

Castle is now synonymous with horror films, but it all started with his unique marketing strategies that earned him the moniker: King of the Gimmicks. For his first picture under William Castle Productions, he served as the director and producer of Macabre (1958). The picture had a very simple premise: a young girl is kidnapped and buried alive and it is up to her father to find her before she suffocates.

And while the picture was strong, it was the gimmick that came with it that really tantalized moviegoers. Castle had movie theaters provide all of their patrons with certificates for a $1,000 insurance policy, courtesy of the Lloyd’s of London. If a viewer of Macabre died of fright, that person’s next-of-kin received the insurance money. Castle upped the ante by having theater owners station nurses in their lobbies, while hearses were parked just outside to add an ominous flavor to the event. The ploy worked, as had Castle’s monumental gamble. The budget for Macabre was $90,000 and the picture grossed over $5 million.

Castle’s next gimmick came with House on Haunted Hill (1959), which starred horror movie maestro Vincent Price. The marketing scheme this time around was called Emergo. Castle collaborated with the theaters’ owners to rig up life-size skeletons with glowing red eyes to float over audiences at the film’s climatic conclusion, via wires. The ploy paid off, as House on Haunted Hill proved to be another hit for William Castle Productions.

Arguably, the most exciting gimmick, known as Percepto, came with The Tingler (1959). Once again, Castle cajoled owners into turning their movie theaters into funhouses. At a point in the film’s third act, the Tingler – a small, hideous-looking creature – appeared to be loose in the actual theater where the film was screened. The lights in the auditorium suddenly went off, courtesy of a projectionist, like a power outage during a thunderstorm. And certain patrons were given tiny electrical shocks, courtesy of buzzers strategically placed under certain seats. “And we buzzed the butts of every American that saw the picture,” Castle said. “It was an amazing thing to watch, because I always go firsthand as a producer and sit and watch my films play. And I knew the spots when the Tingler got loose; I watched that audience fly.” It was another hit for the master showman, Mr. Castle.

A year later in 1960, Castle’s film “13 Ghosts” featured the gimmick known as Illusion-O. Much like the 3-D glasses of the 1980s, a ghost viewer with red and blue lenses was passed out to audiences for the screenings. If you wanted to see the ghosts in the film, all you had to do was look through the red eye slot. If you were a bit more skittish, and did not want to see the ghost, you watched the film through the blue eye slot. Castle had another success on his hands.

More gimmicks accompanied Castle’s films in the early 1960s, but their popularity seemed to wane. In 1975, Castle’s final gimmick came with the feature film Bug. The motion picture’s star was a cockroach named Hercules. Mr. Castle revealed a $1 million dollar life insurance policy had been taken out for the film’s star, Hercules, but both the gimmick and picture was a bust.  

Despite all of his success in the horror film genre, particularly as a showman, Castle ultimately wanted the respect of his peers, audiences and the filmmaking industry. Castle bought the rights to the dark psychological thriller written by Ira Levin titled Rosemary’s Baby, in the late 1960s. Castle wanted to prove that he could produce and direct a modern-day horror picture without gimmicks that would sell.

“When I bought Rosemary’s Baby I saw in it an important motion picture,” Castle said. “I saw in it an event, I saw in it a breakthrough of the old-fashioned Hollywood; I saw for the first time that the possibility in this novel was so deep that possibly the audience was ready for it; I loved the property and I bought the property with my own money; I wanted to prove to the industry and my fellow peers that I could do something really brilliant.”

Even after making a deal with Paramount Pictures, Castle was shocked when the studio insisted that Roman Polanski take the helm as director. Castle reluctantly stepped aside as director, but did serve as the film’s producer. The 1968 motion picture adaptation was a triumph, as Castle had predicted, but it was Polanski that got most of the credit.

Castle’s last picture came in 1975 with Bug. Castle was a great influence on his peers, too, even if he did not know it. “William Castle influenced me basically by telling me when we started out we had no money that we had to turn ourselves into the marketing,” said filmmaker John Waters. “I go out on the road to promote my films, because I still want people to see them. And William Castle certainly set the example to me of how to do it and have a good time and not take yourself too seriously and never be pretentious about it.”

William Castle died on May 31, 1977 of a heart attack. He was 63-years-old. His legacy lives on in his vast contributions to cinema, particularly the horror film genre, and from his incredibly gifted gimmicks that captured the imagination of an entire generation and those that followed.

About Steven Thrash

Thrash graduated Cum Laude from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock with a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Mass Communications, focusing on film studies, journalism and theatre arts. Dubbed a "prolific" writer by Hollywood icon Kenneth Johnson (The Incredible Hulk, V, The Bionic Woman, Alien Nation), Steven has been honored by the Arkansas College Media Association for his story writing prowess. He has also received recognition for his dramatic writing from the Eerie, Shriekfest and Screamfest horror film festivals. Publications include: Carroll County News, Benton Courier, Saline Courier, Forum, Echo, ABC Financial and Moroch.

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