Emergo! Percepto! Illusion-o! The William Castle Circus Comes to Town


It wasn’t the film critics who granted producer-director William “King of Gimmicks” Castle his measure of immortality. Castle’s fan club—once 250,000 members strong—recruited from the playgrounds, not the intelligentsia. For, as the Jesuits say, “Give me the child. . . .”

This seducer of the innocent, subject of a 15-movie retro at Film Forum, was born in New York City, 1914, as William Schloss Jr. His surname Anglicized to “Castle,” he retained his Manhattan accent in the direct-address introductions of his later shockers, in which he did his best to seem ghoulish, despite resembling Mad magazine’s nebbishy Roger Kaputnik.

Castle’s first success after heading West was The Whistler (1944), spun off from a radio series in which an omniscient prowler narrated sinister goings-on. It’s proof that he had talent beyond marketing, creating a sweaty, dive-y atmosphere for a preposterous story about a hired assassin trying to scare a target to death. This death-by-fright is the same fate that would, years later, inspire his first gimmick.

Castle settled for more than a decade on the B-picture assembly line for Monogram, Universal-International, and, principally, Columbia. (The 3-D western Jesse James vs. The Daltons, playing in the series, is one of eight movies he completed in 1954.) But as the studios decayed in the late-’50s, Castle, age 43, mortgaged his house and independently produced, in partnership with screenwriter Robb White, a buried-alive thriller called Macabre (1958). In his baloney-scented autobiography, Step Right Up!, he reports his musings while watching the film he’d begun and finished—like the creation of the universe—in six days: ” ‘One ingredient’s missing, but I can’t put my finger on it.’ ” Retakes? No! “I’ve got it! An insurance policy! . . . That’s exactly what the movie needed—a sales gimmick.” Brunelleschi’s discovery of linear perspective cannot have been more earthshaking.

Upon entering the theater for Macabre, each viewer was given a $1,000 Lloyd’s of London life insurance policy, just in case he died of fright. This inaugurated Castle’s Golden Age, a reign of maybe six years. “We can no longer expect the distributor to create the excitement needed to sell tickets,” he told Variety—so House on Haunted Hill (1959) hyped audiences for the miracle of “Emergo,” an innovation whereby a 12-foot-tall glow-in-the-dark plastic skeleton ziplined over the audience (second-run houses got pathetic paper versions). House star Vincent Price, deliciously curdled and cuckolded for Castle, returned for The Tingler (1959), a film whose plot cannot be described with a straight face. (Perhaps not incidentally, it contains Hollywood’s first depiction of an acid trip.) Psychedelic pathologist Price is investigating a theoretical creature that materializes on the human spine during moments of extreme terror. Discovered, it looks like a greasy centipede, which dry-humps his chest as he sleeps. The Tingler—which sounds like something naughty that runs on AA batteries—became immersive with “Percepto,” a seat-mounted butt-buzzer that went off when the fourth wall crashed down and the Tingler sashayed across the screen and into the theater. (An embittered White later offered a perceptive assessment of his films with Castle: “They’re so stupid. God, there’s not a worm in your backbone when you get scared!”)

Gimmicks aside—and Film Forum will revive them all in a fully rigged-up theater—there is a particular pleasure in the ornate plot twists of Homicidal (1961) and Strait-Jacket (1964), Castle’s sicko female-hysteria slashers. The first has a knockout scene with leading person “Jean Arless” (a unisex pseudonym for actress Joan Marshall) rampaging through a florist’s shop in a Solvang, California, Danish-style strip mall—perhaps chosen to put viewers of this gender-bender in mind of the era’s sex-change poster boy/girl Christine Jorgensen, though the plot lifts from Psycho as surely as the glissandi of The Tingler‘s score come straight from Vertigo. Strait-Jacket reunites a just-released ax-murderess (Joan Crawford, indefatigable) with her daughter. Playing a spooked, broken woman fumbling to look convincing in a new maternal role, Crawford is as crawlingly uncomfortable as a Tingler down the back of your shirt; Castle’s take on family life is nothing if not consistently bleak.

The program is also heavy on Castle’s “straight” 1940s output, while later forays into absent-minded professors and kiddie comedy are mercifully confined to 1966’s Let’s Kill Uncle, starring a game Nigel Green in the titular role, menacing awful adolescents with a shark-infested pool. (It’s a shame there’s no print for his swan song Shanks, Castle’s highbrow-aspirant 1974 collaboration with Marcel Marceau, playing a corpse ventriloquist, which deserves a mini-cult.)

Of the Boomer brats that saw Castle’s movies, some became directors themselves and fondly remembered Uncle Bill in their work. John Waters had Polyester‘s Odorama gimmick; Joe Dante cast John Goodman as a Castle-inspired impresario in Matinee; while, more typically perhaps, Robert Zemeckis followed Castle’s lead in techie “innovations,” from Roger Rabbit to A Christmas Carol. Castle’s crude showmanship is a funhouse-mirror reflection of American film culture, as much a ballyhoo game today as ever—though his blatant barking is more endearing than that of contemporary hustlers who market novelty movies with reverent seriousness. Waste was unknown to the skinflint Castle, as was pretense, and he made up in jaunty aberrance what he lacked in skill. He let his audience participate in the fun of being shammed, and curated honest good times, which are hard not to have with a glowing skeleton in the mix.