In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hollywood was growing a little bit stale. If you were going to a theatre in the late 1950s or early 1960s and it wasn’t an arthouse theatre, your choices were Westerns (usually starring John Wayne), Alfred Hitchcock, some sort of melodrama with big names, or a really mediocre horror or sci-fi or sci-fi horror that wouldn’t inspire anyone to go to the theatre. It’s that last genre I want to talk about today, specifically regarding one individual. His name was William Castle. Mr. Castle had big ideas.
You see, William Castle is one of the unsung cult heroes of the world of cinema. Castle made a series of low budget B-movies, but promoted them with incredible gimmickry. He was slightly immortalized in Joe Danté’s 1993 film, Matinée. Some examples of Castle’s gimmicks:
Macabre (1958): Attendees of this film were given a $1,000 life insurance policy before the movie just in case they died of fright. To drive home the point that you might die of fright, he also required that hearses be parked in front of the theatre and placed fake nurses in the lobby.
The Tingler (1959): In some larger theatres, Castle had vibrators (for de-icing planes, not anything else, pervs) left over from World War II attached to the bottom of theatre seats. They’d vibrate during the climax of the film, which involves a scene inside of a theatre. Castle called it “Percepto” and openly encouraged patrons to scream.
House on Haunted Hill (1959): An inflatable glow-in-the-dark skeleton would swoop down on some theatre audiences at key moments in the film. According to Wikipedia, apparently some audience members would throw stuff at it in disappointment with the film.
Homicidal (1961): This is my personal favorite. He placed a 45-second timer in the finale of the film, during which people who were too scared could leave and receive a full refund. If anyone actually got up and left, the theatre embarrassed the hell out of them. They had to walk up a yellow line, bathed in yellow light (because they were yellow), and head to Coward’s Corner. The whole time, a recording blared out “Watch the chicken!”. This would leave the “coward” prone to cat calls from the audience, who harassed the crap out of them during their jaunt to Coward’s Corner.
13 Ghosts (1960): Audience members were given a “ghost viewer” comprised of red and blue cellophane. If you used the blue cellophane, you wouldn’t see the ghosts in certain scenes. If you used the red (or no viewer at all), you’d see them.
If you watch Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994), one of the stronger themes is that it’s a film about a man with huge ideas that were horribly misguided. It’s part of the charm. The same applies to William Castle. He had the cajones to think big, and promote big, even if his films were bad. At the end of the day, he made average (or below average) films and was creative enough to make the experience of seeing these bad films more enjoyable. It’s hard not to appreciate the William Castles of the world.