ON DVD & BLU-RAY
William Castle at Columbia Volume One Blu Ray (Indicator)
This boxed set brings together four gimmicky horror thrillers, all of which were produced and directed by legendary cinematic schlockmeister showman William Castle.
The Tingler (1959)
The first of the four films here begins with an introduction presented by Castle himself, who explains that some more sensitive members of the audience may occasionally feel a tingling sensation while watching the film’s scarier moments. He goes on to say that anyone who does so should feel compelled to scream out loud. When this opening is over and done with, the story begins in earnest.
Vincent Price plays a scientist named Dr. Warren Chaplin who, having performed routine autopsies over the years on criminals who are sent to the electric chair, has developed a fascination for the effect of fear on the human body. One of his findings is that, for some unexplained reason, their spinal cords occasionally fracture near the moment of death.
One day, he decides to use his vindictive, two-timing wife Isabel (Patricia Cutts) as a guinea pig in his experiments by shooting her with a gun filled with blanks. While she is incapacitated from the shock, he takes X-rays of her spine and discovers a bizarre lump of matter which briefly swells up behind it - something which he terms “the tingler”. However, he also finds out that this “tingler” shrinks down to a minuscule size when the fear is released by screaming. With that, he decides to carry out the experiment on someone who is incapable of speech.
He picks Martha Higgins (Judith Evelyn), the deaf-mute wife of a man named Ollie (Philip Coolidge) whom he recently met at one of his autopsies. While claiming to administer her with a sedative to help her sleep better, he instead gives her a dose of LSD. After a while, she begins to experience a series of terrifying occurrences - including a window closing by itself, a hideously deformed man coming towards her with a huge knife, a hairy hand throwing an axe at her and her discovering that her bath has filled up with thick, red blood. As a result of all of this, she dies of fright.
With her husband’s permission, Dr. Chaplin performs an autopsy on Martha’s corpse and manages to extract the tingler. However, this hideous creature proves to be a danger in itself. Moreover, there is a twist in the tale related to some quite unexpected circumstances surrounding Martha’s death.
As with many of William Castle’s films, appreciating The Tingler at its fullest nowadays requires using a fair bit of imagination. By way of a gimmick, Castle enlivened the cinema screenings by rigging buzzers to vibrate auditorium seats. He also planted actors to pose as audience members who scream out loud during key moments. Naturally, when watched at home on your Blu Ray player, these aspects of the experience are precluded. The cinema-set finale also makes capital from its association with the venue where it was originally supposed to be watched and hence, doesn’t quite have the same impact as it might have done when seen from a couch.
Having said all that, there’s some fun to be had here despite the fact that the full experience has been inherently curtailed when viewed at home nearly sixty years’ later. Amongst the cast, Vincent Price stands out with that soothing-yet-sinister voice of his. Some of his snide, venom-dripped exchanges of dialogue with his wife (played by Patricia Cutts) are also wonderfully bitchy and blackly comic. While the first half is somewhat pedestrian, things finally pick up when Martha is injected with LSD. The sudden sight of colourful red blood in both the sink and the bath in an otherwise black-and-white movie is a genuine shock to the system even nowadays. The meta aspects of the film (such as the director commenting straight to the camera and the tingler’s shadow crossing the screen itself, implying that it has invaded the real projection room of the cinema where it is being shown) also predate the approaches of Joe Dante (in Gremlins II: The New Batch and Matinee) and Wes Craven (in Wes Craven’s New Nightmare and the Scream series).
The tingler creature is a rather crude rubber centipede-like puppet which moves about on a visible string (at least in high definition formats; during its original cinema screenings the image most probably wouldn’t have been sharp enough for the viewer to have noticed it so easily). Still, its appearance adds to the overall amusement factor of this cheesy but lively fright fest.
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Runtime: 82 mins
Dir: William Castle
Script: Robb White
Starring: Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn, Darryl Hickman, Patricia Cutts, Pamela Lincoln, Philip Coolidge, William Castle
13 Ghosts (1960)
As with The Tingler, this one begins with an intro presented by William Castle himself, who explains the film’s central gimmick known as “Illusion-O”. He tells us that at certain points in the runtime, the screen turns blue. When this happens, audience members should watch the sequence via special glasses (supplied at the screening) featuring two different coloured lenses. If the viewer believes in ghosts then they should look through the red lens, rendering them clearly visible (although, in practice, these ghosts can still be seen on screen with the naked eye). If they don’t believe then they should look through the blue one - which renders the ghosts invisible. Sadly, the glasses themselves aren’t provided with this home viewing release. However, there are options on the disc allowing you to watch the film in a manner which emulates either the red or blue lens effect, depending on your own choice.
The story focuses on the Zorba family: dad Cyrus (Donald Woods), mum Hilda (Rosemary DeCamp), teenage daughter Medea (Jo Morrow) and younger son Arthur (Charles Herbert). Cyrus earns so little money as a museum guide that all of the furniture in their home has just been taken away by removal men. When Arthur has a birthday party, he makes a wish before blowing out the candles on his cake: to live in a house filled with furniture. At that second, a mysterious wind blows out the candles and the phone rings. Cyrus has been asked to come to the office of attorney Benjamin Rush (Martin Milner). His revelations initially turn out to be a mighty stroke of fortune for the beleaguered family: Cyrus’s uncle Plato has left his mansion, all of his furniture and a mysterious pair of glasses in his will for them. Needless to say, they jump at the opportunity. However, there’s a catch: Plato spent his life collecting ghosts from all over the world - 13 of which will be sharing the house with them.
Leaving aside the visually bizarre Illusion-O sequences, 13 Ghosts is a rather silly and mild supernatural chiller which is clearly aimed at a younger audience. The young Arthur treats the supernatural manifestations with nothing more than nonchalant amusement, even when being confronted by a spectral lion and its headless tamer. To be honest, the viewer is likely to share those same sentiments. The other effects include various household objects floating around on strings - mildly diverting for sure, but hardly scary or spectacular by any stretch of the imagination.
There’s also a “surprise twist” here which is pretty much a rehash of the one in The Tingler. One gets the distinct feeling that screenwriter Robb White (who had indeed also worked on The Tingler and some of Castle’s other films) knocked this one out in double-quick time. Still, while the whole shebang is frankly cliched, it at least doesn’t take itself any more seriously than it should do: i.e. not at all. For instance, it turns out that the house comes with its own resident housekeeper named Elaine (Margaret Hamilton), whom Arthur repeatedly refers to as “The Witch”. For the benefit of non-buffs of old movies, that’s a little in-joke on Hamilton’s role as The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz (1939).
While it’s a not great film by any means, it has its charms as a quirky time-killer.
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Runtime: 85 mins
Dir: William Castle
Script: Robb White
Starring: Charles Herbert, Jo Morrow, Martin Milner, Rosemary DeCamp, Donald Woods, Margaret Hamilton, William Castle
This psychological thriller revolves around a homicidal young woman named Emily (played by Joan Marshall, here credited as Jean Arless) who is wanted for the brutal murder of a justice of the peace. She works as a nurse for a mute, disabled elderly lady named Helga Swenson (Eugenie Leontovich), who also lives with her son Murray and step-daughter Miriam. The story follows Emily’s scheming and machinations as the police close in.
There’s a bit less of William Castle’s personality in Homicidal than there was in The Tingler and 13 Ghosts. While he provides the usual introduction, it’s a very brief and almost superfluous affair in comparison to the equivalents in the previous two films. The one brief gimmick here is a 45-second “fright break” prior to the film’s climax, availing jumpier members of the audience with the opportunity to leave the theatre and get a refund on their ticket price - provided that they do so from the so-called “Coward’s Corner”, that is.
While it makes a number of quite blatant nods at Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, most of the story’s elements and twists are different enough to make it more of a homage than an actual rip-off. I’d better not give these twists away - firstly, because it’s a film which thrives on the element of surprise and secondly because it plays out like a sort of cinematic puzzle where numerous details only make sense in retrospect.
In terms of actual filmmaking quality sans gimmicks, Homicidal is somewhat more polished than the first two in this Indicator boxed set. However, it manages to be a tad less entertaining. Shots are generally very well-composed, making some great use of chiaroscuro lighting and a split diopter lens. The sets have an elaborate, distinctively gothic quality about them. There are also a couple of well-edited, amazingly violent murders, a wonderfully melodramatic scene involving Emily throwing a rage whereby she destroys several items in a bridal shop and, of course, that shocking (well, a little bit shocking) climax.
On the other hand, Joan Marshall’s stilted performance as the central psycho ends up being more irritating than slyly menacing. I never really felt myself moving anywhere near to the edge of my seat either; Castle lacks Hitchcock’s flair for maintaining a suffocating grip on the proceedings and tends to slow things down by incorporating too much in the way of talky exposition. The latter is something of an issue in all of his films but it’s particularly noticeable here.
The perfect analogy for Homicidal is a rock band which you can sum up via the handy adage “I liked their earlier stuff better”. In common with the particular musical outfit you’re thinking of (and there are many throughout history), Castle was obviously going for a slightly more mature approach this time around. By doing so, however, he lost some of the unbridled enthusiasm and sense of fun which (warts and all) the earlier films possessed in abundance.
Watch a trailer:
Runtime: 87 mins
Dir: William Castle
Script: Robb White
Starring: Glenn Corbett, Patricia Breslin, Eugenie Leontovich, Alan Bunce, Richard Rust, James Westerfield, Gilbert Green, Joan Marshall, William Castle
Mr. Sardonicus (1961)
As is customary, director William Castle introduces this tale by popping up in a fog-shrouded 1880s London setting and telling us about the ghoul - a variety of undead creature which exhumes human corpses and feeds on the rotting flesh. Meanwhile, in this same city, a physician named Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis) practices a rare form of massage which can be used to treat muscular ailments.
Sir Robert receives a letter hand-delivered by a disfigured hunchback man named Krull (Oskar Homolka). It was written by his former lover, Baroness Maude (Audrey Dalton), who is pleading for him to come to visit herself and her husband, Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe), in their castle in the fictitious Central European country of Gorslava.
When he arrives at their dark, peculiarly skull-shaped abode, he discovers that Sardonicus is afflicted with a condition which forces him to wear a facial mask. He tells Sir Robert of the nature of his affliction and the strange tale of how he was cursed with it. He has already approached three renowned doctors in an attempt to cure it, but with no success. Effectively, Sir Robert is his last hope. Unfortunately, our hero also discovers that Sardonicus and Krull have certain predilections towards sadism - and are more than willing to exercise them should he fail to deliver the desired results.
Castle quite effectively turned his hand to the gothic horror genre here. The film features a solid story, one of those great semi-sympathetic tragically grotesque villains, a darkly foreboding atmosphere, a dash of sadism and some well-orchestrated scares. The top scare here, of course, revolves around Sardonicus’s hideous appearance - something which is smartly built up through the first half.
The gimmick this time around is the so-called Punishment Card; just before the final scene, Castle appears on camera and invites the audience members to hold it up in order to vote on whether Sardonicus should be punished for his actions or not. In true Roman-era style, if the majority display a “thumbs-up” symbol then he will be spared. However, if the majority display a “thumbs-down” symbol then he will suffer. In reality, it’s an illusory piece of audience interaction since the pre-recorded footage of the director always reveals that the majority of audience members want him to suffer - leading to his inevitable “bad” ending. There’s no evidence that a “thumbs-up” ending was ever filmed. In a variant of a tactic used in screenings of The Tingler, employees were planted amongst the audience in order to rig the ballot.
While I doubt that Mr. Sardonicus would have given the great Mario Bava sleepless nights worrying about his gothic horror crown being usurped, it’s still a decent effort - and arguably pick of this set.
Watch a trailer:
Runtime: 89 mins
Dir: William Castle
Script: Ray Russell, based on his own novel
Starring: Ronald Lewis, Audrey Dalton, Guy Rolfe, Oskar Homolka, Vladimir Sokoloff, Erika Peters, William Castle
Blu Ray Audio Visual
As per usual with Indicator’s releases, each of these films is presented with top-notch visual and audio qualities. Everything looks and sounds pristine and pin-sharp. All the better to see those delightful string-operated effects on The Tingler and 13 Ghosts with!
Highlights Amongst the Extras
This boxed set contains about as rich a treasure trove of extras as you could possibly hope for. They include collector’s booklets, four different viewing options for 13 Ghosts, audio commentaries for the other three films, numerous documentaries, image galleries, lobby spots and trailers with Trailers from Hell commentaries. Here are some highlights:
The Tingler Audio Commentary with Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby
BFI staffer Kevin Lyons and film historian Jonathan Rigby provide this genial gab track. While they spend the bulk of the time discussing the film’s idiosyncrasies (watch out for the medical book with the title printed on the back cover), they still provide us with some fascinating trivia along the way. Vincent Price pressed for the casting of second-billed Judith Evelyn as they had worked together previously on a stage production of Patrick Hamilton’s Gas Light. 5 foot 8 inch actor Darryl Hickman needed lifts in his shoes to act alongside the 6 foot 4 Vincent Price.
Production-wise, the film was the very definition of a quickie; it was shot in 12 days, wrapping on 1st June 1959 and coming out about 2 months’ later. However, the real hard work came with Castle’s very hands-on promotion of the film. He claimed to have “buzzed 22 million behinds” with the vibrating seats of his Percepto technique. However, this is likely to be a major exaggeration since only a few seats in each auditorium were rigged up in this way. Amusingly, one cinema decided to test it out a week before on a screening of the Audrey Hepburn-starring The Nun’s Story!
With all of his usual genre-literate enthusiasm, Kim Newman discusses The Tingler, a film which to this day is more notorious for its buzzing seats than for anything else. He argues that it’s strange enough in its own right to warrant attention even without this gimmick. He also briefly touches on the titular theme of “imaginary biology” which was subsequently popularised by David Cronenberg’s early run of films, as well as the recurring motif of “the splash of red” within otherwise black-and-white films, e.g. Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) and Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993).
Scream for Your Lives!
This archive featurette is a fun reminisce about William Castle, The Tingler and its gimmicks. Amongst those interviewed include actor Darryl Hickman, monster enthusiast Bob Burns and author Lucy Chase Williams, who wrote the book The Complete Films of Vincent Price. Hickman reveals that, when his wife went to see the film, she got one of the tingling seats, resulting in her leaving the cinema with a migraine. He also talks about one of its early publicity stunts; during production, the Tingler prop was kept in a box under armed guard, with various sinister sound effects playing in the background. Press were invited to come along and see it. When Castle premiered the film in San Antonio, Burns and some of his friends presented him dressed up as monsters and presented him with a special skeleton key to the city.
Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story
This wonderful, poignant 82-minute doc is an absolute must-watch. It examines William Castle’s life and body of work, from his childhood as an orphan in New York to his final film as producer, Bug. Accompanying us on the journey are a wide selection of filmmakers and cinephiles including John Landis, John Waters, Joe Dante, Roger Corman, Stuart Gordon and Leonard Maltin. His real-life son and daughter also reminisce extensively about a man who, owing to him growing up without a mother or father, was very protective of his own family. The most entertaining sections here discuss the various gimmicks which made his 1950s and 60s films so popular. However, it’s the revelations about the man behind the phenomenon which lend this documentary its heart.
Spine Tingler! also comes with its audio commentary (by Jeffrey Schwarz and Willam Castle’s daughter Terry) and making-of on this disc.
The Magic of Illusion-O
Columbia’’s Michael Schlesinger, filmmaker Fred Olen Ray, monster enthusiast Bob Burns and film historian Donald F. Glut discuss 13 Ghosts in this featurette. The promotion included a float which drove around the streets with child volunteers who dressed up as ghosts. Castle got the idea for the “Ghost Viewer” glasses after trying out different lenses during an eye test.
13 Ghosts Introduction by Stephen Laws
Horror buff Laws discusses his long-time obsession with the film as well as touching on the respective careers of the various cast members. One of the most interesting bits of trivia which he reveals here is that actress Rosemary DeCamp came very close to being hit by a crashing experimental aircraft flown by none other than Howard Hughes! He also mentions an aborted original gimmick, whereby Castle had intended to buy a real-life haunted house and make up two million keys to give to members of the audience - only one of which would have fitted its front door. However, the logistics of such an idea were understandably unfeasible to put into practice.
Homicidal Audio Commentary with Lee Gambin
This lively commentary by film historian and writer Gambin doesn’t delve so much into the production itself but instead tends to focus on female characters and gender identity in Homicidal and the wider horror genre. Interestingly, he points out a couple of later films which reused or cloned the fright break gimmick. The 1990 Australian slasher Bloodmoon blatantly ripped it off, while 1974 Amicus horror The Beast Must Die featured a so-called “werewolf break” which invited the audience to guess the identity of the werewolf.
Homicidal Introduction by Stephen Laws
Laws discusses the not-so-coincidental similarities between Homicidal and Psycho, with side-by-side comparisons of certain key scenes in both films. He briefly talks about William Castle’s “Coward’s Corner” gimmick, which patrons who left during the films “fright break” had to stand inside in order to qualify for a refund. He also spends some time talking about the fascinating career of actress Joan Marshall, who came very close to major fame when she landed a role as Phoebe Munster in an unaired pilot for the TV series The Munsters. Alas, the TV network changed their minds and replaced her with Yvonne De Carlo (playing the very similar Lily Munster) when it was turned into a series. She was married five times - including to Hal Ashby, who cast her in Shampoo and loosely based the script on her real life story.
Psychette: William Castle and Homicidal
Michael Schlesinger, Donald F. Glut, Bob Burns et al take a brief look at the films’s publicity and gimmicks. This featurette also includes some footage and stills from film’s promotions and world premiere, including Castle interviewing several audience members. One lady even describes the film as being “much better than Psycho”. Each to their own. More extensive footage from the premiere at the Palace Theatre in Youngstown, Ohio is included as another extra.
Mr. Sardonicus Audio Commentary with Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan
Diabolique Magazine editors Kat Ellinger & Samm Deighan have a good natter about the life of William Castle, the various recurring themes in his work and the wider gothic horror genre. They also reveal a few interesting pieces of trivia about the film Mr. Sardonicus itself. For the leech torture scene, William Castle had originally wanted to use the real thing. When actress Lorna Hanson refused to have them attached to her body, he attempted to demonstrate that they were safe by putting them on his own chest. He learnt his lesson the hard way; when they started to suck his blood, he switched to fake ones instead!
Castle inserted the “Punishment Poll” gimmick because Columbia didn’t like the nasty final scene. Hence, he came up with the idea of letting the audience decide. However, he rigged it (by planting shills in the auditorium) so that the vote would always opt for this ending.
Jonathan Rigby discusses and critiques Mr. Sardonicus in this 27-minute featurette. He notes that, while it’s a pretty sadistic film, Ray Russell’s original novella was even more so; in the written version, Sardonicus threatens to rape Cargrave’s lover Maude “morning, noon and night” if he fails to find a cure for his affliction. Nonetheless, even the film version ran into problems with the BBFC (British Board of Film Censors), who demanded that all shots of the leech torture and nearly all shots of Sardonicus’s hideous face (bar one, where he is seen reflected in a pool) be removed. It only came out in the UK towards the end of 1964, on a double bill with a subsequent William Castle film called 13 Frightened Girls.
While these film’s aren’t exactly high art - or even in the top drawer of genre cinema - they are entertaining in their own peculiar ways. However, it’s Indicator’s package as a whole which gives us such a compelling picture of what made them so special back in the day.