Though we didn’t lose him as recently as Craven, Romero, or Hooper, there has never been a director and horror maestro quite like the likes of William Castle. He died in 1977 after a career spanning five decades and dozens of movies. He is best-known for his gimmicks like putting buzzers in theatre seats, parking hearses outside the cinema doors, or giving film-goers certificates for $1000 life insurance policies lest they die of fright. Castle was a true showman and we have not yet to see his like again.
House on Haunted Hill (1959)
Overview: A group of strangers interested in ghosts are offered $10,000 to stay in a haunted house.
Price: You know you’re in good hands when one of the first faces you see belongs to Vincent Price. Price consistently managed to elevate any material he turned his eye to, and a horror movie of this period with Price in the cast is guaranteed to be fun due to his presence. Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t always act in classics but even if he was in dreck, he was the best part of that dreck.
With House on Haunted Hill he is in his element as the shady millionaire who summons a group of people to Haunted Hill for a ‘party’ and the offer of $10,000 if they are willing to be locked in the house and stay the entire night. At the same time Price is sparring with his wife (Carol Ohmart) whom he believes is plotting to kill him. The interactions between Price and Ohmart are brilliant and they come across like Tracy and Hepburn but if both of them were about to poison the other’s coffee.
Ghosts: This wouldn’t be a William Castle movie without some manner of gimmick, and this one is definitely one you had to be present for. When the movie was shown in theatres, during a scene in which a skeleton appears, an actual skeleton on wires would appear next to the screen and fly over the heads of the audience on wires. I don’t have to have seen that in real life to know that if that happened to me I would have run out screaming, shit in my pants, or both.
The movie toys with the existence of the ghosts and whether or not they are parlour tricks, actual spirits, or the monstrous housekeepers that keep sneaking up on people (providing some excellent jump scares). To do this Castle employs all manner of ‘50s special effects with haunting music, people floating down corridors, fake heads, wirework, and the silky tones of Vincent Price, which are hard to argue with.
For a movie from 1959, it feels mostly fresh with the exception of the character of Nora who does nothing but run around screaming and get called hysterical by the men around her. She does get some agency towards the end of the movie but she is mostly there to get spooked and then comforted by whichever man is closest to her.
Overall: A very fun, atmospheric movie. There are a couple of great twists throughout and there is a strong soap opera tone to the affair as we see faked deaths, lover’s quarrels, cuckolded husbands out for revenge, and schemes within schemes. The ending is great and probably the only thing that would have made it better is if a lit up skeleton had flown around my room as I was watching it, but you can’t have everything.
The Tingler (1959)
Overview: A doctor studying the effects of fear finds a parasite living on the spines of terrified people.
Gimmick: William Castle introduces this movie with a warning and advice. He tells the audiences that should they feel a tingling sensation in their back they may have been affected by the Tingler, and the only recourse is to scream at the top of your lungs. Anyone around the screamer is encouraged to scream too as to ward off the Tingler so it doesn’t get you as well. It’s a fun opening made even more devious by the fact that Castle had select seats in the theatres showing his movie wired with buzzers that would go off during appearances of the Tingler. Lucky, or unlucky, patrons would be watching Vincent Price talking about how once the tingle starts in a person’s back they don’t have much time left when suddenly they would feel an intense tingling sensation in their own back. And the only way to beat the Tingler is by screaming.
Watching this movie it almost feels as though the gimmick was thought of first and Castle asked collaborator Robb White to write a story around it. This seems especially true considering that the finale takes places in a blacked out cinema with Vincent Price’s voice telling the movie crowd (and by default the viewing crowd) that the Tingler is among them and they need to scream. It must have been an absolute blast seeing this movie with a packed house.
Fear: The movie itself doesn’t have a great reputation but it is a very enjoyable bit of cheesy ‘50s schlock. Price plays a doctor whose main passion is fear. He wonders if a person can die of fright and what exactly kills them. His studies lead him to discover the presence of a centipede-like creature that locks onto the terrified person’s spine and that can only be removed with screaming.
Add into this young lovers, an unfaithful wife, a new friend who might not be what he seems, and Price going on one of cinema’s first ever LSD trips, and you’ve got something that doesn’t disappoint. As usual, Castle keeps pushing forward with his effects and tricks, and one effect where a bathtub filled with blood is rendered in stark red while the rest of the movie is black and white is still the subject of hot debate around how they did it in 1959.
Overall: Price can make anything work to a point and this is perfect Price stuff with a creeping horror and a lot of sinister spousal banter. It’s one of those movies that I would love to have seen in its first release, sat in a wired chair waiting for the tingling to start and, soon after, the screaming.
13 Ghosts (1960)
Overview: A family inherits a haunted house in which the ghosts can only be seen with special goggles.
Castle: I miss the old days when horror filmmakers would be there front and centre to introduce their movies or have someone introduce their movies for them. One of my favourite pieces of horror cinema is when Edward Van Sloan (Van Helsing in Dracula) walks out on stage at the beginning of Frankenstein to warn you that Mr. Carl Lemmle has produced a movie that will “thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you.” It’s something so quaint but at the same time sets a tone for the movie that lets us know we’re about to see something fun with a few cool scares, and also that the filmmakers are so proud of their work that they want to be the ones to welcome you to their picture. 13 Ghosts begins with such a scene as we’re welcomed into William Castle’s office which is filled with arcane paraphernalia and secretary skeletons. He greets us and talks about ghosts before introducing the special viewer that cinema audiences would have received in 1960. The viewer, fitted with a blue lens and a red lens, was meant to be worn during certain scenes to enhance the ghost effects. Castle lets his audience know that if they believe in ghosts they should peer through the red lens and if they don’t believe they can look through the blue.
2017: Obviously, watching this movie in 2017 I did not have access to these goggles but that did not diminish the effect of the red-tinted ghosts. 13 Ghosts is a very fun, gateway horror film. If you had children too young for something truly scary but they were a little on the morbid side, this would be a great first step. The ghosts are unsettling but not terrifying and the movie only has one really big jump scare, which still made me spill my drink. Not bad for a movie that’s nearly sixty years old.
The plot of the movie is standard horror movie fare as a down on their luck family inherit a spooky house that they have to live in. They are plagued by restless spirits and aided by a stern housekeeper and a smooth-talking lawyer, as they try and solve the house’s mystery and free themselves from the ghosts.
Overall: A fun little horror film that won’t set your nerves on end but is a cool reminder of the tricks and gimmicks of one of the most innovative directors who ever worked in the genre. This is a horror movie you can watch with your kids or your grandparents and marvel at the effects and wonder where you can get some of the ghost viewing glasses from.
Mr. Sardonicus (1961)
Overview: A doctor is summoned to the stately home of a baron in need of medical assistance.
Dracula: Unlike the other movies covered in this piece, Mr Sardonicus feels like a departure for William Castle as he moves away from ghosts and hauntings and focuses on a period piece about a wicked man with an ailment that has made him a very unpleasant customer. Unlike Castle’s haunted house movies, Mr Sardonicus feels more like a Dracula homage with the European count summoning the British academic to his stately manse full of terrified servants and deformed henchman.
The academic in question, Sir Richard, is summoned to the residence by Baron Sardonicus’ wife, Maude, a lady that Sir Richard loved before his knighthood and who was married off to the rich baron. She and the baron do not have a happy marriage, especially as he seems to have filled the house with young women covered in leeches. When the baron finally reveals himself he is behind a mask which bears a still, rigid face to hide his own visage which comes into play later.
Gothic: Castle is adept at creating atmosphere and the baron’s home is rabbit warren of long corridors and locked doors. It’s like something out of Edgar Allan Poe or Scooby Doo. The gothic setting and story is something that Castle does so well it’s a shame that it wasn’t a well he drew from more frequently as he has the eye and tone for both shadowy horror and high melodramatics, which is mostly shown with long scenes of screaming.
The flashback to how the baron ended up looking as he does beneath the mask is the classic down on his luck tale of a young man who is trying to make his way in the world but ends up having to rob his own father’s grave which renders his face trapped in a hideous and incurable rictus grin. As with most of Castle’s work we are simply presented with this explanation and the film moves on so we can either question it or just keep going along for the ride.
And of course, there is a Castle gimmick for this movie too. This one comes with a voting system at the end of the movie. Cinema-goers would have had a card with a thumb on it which they hold up or down, depending on how they vote for the villain’s end. Of course, they always voted for punishment so Castle plays the final reel and we see the grim finale to Sardonicus’ story.
Overall: I enjoyed this the most of the four Castles I watched for this feature. He really captures that turn-of-the-century Gothic tone and the whole thing felt like it could have been based on something by Conan Doyle, Mary Shelley, or Poe.
Featured Image: Columbia Pictures