Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (2007)

Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (2007) movie poster

director Jeffrey Schwarz
viewed: 10/31/2014

William Castle.  Awesome dude.

This is a good, laudatory and loving documentary about the many, the movies, and his gimmicks.  John Waters is almost giddy recalling his love for Castle and his flicks, being that he was more or less the prime age for his films at the time they were flying fast and furious in the late 1950’s- early 1960’s.

It’s funny, but growing up the only one of his films I ever managed to catch was the one considered his best, 1959’s The Tingler.  And though I kind of knew about the gimmicks, I liked that movie just plain straight up.

The documentary features his daughter, recounting not only his movies and career but his childhood, rise in career, and his family life.  He seems like a super cool guy.

I’ve watched a number of his films myself, but still far from all of them, even the ones from his heyday.  All I can say is he’s great.

The Old Dark House (1963)

The Old Dark House (1963) movie poster

director William Castle
viewed: 01/27/2014

Finishing up or simply furthering my little William Castle festival, I watched his 1963 re-make of The Old Dark House (1932).  It’s an oddity in perhaps from a number of perspectives.  It’s a William Castle/Hammer Studio production, two things not exactly akin to one another.  It stars Tom Poston, who I still mostly associate with his later career role on the 1970’s television show Mork & Mindy.   It also features a lot of good English character actors like Robert Morley, Peter Bull, and Joyce Grenfell, not all of whose names may ring bells but their faces and voices would.

It’s not up to the caliber of the James Whale The Old Dark House, but maybe that’s unfair.  It’s lightly goofy but kind of charming.  An American car salesman in London (Poston) gets invited back to the titular abode to deliver a new car to his oddball roommate only to discover a family of kooks who are forced to live in said house in order to be able to have access to its wealth.  Of course, someone starts killing off family members and then it’s a bit of a whodunnit sprinkled with the supernatural, which Castle handles with reasonable aplomb.

I’d suggest that it’s neither deft nor entirely tired.  Poston handles his lead role with good comic timing.  He’s no Jimmy Stewart, though he seems to play a similar type of character that one might imagine Stewart doing.  I’d place it on the better side of mediocre.  It kind of hit a soft spot for me.

13 Frightened Girls (1963)

13 Frightened Girls (1963) movie poster

director William Castle
viewed: 01/24/2014

For my little William Castle mini-marathon, I decided to watch his films that I hadn’t seen and I chose to watch them in order of the available movies from Fearnet.  While 13 Frightened Girls sounds vaguely like 13 Ghosts (1960) in title, it’s actually quite the departure in content and style.

First off, it’s not a horror film at all, but a kids spy movie, light, comical, whimsical, and with no William Castle gimmick to be seen.  It’s about 13 girls (I guess that the gimmick was in the casting of the 13 young women) who are the daughters of diplomats from around the world.  They go to a school together, like tween Madelines, but all the fun happens when they go on break and back to their London embassies.

The intrigue surrounds the American “Candy” who is in puppy love with Wally, her father’s top spy operative.  Overhearing a blip of information about a Soviet who wants to seek asylum, Kathy finds herself in madcap dangers, in visiting her friend from “Red” China, Mai-Ling, whose uncle and his henchmen have killed the asylum-seeker, apparently to keep some Cold War secrets secret.

You know, it’s super silly, aimed at a pretty young audience, playing off of the kittenish cattyness of young teenage girls from a much more innocent age.  The intrigue is pretty whimsical too.  It may not be great by any estimate, but it’s actually kind of cute.  Actually maybe it’s pretty cute.  Saccharine too, but cute.

It’s kind of funny because there are stereotypes upon stereotypes as you would expect in a 1963 image of representatives of the world, etched in super short-hand.  But it’s not nearly as offensive as it could have been.  Perhaps it’s not too bad in that department.

It’s interesting because the girls from the Communist countries like Russia and China and (Germany?) are cliquish but they exclude Mai-Ling mainly because she is the youngest girl at the school.  So Candy genuinely befriends her, though she gets up to all kinds of mischief in her striving to solve the mysteries.  And in the end, when the girls are separated by the clashing ideologies and suspicious adults, there is a mild sadness in this friendship between two girls from these very different worlds.

The film is not all that deep in any area, but I did think it was kind of interesting, it’s playing with these various cultural images, particularly at the point in the Cold War that the film was made.  It’s far from profound but it was kind of sweet.  I actually kind of wished I’d watched it with Clara.  I think she would have liked it.

Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

Mr. Sardonicus (1961) movie poster

director William Castle
viewed: 01/24/2014

The second film of my mini-William Castle film festival was his 1961 film, Mr. Sardonicus.

Mr. Sardonicus differs from the other of Castle’s films that I’ve seen in that it’s a period piece, set in London in the 19th century.  It echoes perhaps of the films of Val Lewton or classic Univeral horror films in a way.

It’s the story of a man whose face has been contorted permanently into a crazy ghoulish grin due that came about when he dug up his dead father to retrieve a winning lottery ticket.  His face is supposed to mimic the rictus on the face of his father’s corpse.  He lures a talented surgeon to his castle to try to cure him of his permanent problem.  But he’s a most unscrupulous man, testing all kinds of heinous tortures on women, just as gruesome in the soul as on his face.

The image of Mr. Sardonicus is one of those odd icons of horror made forever famous by Famous Monsters of Filmland.  So it was kind of cool to see it in context.

The dialog is actually pretty good in the film, written as it was by Ray Russell from his short story “Sardonicus” to which Castle had purchased the rights.  As a horror film on its own, it’s a bit more straightforward and less gimmicky than Castles other films.

Not to say it’s without a gimmick.  This film featured a vote by the audience, to further punish Mr. Sardonicus or to let him off the hook.  Audience members were given a voting card, and of course, Castle appears onscreen and counts to votes in the momentary break with the narrative.  Of course, the audience votes to see further punishment, even when you watch it on tv like I did.

13 Ghosts (1960)

13 Ghosts (1960) movie poster

director William Castle
viewed: 01/24/2014

When posed with the opportunity of a William Castle mini-marathon, one must simply, gladly accept.  This is sort of how my Friday night started out.  Of the Xfinity/Comcast on demand free movie channels, Fearnet, has long had some good fare, but I only noticed that they were showing these films in letterboxed format and that they had several William Castle pics available.  So, I indulged.

Castle was quite a character, adding a lot of showbiz to his flicks.  For 13 Ghosts, the gimmick was Illusion-O, where audience members were given a viewing device that was basically a little cardboard with a blue and a red cellophane window to look through.  The “ghost” sequences were shown in red and blue (as opposed to the rest of the film’s black and white) and the idea was that if you were too afraid of ghosts you could basically filter them out by looking through the red window.  And if you were brave enough, you looked through the blue, which I guess would have enhanced them.

Sadly, one of the downsides of a Castle film of this period is that you don’t get all the extras.  They’re still quite a bit of fun.

13 Ghosts has a wonderful opening where the ghosts appear in rather gruesome design, counting down, from 1 to the ? of 13.  The rest of the film is a kind of silly, but fun story of a family that inherits a supposedly haunted house from a rich uncle who researched and captured ghosts all over the world.  He also hid his fortune in the house in cash somewhere.

I actually think that  13 Ghosts is a little more eerie than The House on Haunted Hill (1959), though it’s not an entirely different set-up.  It’s a fun, goofy, good old time.

The Tingler (1959)

The Tingler (1959) movie poster

director William Castle
viewed: 10/25/2013

Our Halloween horror fest got a shot in the arm from TCM’s available On Demand movies.  So many great ones, too many to choose from.  But when one of my all-time favorites was sitting there, just waiting to be watched, I convinced the kids to sit through a second feature. (I had just managed to terrify them with Night of the Living Dead (1968)), I wasn’t too sure how they would feel about another movie that I said was totally awesome.

As I’ve noted before, The Tingler was a personal favorite from childhood.  Exactly the kind of thing I really wanted to share with the kids.

William Castle’s strange and silly approach to horror makes for good fun.  And this film sucked the kids in pretty quickly.

Felix aptly noted that the shot of the red blood coming out of the tap in the bathroom (in an otherwise black-and-white film) was particularly effective.  And afterwards Felix said that he wanted to go as Vincent Price for Halloween.  Though I’m pretty sure he’s not going to pull that off, I do have do note the success that I’ve had in making sure that my kids know who Vincent Price is (something I made a conscious decision to work on a couple of years back.)  Even the idea that Felix would want to go as Vincent Price for Halloween is a particular coup on that front.

I did explain to them about Castle’s employment of electric buzzers in seats at theaters so that the blackout scenes made a bit more sense to them.  They were most amused by this.

It’s a most amusing movie.

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

House on Haunted Hill (1959) movie poster

director William Castle

viewed: 04/13/2012

A brief conversation with some 20-something co-workers brought shock to my ears.  I mentioned how another (older) co-worker had met Vincent Price and was commenting that I thought that was a very cool person to be able to say that one had met.  The crickets and the tumbleweeds and the blank expressions told me that these two women had never heard of Vincent Price.  I vowed that my children shall know Vincent Price.  They shall not be ignorant of the classic, classy Hollywood star/horror film icon.

We of course have watched a couple of other Vincent Price films together, mostly in the context of watching a lot of classic horror films.  We’d watched The Fly (1958) a couple of years back, and more recently had watched House of Wax (1953) (which Clara was really into), but I hadn’t harped upon the point of who the actors are.  I usually don’t, except in certain instances.  But after my little conversation with those two young women, I decided concertedly that we will know our Vincent Price.

Actually, I’d been considering starting with The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), inspired in part from the recent passing of its director Robert Fuest, but I thought better to go back to the 1950’s again, early Price.  And I’ve had the film House on Haunted Hill in my queue for ages anyway.  It has the double pleasure of not just being a Vincent Price film but a William Castle film, though I have to say that I’m still much more a fan of the pair’s The Tingler (1959), so maybe we’ll have to watch that together at some point too.

House on Haunted Hill is a lesser effort.  Price plays millionaire Frederick Loren, who invites an odd cast of characters, that he claims to have never met, to spend the night in a supposedly haunted house, offering $10,000 to anyone who survives the night.  The story is really about his own weird relationship with his wife, played by the very alluring Carol Ohlmert, with whom he has a rather openly hateful relationship.  As the story starts to unfold, it’s unclear if it’s the supernatural at work or what, and it’s a little unclear which way the film will go.

Clara found it pretty scary.  I talked to her about how we’ve seen some of these haunted house tropes played out in other things we’ve seen, suggesting that there is usually some twist to the plot.  Still, she found it freaky.  Not to say that she didn’t like it, but she said it was very scary.  Felix was away so it was just Clara and I. In the original release of the film, Castle mounted skeletons in the theaters that he ran out over the audiences’ heads at an appropriate time.  The film had a level of camp to it for me that made it pretty funny without being brilliantly so.

There are a few MacGuffins in the film that are sort of inexplicable if you spend too much time thinking about it.  A couple of gory heads that appear for moments of shock value.  They don’t really make sense if you think about it too much.  Best not do that then.  It’s fun stuff.  If Clara found it frightening, I’m sure that The Tingler would be much, much more scary.  It’s also much better.  I’ll have to navigate their appreciation for horror versus their actual level of fear.  I don’t recall finding it all that scary myself as a kid.

The Tingler

The Tingler (1959) movie poster

(1959) dir. William Castle
viewed: 11/07/08

Back in my childhood, I watched monster movies and horror films, and I scanned the TV Guide each week to see what would be playing late Friday or Saturday nights or Saturday afternoons.  I read a couple of issues of Famous Monsters of Hollywood and any books I could find about horror films and movie monsters.  I remember in one book or magazine, a still photo from The Tingler, starring Vincent Price, an image of a hand rising out of a bathtub of black ooze with a frightened woman in the background.  I noted to myself that this was something to look out for.

At some point, I can’t remember exactly when, I finally did see The Tingler, and while at that time I didn’t know anything about William Castle and I can’t say how much of it I found campy or ridiculous, but I remembered liking it very well.  I’ve kept that memory in my brain all these years, that I always really liked The Tingler, and as I have gained knowledge about cinema and the film and William Castle, that I probably had pretty good taste, even back then.

The Tingler is a B-movie, for sure.  Price is a scientist who discovers some “thing” that grows along the human spine when a person becomes frightened, but this thing disappears when someone screams and fear is “released”.  This is what makes one’s spine “tingle,” thus the title.  And also, as the film likes to remind the audience, when you scream for your life…you really are.

Because after performing an autopsy on a deaf mute woman who had been frightened to death, unable to scream, her tingler is removed and it’s a big lobster-like centipede that goes around grabbing people by the throat until they scream.

There is much about this film that is fascinating, some of which you wouldn’t necessarily know by just watching the film.  Castle was a known showman, whose films didn’t end in the editing.  For the showing of this film, Castle had “plants” in the audience who would pretend to faint and have to be removed by people in doctor’s uniforms.  But more than that, a few chairs in the theater were rigged with electrical vibrations, which were meant to simulate “the tingling” sensation, making the whole cinematic experience much more of an event.

But the values of the film are not limited either to the film or the past way in which it was shown.  But there is much more.  The film utilizes a number of techniques that end up being quite effective.  At one point in the film, the tingler gets loose in a movie theater.  Price looks a little off-camera, but toward the audience and states: “The Tingler is loose in the theater!”, which works on the double level of true to the narrative, but he’s looking down on the audience, too.  The screen goes black and Price tells the audience to watch out, the Tingler is loose, and to “scream for your lives”.  This is followed by a myriad of screaming voices, after which Price then instructs that it is now okay, that the Tingler has been paralyzed by the audience’s screams and everything is okay.  We can re-start the film again, again referring to the silent film shown on screen and The Tingler itself.

While this might sound just purely silly, there is in the setting a sort of metacritical reflexive sensibility in this whole sequence.  The Tingler gets loose in a theater showing that shows silent films and at one step further, the Tingler actually gets into the projection booth and breaks the film, then crawling across the now entirely white screen in silhouette, before attacking the projectionist and giving another sequence of completely black screen.  The Tingler plays with the audience, plays with the notion of the cinematic experience, breaking out of the film, breaking the film, just attacking, in a sense, the whole event and process of watching a movie.

Castle’s visual play is not even limited to this, but it the sequence in which the deaf-mute woman is frightened to death, in a sort of “haunted house” series of surprises, she ultimately walks into the bathroom in which the faucet on the sink if pouring blood, bright red blood in an otherwise entirely black-and-white film.  And then there is the tub, which in color is also luridly red and the hand is not coming out of ooze, but out of thick nearly day-glo red.  I think that there is yet another reference in a discussion in an earlier part of the film about how films are all made in “color these days”, furthering the self-reference and playing further with that notion.

And if this all wasn’t enough, The Tingler, according to some of the historians, is the first time that LSD is used in a movie.  In trying to frighten himself, Vincent Price injects himself with a massive dose of LSD, then not an illegal substance, but one still considered as dangerous as “nitroglycerin”.

It’s a brilliant film, a brilliant, amazing B-movie from one of the best B-movie men in the business.  And the further depths of the film make it almost Modernist is its breaking apart of the cinematic process.  It’s terrific.  I was a little shocked to read that it was listed among The 100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made in The Official Razzeie® Movie Guide.  That just goes to show how some people have no sense of quality.

Strait-Jacket

 

Strait-Jacket (1964) movie poster

(1964) dir. William Castle
viewed: 12/07/06

Written by the author of Psycho, Robert Bloch, and directed by the inimitable William Castle, and starring Joan Crawford in a late-career renaissance in an uber-cult role as a reformed killer, who is trying to stabilize her life after 20 years in an asylum, this movie is packed with fun and qualities.  They just don’t make movies like this anymore.

Crawford gives what is referred to in the “Making of…” documentary as “an A-List performance in a B-Movie role”, and that is not far from the truth.  While there are some excellent moments of camp, Crawford also really gives this great sense of vulnerability and uncertainty.  It’s quite a moving performance to be honest.

But it’s also about axe-wielding and beheadings.  The poster shows a deranged Crawford in mid-swing and Castle fetishizes knives, axes, knitting needles, anything good for poking or cutting.  And it has a classic plot-twist, if not as clever as Psycho, at least it’s satisfying.

The opening sequence is the most visually entertaining, zooming close-ups, stills, quick cuts, of myriad images, while a voice tells the beginnings of the story.  It’s wild and fun and cool and poppy.  And then the title sequence which follows uses some really interesting paintings upon which to lay-out the credits.

It’s not in the top tier of my cult favorites, but the film does have a lot to offer.  Chop, Chop.