Last Saturday, Martine and I visited one of the three places worth seeing in Hollywood, namely the Hollywood Heritage Museum, which is almost in the shadow of he Hollywood Bowl off Highland Avenue. (The other two places worth seeing are the Egyptian Theater, especially during Cinecon, and the Los Angeles Fire Department Historical Society’s museum on Cahuenga.)
It is not the museum I want to talk about right now—though I’ll get to it later—but an exhibit I saw there honoring that great showman of horror, William Castle, director of such classics as Macabre (1958), The House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960), Mr. Sardonicus (1961), and Homicidal (1961). Although he was active since the early 1940s, it is during this relatively short period in the 1950s and 1960s that he almost pre-empted the horror genre.
What make Castle famous at the time was that he were his publicity gimmicks. When he released Macabre, he had to mortgage his house, so he came up with some hilarious ideas to promote the picture, such as giving every customer a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyds of London in case they should die of fright during the film. He stationed nurses in the lobbies and had hearses parked outside the theaters.
My favorite of his films was The Tingler, filmed in “Percepto.” According to Wikipedia:
The title character is a creature that attaches itself to the human spinal cord. It is activated by fright, and can only be destroyed by screaming. Castle purchased military surplus air-plane wing de-icers (consisting of vibrating motors) and had a crew travel from theatre to theatre attaching them to the underside of some of the seats (in that era, a movie did not necessarily open on the same night nationwide). In the finale, one of the creatures supposedly gets loose in the movie theatre itself. The buzzers were activated as the film’s star, Vincent Price, warned the audience to “scream—scream for your lives!” Some sources incorrectly state the seats were wired to give electrical jolts. Filmmaker and Castle fan John Waters recounted in Spine Tingler! how, as a youngster, he would search for a seat that had been wired in order to enjoy the full effect.
Well, he wasn’t the only one. Several years ago, the Alex Film Society in Glendale not only showed The Tingler, but claimed that some of the seats were “wired.” I was disappointed to see that the wiring was nothing more than some aluminum foil attached to the underside of some of the seats.
It didn’t matter. Martine and I loved the film anyhow, and we loved Castle’s gimmicks. Okay, maybe we were too sophisticated to be taken in by them, but we loved the idea that he made the horror picture not only scary, but funny.
I don’t know if Castle was a “great” director, but I still enjoy seeing his films.