Everyone knows I love and worship me some Alfred Hitchcock. I have a tattoo to prove it. But he’s not the only constellation in my cinematic heavens. Not far away and shining almost as brightly is William Castle. The man was a promotions powerhouse, the P.T. Barnum of B-movies. If you haven’t seen Matinee, John Goodman does a great job of portraying Castle’s brand of showmanship/hucksterism. The man would be a venerable 107 today, so in his honor, for your amusement and bemusement, I lay at your feet my Top 5 William Castle Gimmicks.
#5 Fright Break, Homicidal
While possibly my personal favorite William Castle movie, its gimmick is not super high on my list. It’s still clever enough to mention though. At 1:19:00, the movie stops for The Fright Break. You now has 45 seconds to leave the theater before the big reveal/plot twist (which you will have so figured out way before this). Should you elect to leave, you’d follow yellow footprints on the floor (also lit in yellow) to the “Coward’s Corner” in the lobby. After signing a yellow card that says “I Am A Bona Fide Coward” you’d sit in a specially erected yellow cardboard booth.
#4 Emergo, House On Haunted Hill
Theater owners could choose to rig up a pulley system. When the skeleton comes out in the movie, this would allow them to have a plastic skeleton fly out over the audience. So simple, but must have induced such total mayhem. Interestingly I live less than a block from The Naro, Norfolk’s arthouse cinema. It just so happens The Naro can be rented for private events. House On Haunted Hill is in the public domain which means screening it should be no big deal, so how great would it be to actually do this? I better save up.
#3 Fright Insurance, Macabre
Castle’s first movie is also the champagne bottle with which his gimmickry vessel was christened. It’s also comically depicted in Matinee. Each patron got a $1000 “life insurance policy” from Lloyd’s Of London in the event that anyone died of fright during the movie. There were nurses in the lobby (another great portrayal in Matinee) and hearses outside.
#2 Punishment Poll, Mr. Sardonicus
The story goes that the movie had two endings, Mercy or Death. Everyone got a card that they displayed as thumbs up for the Mercy thumbs down for Death. Castle then breaks the 4th wall to look out over the audience and “count the votes.” The gimmick itself isn’t a big deal. What’s interesting is the speculation. See, nobody knows whether or not Castle shot two endings as the only one that currently exists is Death. The man himself apparently swears up and down in his autobiography that he did indeed shoot both endings, but audiences chose Death. Every. Single. Time. Given his masterful showmanship I’m inclined to doubt Castle’s veracity. On the other hand, my less than sunny and forgiving view of human nature being what it is, my doubt is by no means 100% on that.
Cardboard Axes for Strait-Jacket
Illusion-O, the Ghost viewer/remover from 13 Ghosts
Million Dollar Insurance Policy for a cockroach named Hercules, the star of Bug
And #1 Percepto, The Tingler
Hands down my absolute favorite and something I probably couldn’t replicate at The Naro. But don’t just take my word for its sheer delight. Here’s what another one of my heroes, John Waters, had to say about it in This Filthy World:
…the Tingler gets loose, and you hear the announcer in the movie say “Ladies and gentlemen the Tingler is loose in the theater! Scream! Scream for your life!” and everybody starts screaming and then Percepto, these little electric buzzers went off under the seat and gave you a little electric shock? It was so good. Y’know. When it finally came to the theater in my neighborhood, they only bothered to wire about two or three of the seats, so I’d go early and look under every seat ’til I found the Percepto buzzer and then just sit there and get my ass buzzed all day long–2, 4, 6, 8, and 10 o’clock show. That was when I realized there could be such a thing as art in the cinema.
And with that, be it in this world or some other, all of us here in Castle Blogferatu wish Mr. Castle a happy birthday.