Last night, thanks to Netflix, I watched a wonderful documentary, “Spine Tingler,” about William Castle, a B-movie producer-director of the 1950s and 1960s who is fondly remembered as one of the masters of P.T. Barnum-style ballyhoo.
If you are not a baby boomer, the name will probably mean nothing to you unless you happen to notice Castle’s producer credit on Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968).
50 years ago, however, Castle’s name meant fun and (mild) scares to the kids who loved horror movies.
A master of selling sizzle rather than steak, Castle thought up a new gimmick for each of his pictures, from $1,000 life insurance policies on anyone who died of fright during “Macabre” (1958) to a cheapo screen innovation for “The Tingler” (1959) that Castle called “Percepto” (it turned out to be a vibrating device placed under select theater seats that would go off during especially intense scenes).
Movie-mad kids were almost always suckered into seeing the latest Castle epic by the producer’s prodigious hype, but I can still remember talking with my very young friends about how ripped-off we felt by the cheap sub-3D gimmick Castle used for a few scenes in “13 Ghosts” (1960). Castle made me feel jaded at the age of 9!
I find the Castle movies unwatchable now, but understand why some of my friends in their 20s and 30s get a kick out of the primitive foolishness of the storytelling and acting. Also, they are obviously amazed by the old-time movie marketing gimmicks that disappeared with the arrival of mass releasing of movies in multiplexes.
As I got older and watched some of the pictures on television, Castle’s hubris became less amusing in the introductions he filmed for each of his movies — he clearly believed he was in the same ballpark as Alfred Hitchcock. And yet, his 1961 “Homicidal” is a shameless quickie rip-off of the previous year’s Hitchcock smash “Psycho.”
Castle made a pile of money from his trashy flicks but faced a rather embarrassing episode in the late 1960s after he snagged the movie rights to the Ira Levin bestseller, “Rosemary’s Baby.” Paramount wouldn’t dream of letting him direct the major film they envisioned. After studio chief Robert Evans (below right on the set with Mia Farrow and Castle) brought Polanski on board, the Polish director would have nothing to do with Castle, who became the producer in name only.
Castle did push for a cameo in the hit horror movie — he pops up outside the phone booth where Farrow has one of her strongest scenes.
Two years before he died in 1977, Castle had an even more notable cameo as the sleazy Hollywood operator who is sitting next to Julie Christie at the Election Night party in “Shampoo.” He’s the one whose grubby come-on prompts Christie to utter one of the most notorious movie lines of the 1970s (i.e. what she would like to do to her ex-boyfriend played by Warren Beatty).
Two years ago, the Film Forum in Manhattan had a Castle festival — complete with a “Percepto” screening of “The Tingler” — and I thought at the time that somewhere, the producer-director must have been smiling in reaction to the idea of Manhattan’s most prestigious non-profit art house honoring him with a retrospective.