Book Review: ‘Step Right Up: I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America’
William Castle’s Memoir Gets a Reprint
Monday, October 24, 2011
William Castle has returned from the grave. Well sort of. Guest blogger Miguel Rodriguez reviews the reprint of Castle's memoirs, "Step Right Up: I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America."
When I was a child, I was introduced to the actor Vincent Price after my mother rented a copy of Roger Corman's "The Raven." I had nearly memorized Poe's poem, and was looking forward to the film version. Anyone who has seen Vincent Price facing off against Peter Lorre in that particular picture knows that I got a tad more than I had bargained for. After the initial confusion wore off, my young self couldn't help but be charmed by the fun the actors seemed to be having. I found Price again in an oversized hardcover children's encyclopedia on old horror movies that my elementary school library kept on the shelves. The devious picture of Price was from a film called "The Tingler." I read about the film, having never seen it, and was fascinated to discover the gimmick "PERCEPTO” (theater seats rigged with a vibrating contraption to buzz audience members) that people who attended the film were able to experience. It sounded like the greatest, most memorable movie-going experience possible to my growing mind. I wondered if I would ever be able to experience PERCEPTO firsthand. I read more about the director responsible, and how he became known for similar different gimmicks in several other films. And that is how, at the age of 8 or 9, William Castle became the first film director whose name I knew by heart.
Ever since those days, I have had a love for the films of William Castle. His sense of fun can be felt in every one of them. It would be a few years before I was finally able to see "The Tingler," but when I finally discovered it on a dusty VHS at the Columbia Public Library I was not disappointed. To this day, the greatest joy I get from that picture comes right at the beginning, when Castle tells everybody that they must scream to save themselves from a terrible fate. Through his warnings, the sheer delight he felt was clearly apparent, and that delight is an infectious thing. Thanks to William Castle Productions, Castle's memoir "Step Right Up: I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America" is back in print, and--finally--I was able to read it.
I realize what I have done with the first part of this review is to make myself seem biased, and perhaps I am. I loved reading the book, which really feels less like a memoir and more like the reader is sitting at a bar with William Castle himself, listening enrapt as the eccentric director regales him or her with various anecdotes from a life of film. The structure is loosely chronological, but throughout it is simply an elaborate collection of brief stories written in a casual, inviting voice. Although Castle gives some minor facts from his life—changing his last time to Castle from its German version Schloss, for example—he doesn’t really go into too much autobiographical detail. Almost every anecdote that drives the memoir is related to the theater or the big screen, as if they were really what defined him.
Some of the greatest stories come from William Castle’s working relationship with the legendary volatile president of Columbia Pictures Harry Cohn, his experiences doing second unit work for Orson Welles on "The Lady from Shanghai," his difficulties as producer during and after production on "Rosemary’s Baby," and of course his assortment of fright flicks and the gimmicks that went with them. William Castle is best known for those gimmicks, and I suspect that is why more pages are devoted to "The Lady from Shanghai" and "Rosemary’s Baby" than all of the films he directed himself combined.
That said, the same joy that one can sense in the introduction of "The Tingler" can be felt in the description of each gimmick and the ideas that inspired them. The word “gimmick” has a negative connotation, usually of crassness or soulless consumerism. Reading "Step Right Up" I couldn’t help but feel the childlike elation that went into designing each gimmick, from PERCEPTO to EMERGO, from Lloyd’s of London’s Insurance against death by fright to the Coward’s Corner. Each of these was elaborate, imaginative, and expensive. They may not have been high art, but they were a Hell of a lot of fun, and I don’t think that is a bad thing.
William Castle was a performer who lived for the thrill of entertaining audiences. That part of his personality permeates "Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America." As the title suggests, he treated a lot of his films as a circus show to be enjoyed by young and old—grand escapism. Reading the book feels much the same way. As such, I wonder at the absolute veracity of some of the stories. They are all so entertaining that I suspect some level of embellishment on the part of the author. I don’t know for sure, and I really don’t care. It’s no more or less than I would expect from a good friend telling me all about his experiences on set.
The cable network Turner Classic Movies recently showed "The House on Haunted Hill" and "The Tingler" back to back, and the host was film critic David Edelstein. He talked about how he was lucky enough to get one of the rigged chairs when he saw "The Tingler" in the theater when it premiered. I wonder if Mr. Castle knew his wacky idea would be talked about on a classic film forum half a century later. Looks like I have the chance to ask him. William Castle Productions announced last year that William Castle himself has come back from the grave—his latest and greatest gimmick. A new young adult horror book—penned by Castle—is now out called From the "Grave: The Prayer. If anyone could do it, it would be William Castle.
--Miguel Rodriguez is the host of Monster Island Resort Podcast and the director of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival that is coming up November 4 and 5 at the Tenth Avenue Theater. Castle's "13 Ghosts" screens Wednesday at the San Diego Central Library but more on that tomorrow.