Wednesday, October 26, 2011
KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando profiles the King of Gimmicks, William Castle.
In honor of Halloween, the San Diego Central Library (820 E Street) will be showcasing William Castle's 1960 horror film "13 Ghosts" (6:30pm on October 26). Here's a look back on the career of the man known as The King of Gimmicks. Listen to my radio feature (and please listen rather than read, the clips from the trailers are priceless!).
William Castle didn't just make movies, he put on a show.
MONTAGE: Your attention please... Wow-wee! Do you have trouble seeing ghosts?... This is the fright break... The only picture ever to offer a money back guarantee for those too frightened to see its shocking climax... ten seconds more and we go into the house. It's now or never...
"I think that there was an innocence in the fifties and sixties," says Terry Castle, daughter of the late filmmaker,"And I think that dad made the experience of theater, it was really a theater going experience. So it wasn't just going to see a movie, it was an entire experience because of all the gimmicks."
Terry Castle remembers her dad as a showman who attended every theater opening: "There were nurses taking your blood pressure and there were ambulances waiting in case people died from fright, and he connected with the audience, he was a showman."
William Castle often appeared in the trailers for his films teasing the audience with such lines as: "I'm William Castle and I feel obligated to warn you about the next attraction you will see at this theater."
If you were lucky enough to grow up in the fifties and sixties, you could have enjoyed a "Fright Break" in "Homicidal," or experienced "Percepto" during "The Tingler," or voted in the punishment poll for "Mr. Sardonicus."
"Dad made these pictures," Terry Castle recalls, "he started out with a movie called 'Macabre.' And I think he made it for $90,000, he probably shot it in a week. But I think he made the films and then I think he was frightened that nobody would come and so he decided he would have to create a reason for people to come. So with 'Macabre,' he went to Lloyds of London and he got insurance policies and insured movie goers against death by fright."
But, as the trailer for "Macabre" pointed out, "Lloyds of London will not grant coverage for any person with a known condition or for suicide by any member of the audience."
For the 1960 "13 Ghosts," Castle came up with something called Illusion-O, which the filmmaker promised in his trailer for the film, would include special "Ghost Viewers."
"Dad went to the eye doctor once," says daughter Terry, "and they put this contraption on your eyes and show you, can you see this, can you see this? And dad had this brilliant idea for Illusion-O. And basically, he created Ghost Viewers or Ghost Removers. And it was not 3-D, it was a strip of cellophane of red cellophane and a strip of blue cellophane."
William Castle explained in a teaser trailer for the film, "If you believe in ghosts you look through the red part of the viewer and if you do not believe in ghosts you look through the blue part."
"But of course," Terry says, "you wanted to see the ghosts cause you were there to see a horror film. Right?"
Of course right! If you went to a William Castle film you went wanting to get scared, especially if you were a kid. Castle could give you that delicious adrenaline rush from sitting anxiously on the edge of your seat and then screaming with glee when a ghost popped out from behind the curtain. Even today, Castle's films have a devoted cult following and are a blast to watch with an audience in a darkened theater.
The San Diego Central Library recently showed "The Tingler" and audience members did scream for their lives. Now it's presenting "13 Ghosts" as part of its ongoing Schlockfest Film Program. Castle's memoirs -- "Step Right Up: I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America" -- have just been reprinted. Castle's daughter Terry, proving that showmanship is hereditary, has announced that her father has returned from the grave to pen a novel for young adults due out on Halloween. Guess you can't keep a good showman in the grave.
(NOTE: Sadly, tonight's screening does not include any Ghost Viewers but the film is still a delight without the gimmick.)
Companion viewing: "The Tingler," "Homicidal," "Rosemary's Baby"