“This is the Fright Break,” a friendly but insistent voice says near the end of Homicidal, as an animated stopwatch counts down the 45 seconds given to any audience member who wanted to flee the film’s gruesome climax. They could even get their money back, too, provided they were willing to suffer the humiliation of sitting in something called Cowards’ Corner. History is fuzzy as to whether many took advantage of the refund offer, but it’s a good bet that Homicidal’s producer and writer William Castle had already calculated he wouldn’t lose money on the gimmick. Because if Castle learned one thing in his many years making B-movies, it’s that showmanship and profits go hand in hand.
Castle’s gimmicks tend to overwhelm his work’s reputation. One of his best-known films, House On Haunted Hill, trumpeted the process of “Emergo,” a fancy way of saying “some plastic skeletons float over the audience during a scary part.” House isn’t included on the five-disc, eight-film The William Castle Film Collection, and home audiences will simply have to imagine what it would be like to see the set’s films in a theater with gimmicks intact. Did viewers get a kick watching 13 Ghosts in “Illusion-O,” which gave them the option of seeing scary scenes without the ghosts? Or seeing The Tingler in “Percepto,” which made some viewers’ seats buzz when the titular monster appeared? (Apparently it was too expensive to rig up all the seats.)
The lack of theatrical stunts leaves the films naked for home viewing, but even stripped of its gimmickry, Castle’s undeniably ragged oeuvre deserves a look. His movies don’t always work, but his showmanship didn’t end with attention-getting promotional schemes. From his genial introductions on, Castle knew his reputation depended on making sure audiences had a good time.
The films included here show a director who was happier when blithely following trends than when starting his own. Hot off the success of House On Haunted Hill and its predecessor, Macabre, came two more thrifty horror movies: The Tingler and 13 Ghosts. Homicidal blatantly aped Psycho. Mr. Sardonicus picked up a Hammer- and Corman-inspired gothic horror thread. The family-friendly Zotz!, 13 Frightened Girls, and The Old Dark House all play like ersatz live-action Disney, and Strait-Jacket, starring Joan Crawford, continues a wave of “old biddy” horrors inspired by Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?
But what Castle’s films lack in originality, they make up for in carnival energy and an eagerness to please. The Tingler and 13 Ghosts feature monsters so cheap-looking, they achieve a thrift-store surrealism. (The virtually stream-of-consciousness plots by prolific writer Robb White help as well.) Mr. Sardonicus creates a musty, soundstage claustrophobia as it builds to an ending so dark that the break to let the audience participate in a “Punishment Poll” to determine its bad guy’s fate only gets in the way. (If Castle ever shot an ending in which that villain got off easy, it fails to surface among this set’s copious bonus features.) True, the best that can be said of Homicidal is that it doesn’t look that bad compared to Psycho, and it has some pokey charms all its own. 13 Frightened Girls, Zotz!, and The Old Dark House were probably never meant to be seen outside of kid-filled Saturday matinees, though Girls is a fun Cold War relic, and the latter two should satisfy anyone wondering what it would be like to see Bob Newhart’s sidekick Tom Poston take a starring role. And Strait-Jacket has some real shocks and succeeds for reasons beyond Crawford’s camp performance, though that doesn’t hurt.
The set’s generous extra features, especially Jeffrey Schwarz’s fine feature-length documentary Spine Tingler!: The William Castle Story, help give a fuller picture of the Castle beyond the smiling, cigar-chomping host of his own movies. He was a man forever striving to find true respectability and a bigger audience—even if that meant peddling his movies from city to city. The latter instinct tended to make the former more elusive; Castle smartly went into debt to acquire the rights to Rosemary’s Baby, then reluctantly stepped aside to let Roman Polanski direct it. Nobody was eager to give the reins to a director who once gave his audiences toy axes. Schwarz’s film keeps repeating the idea that Castle really wanted to be another Alfred Hitchcock, a director who became so synonymous with reliable entertainment that his name sold films. That never happened. But he did manage to become the only William Castle, and as this set attests, the world is a little richer for that.
Key features: Plenty of archival trailers, alternate sequences, and two episodes of a Castle-produced ’70s anthology show called alternately Ghost Story and Circle Of Fear, one of which stars John Astin, Patty Duke, and Castle himself.