Some horror filmmakers are lovers of the medium who desire nothing more than to simply share a tense psychological moment with an audience, to do whatever outrageous surprise necessary to elicit that prized reaction, the scream, from the people who have rewarded their films with their hard-earned money. One such driven filmmaker was gimmick king William Castle.
It is perhaps ironic that William Castle is known historically as the purveyor of the horror B-movie, because in a film career that spanned nearly forty years, the first twenty were spent making mysteries, dramas, biographies, and crime dramas, with titles as varied as “Music in my Heart,” “Coney Island,” and “The Crime Doctor’s Warning.”
Though known best for his low-budget horror work, Castle worked on several projects with impressive pedigrees: second unit director on Orson Welles’ “The Lady from Shanghai,” dialogue director on Cary Grant’s “Penny Serenade,” and most famously, as producer on Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby.”
His career as a horror filmmaker was marked by low budgets, mediocre films, and brilliantly crazed marketing campaigns. From magic coins to special glasses to buzzers in seats to fake ghosts flying over the heads of movie patrons, Castle was never above doing any weird gimmick he could think of to get young people in to watch one of his movies. When the gimmicks themselves stopped working, he created new gimmicks that were intended to “scare them off,” such as stationing a nurse outside the theater to make people sign a waiver that they wouldn’t sue the filmmakers after being injured from fear.
A filmmaker as well-known as any of his works, Castle has been paid loving homage in Joe Dante’s “Matinee” and the remake of Castle’s own “House on Haunted Hill.” In a genre marked with excess and gimmick, Castle stands as one of the first innovators of the idea, and one of the early independent filmmakers whose successes motivated other indie horror icons to attempt the same.
The first true horror film from Castle (he had made several dark mysteries and crime dramas previously), “Macabre” was based on the novel “The Marble Forest.” The story revolves around a doctor whose daughter is kidnapped and buried, and he only has five hours to find her. Complete with the “insurance policy” gimmick, the film was a race against time story that was truly more suspense than horror, but Castle found a way with his advertising campaign to capture the minds of the horror-crazed youth of the time.
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A film inspired by classic 1928 Conrad Veidt film “The Man Who Laughs,” Castle created an iconic horror figure by bringing the novel “Sardonicus” to the screen. After desecrating his father’s grave causes Sardonicus’ face to be frozen in a hideous grimace, he forces a doctor to fix him, and the problems only grow worse. Castle’s now-expected gimmicks were in full effect, with the audience voting on a Punishment Poll for the penalty Sardonicus deserves.
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Armed with a screenplay by “Psycho” author Robert Bloch, and starring Barbara Stanwyck in her last film role before starting a late-career resurgence in television soap operas and westerns, Castle seemed poised to have a big hit on his hands with “The Night Walker.” History would seem to disprove that expectation, as the film is currently only available on VHS. The story of a woman haunted by recurring nightmares of her late husband, the film is confusing and disjointed, and its lack of success may have led to the subsequent forays into cheaper comedy for Castle (such as “The Busy Body” and “The Spirit is Willing”).
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