The Review/ Feature/
A Halloween homage to horror maestro William Castle, "The King of the Gimmicks"
Some of the most enduring images in film history never ran through a projector, but began life as elements of promotional campaigns, and — thanks to nostalgia, notoriety, or sometimes just pure ubiquity — became iconic in their own right. Our ongoing series FilmArt looks at the advertising, posters, lobby cards and other ephemera that complement and enrich the filmgoing experience.
In a year that’s been pretty dismal for Hollywood receipts, one genre seems to be immune to what ails the box office. With Get Out surprisingly becoming most profitable film of 2017, It packing in more viewers than a clown car, and even the tiny Happy Death Day outshining would-be behemoth Blade Runner 2049, horror films are having quite the year.
Audiences don’t mind paying for their entertainment so long as they’re entertained, and horror films offer an unspoken guarantee: namely, that even the worst of the lot offers at least one or two pulse-raising scares. You may be disgusted by a film’s content, or spend 90 minutes nitpicking its flaws, but for one brief moment in that cinema, you felt something. And for whatever reason, even as our viewing habits are generally leading us away from the communal space of the theatre, there's still something about being scared while surrounded by people that's just better.
The visceral experience offered by horror films is something that theatres struggle to achieve for other kinds of movies — often by artificial means. The glossary-demanding acronyms that accompany every ticket purchase (Ultra AVX, D-Box, 4DX) all denote in-cinema experiences that are trying to literally make us feel something. But to echo a charge that’s usually levelled at what’s on the screen, a lot of these technologies are little more than big-budget remakes of experiences from yesteryear.
Throughout the 1950s — the first era when major studios were panicking about small screens at home cutting into their profits — a bevy of gimmicks were used to try to lure viewers away from their living rooms. There was 3D of course, as well as the massive screening formats like Cinerama and CinemaScope that sought to captivate crowds through pure visual splendour. Less successfully, AromaRama and Smell-O-Vision posited the fetid idea that actual human beings might want to smell the movies.
John Waters, whose 1981 comedy Polyester revisited this latter idea with scratch-and-sniff cards that included scents like flatulence and gasoline, remembers the era fondly. “What’s happened to the ludicrous but innovative marketing techniques of yesteryear that used to fool audiences into thinking they were having a good time even if the film stunk?” he asked in a 1983 article. “Did the audiences care? Hell, no. They may have hated the picture, but they loved the gimmick, and that’s all they ended up remembering anyway.”
“There was a tacit admission on the part of the people who made the movie that going to a movie was just fun, and that you were there to have a good time,” concurs Joe Dante, who celebrated the era in his film Matinee. “There was a lot of ballyhoo and showmanship and all that stuff that people have forgotten how to do today.” And when it came to ballyhoo, one director was peerless: William Castle, King of the Gimmicks.
In 1958, moviegoers who came to see Castle’s film Macabre were greeted by the sight of ambulances parked outside the theatre, confronted by nurses instead of ushers, and were handed a “beneficiary slip” along with their ticket, which they were instructed to fill out in case they died of fright while watching the film.
While it can be reasonably expected that very few (if any) viewers actually believed that they might be literally scared to death, Castle’s outrageous and ingenious gimmick generated an event-like atmosphere that transcended the rather staid thrills of the film itself. Ultimately, it didn’t matter what was actually happening on the screen: the gimmick itself became the experience. As Macabre star Jacqueline Scott recalls in Spine Tingler, a charming 2007 documentary about Castle, “nobody going into it thought they were going to die of fright, but everybody had a lot of fun.”
Macabre was far from Castle's first crank of the hype machine. He had begun his career on the stage, utilizing what could only be called chutzpah to bluff himself into a job as a stage manager, then as an actor, and eventually as a director. In his autobiography Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America, Castle recounts the incredible-but-true (?) story of his first directorial outing, which is worth the price of the book all by itself.
In the summer of 1939, Caste was beset with a number of crises as he prepared to open a play called Not for Children starring the German actress Ellen Schwanneke: he had rented the theatre at great personal expense, tickets were not selling, and his star — who had fled Germany after the Nazis’ rise to power — was being summoned home by the Minister of Propaganda, Josef Goebbels. With the actress’ permission, Castle decided to exploit Schwanneke’s dilemma. Rushing to the Western Union office, Castle dictated the following telegram:
The director proceeded to make copies of the telegram, as well as Goebbels’ original message, and then paid visits to a succession of New York City newspapers, asking them not to print the story before “accidentally” leaving behind copies of the invitation and telegram. Overnight, Schwanneke became celebrated as “The Girl Who Said No to Hitler!”, and performances of Castle's play quickly sold out.
However, Castle hadn’t anticipated the reaction of German-American Bundists, who wrote angry letters denouncing this snub of Der Führer. The morning of his play’s opening, Castle and his cast arrived at the theatre to find the windows smashed and crude red swastikas painted on the walls. Undeterred, Castle boldly declared that his play “will open as scheduled even if I have to get the governor of Connecticut to give us the state militia for protection.” As tense theatregoers filed past armed militia members to get to their seats that evening, not one of them suspected that it was Castle himself who had vandalized the theatre, creeping out of his room at 4:00am that morning with bucket of red paint in hand.
Soon thereafter Castle made his way to Hollywood, where his career got off to a fairly inauspicious start: his first film, aptly titled The Chance of a Lifetime (1943), was recut by the studio, transforming it from a bad film into a terrible one. Variety was generous in their criticism, stating that the film “has one claim to fame — it’s probably the worst picture in the history of motion pictures.”
Castle bounced back with his sophomore outing The Whistler (1944), a loose adaptation of a popular radio show, which was a hit with both critics and audiences and launched a successful series of B pictures. Later that year he scored another hit with the rather innocuously titled suspense thriller When Strangers Marry (shot in seven days on a budget of $50,000 and released a mere two weeks after it wrapped shooting), which co-starred a relatively unknown young actor billed as “Bob” Mitchum, already evincing the brooding charisma that would make him a star in a few short years.
Over the next decade-plus, Castle directed more than 30 films in nearly every possible genre, from gangster films (Johnny Stool Pigeon) to sword-and-sandal epics (Serpent of the Nile), westerns (The Americano) to historical adventures (The Iron Glove).
As the B picture on double bills, most of these films had no room for any sort of showmanship, but Castle never lost his taste for ballyhoo. In 1949, Castle approached William Goetz, head of production at Universal-International, with an idea to make the world’s first 3-D feature film, and he had the perfect material: Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. Castle planned to call the technique See-A-Vision (“The New Sensation Where You’re Part of the Picture!”). Goetz blew the idea off, saying audiences wouldn’t wear glasses. Three years later, Castle watched as the film Bwana Devil and its “Natural Vision” technology ushered in America’s first brief obsession with 3-D movies.
Everything changed for Castle one rainy night in 1955, when the director and his wife Ellen went to a local theatre to see Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique and discovered a lineup of teens stretching around the block. Joining the line, Castle listened as two young women excitedly discussed a rumour that Diabolique’s ending — which was emphasized in the ad campaign as the virtual raison d’être of the film — “literally scares the shit out of you!”
While thrillers were nothing new, there had never been a film with a shock ending like that of Diabolique. Castle had an epiphany: “When the audience gave that final collective scream, I knew that’s where I wanted to take them — only I want louder screams, more horror, more excitement.”
Castle found his own Diabolique in The Marble Forest, an all-but-forgotten novel collectively authored by a number of prominent mystery writers. Columbia balked at the idea of the director producing his own film, so after mortgaging his house, Castle ponied up the $90,000 budget himself. Production began on July 27, 1957, and wrapped nine days later. Castle called his film Macabre — which, as the ads helpfully explained to audiences who might have trouble pronouncing the title, “means horror!” — and unleashed it on an unsuspecting world in March of the following year.
“[Macabre] was perhaps the biggest ‘gotta-see’ picture of my grammar school days,” recalls It author Stephen King in Danse Macabre, his 1981 book of essays on the horror genre. “Its title was pronounced by my friends in Stratford, Connecticut as McBare. ‘Gotta-see’ or not, very few of our parents would let us go because of the grisly ad campaign. I, however, exercised the inventiveness of the true aficionado and got to see it by telling my mother I was going to Davy Crockett, a Disney film which I felt I could summarize safely because I had most of the bubble-gum cards.”
Grisly as the artwork was, there's little doubt that what made Macabre a “gotta-see” was the prospect of watching a film that might scare you to death. After the film raked in $5 million at the box office, the gimmicks became a must for Castle. “I had always recognized the potency of showmanship. Now I had proof that it was pure gold, and I was determined to mine it over and over again,” he declared.
Castle’s next film, House on Haunted Hill (1959), starred Vincent Price as an eccentric millionaire who promises five party guests $10,000 each if they can survive a night in his haunted house. Advertisements for the film promised that it would feature the debut of an amazing new technology called “Emergo,” which would apparently bring the onscreen horrors directly into the audience’s laps.
In the event, Emergo proved to be less a wonder technology than a glow-in-the-dark inflatable skeleton, which popped out from beside the theatre screen and soared over the heads of the audience on a wire during a scene where actress Carol Ohmart is threatened by a leering, Price-voiced bag of bones.
In Spine Tingler, Waters gleefully celebrates Castle’s critic-proof idea. “People have to tell someone about it,” he writes. “Every kid said ‘I saw this movie where a skeleton comes out on a wire!’ No one said ‘Was the movie good?’”
House on Haunted Hill broke box-office records, and though Price had (warranted) fears of being typecast, the soon-to-be “King of Grand Guignol” and the King of the Gimmicks reteamed for The Tingler (1959), in which Price plays a scientist who discovers a parasite that feeds on human fear, and which can only be expelled from the body by screaming. In the film’s trailer, Castle once again warned the audience that they too would experience the horrors on the screen, through his new “thrill-terror technique”: “Percepto.”
Named by Castle’s long-time co-producer Dona Hollaway and inspired by a faulty bedside lamp, “Percepto” was succinctly summarized by Castle as follows: “I’m going to buzz the asses of everyone in America by installing little motors under the seats of every theatre in the country.”
Like Emergo before it, Percepto was only utilized for one scene of the film, in which the Tingler gets loose in a cinema. In some pseudo-fourth-wall-breaking, the screen goes black as Price’s voice urges the audience to "scream for their lives!" — a command which cued the projectionist to activate the seat buzzers in the theatre.
In his book, Castle estimated that “we must have buzzed 20,000,000 behinds” — a number which includes the posteriors of several viewers who were less than delighted by Castle’s innovation, including a Philadelphia trucker who ripped out his seat in a rage after being jolted, and an audience of blue-hairs who were zapped by a bored projectionist during a matinee of The Nun’s Story (1959).
For 13 Ghosts (1960), Castle had “Ghost Viewers” distributed in theatres, which allowed viewers to make the onscreen spectres appear and disappear at will.
As Waters remembers, “It didn’t really work that great, but it didn’t matter.” Kids ate it up, William Castle Fan Clubs began to spring up across America, and the cheerfully hucksterish producer-director became a name brand.
“Four full-time secretaries at Columbia answered the fan-mail, sent out cards, souvenirs, autographed pictures, etc. Every time I visited a city hundreds of kids met me at the airport,” Castle recalled. “I had built a mini-company within a major studio. A staff of twenty, under contract, did nothing but work exclusively on my films, sometimes around the clock. A lucrative sideline was a merchandizing company [that licensed] my name and logo for many products — horror greeting cards, masks, sweatshirts, T-shirts, games, plastic assembly kits, toys, Halloween masks and so on.”
Of course, Castle was not the first director to develop a personal brand by stepping out from behind the camera. Much of his public persona was patterned on the man he called “the master”: Alfred Hitchcock, whose already considerable fame had been extraordinarily amplified in 1955 when he lent his prestige to CBS as the namesake and host of the anthology series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Castle was a great admirer of Hitchcock, and borrowed freely from the Englishman's droll self-presentation to create his much more shameless onscreen persona. Eventually, the Master would borrow a few of the pupil's tricks.
While Castle was enjoying his first smash success with Macabre, Hitchcock was grappling with the sour public and critical reaction to Vertigo (1958). Though he regained some ground with North by Northwest (1959), his studio Paramount still wasn't keen to make his next project, Psycho. After seeing the success that producer-directors like Castle and Roger Corman were enjoying with low-budget horror movies, Hitchcock took a decided left turn from the Technicolor plushness of his recent films and made Psycho on the cheap, shooting in black and white and using the crew from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. And when it came time to promote the film, he borrowed a little from the playbook that was serving Castle so well.
Echoing the promotional campaign for Diabolique, Hitchcock had theatres showing Psycho impose a vigilant “No late admissions” policy, which helped create an event-like atmosphere around the film and inspired audiences to keep the film’s twists and turns secret. As everyone knows, Hitchcock’s gambit succeeded beyond all expectations: Psycho became the second-highest grossing film of the year, and Hitchcock nabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Director.
It’s hard to imagine that Castle wasn’t at least somewhat envious of Psycho’s success: not only had Hitchcock beat him at his own gimmicky game, but he had also made a critically acclaimed film that adults were lining up for hours to see, as opposed to the almost exclusively juvenile audiences that flocked to Castle’s pictures. It’s little wonder then that Castle’s next film, Homicidal (1961), rather strenuously evokes Psycho with its domineering parent, large sum of ill-gotten money, and a final scene of plot-resolving exposition that makes Psycho’s similarly clunky coda look like the definition of subtlety.
But if Castle was somewhat cribbing from Hitchcock here, he stayed true to his Barnumite roots with his most audacious gimmick yet: a “Cowards-Only” money-back guarantee for any audience members who found the film too frightening. As the film drew to its climax, Castle interrupted the proceedings with a “Fright Break,” an onscreen ticking clock that allowed more lily-livered viewers a chance to flee:
To add to the fun (and discourage anyone from actually getting their money back), lobbies were equipped with the “Coward’s Corner,” where refundees would have to sit, awaiting the judgement of their braver friends.
Despite this fail-safe, in this instance Castle found himself bamboozled by his viewers rather than the other way around. After introducing a sold-out premiere screening, Castle left for dinner and returned for the second screening’s Fright Break. He recalled that as the onscreen countdown began, “Audiences raced up the aisles trying to get to the box office. The theatre was now almost empty — thousands of people on line getting their money back. […] Suddenly it hit me. The audience stayed to see the picture twice so they could get their original admission price refunded.” After this initial hiccup, different-coloured certificates were handed out at each screening to discourage this sort of audience double-dealing.
As he wrapped production on his Homicidal follow-up Mr. Sardonicus (1961), Castle found himself in a stalemate with Columbia execs, who demanded a happy ending for the film’s hideously deformed title character, while the director favoured one in which Sardonicus slowly dies of madness. “I suddenly realized that Columbia had unknowingly given me the gimmick for the picture,” says Castle. “I would have two endings — Columbia’s and mine — and let the audience decide for themselves the fate of Mr. Sardonicus.”
As the film drew to its conclusion, Castle appeared on screen to announce the “Punishment Poll,” wherein audiences would have to vote with glow-in-the-dark cards whether Sardonicus should live or die; the theatre manager would then count the votes and cue which reel the projectionist should run. While Castle insisted that his audiences’ invariable bloodthirstiness led to the happy ending being rarely used, “if ever,” the majority of evidence indicates that Castle never bothered to shoot the alternate ending in the first place.
After Mr. Sardonicus, Castle branched out from the horror genre with Zotz! (1962), a family movie in the vein of the live-action Disney films of the time, and 13 Frightened Girls (a.k.a. The Candy Web, 1963), a spy thriller in which the teenage daughters of UN interpreters become embroiled in an espionage plot. The latter film, for which Castle ran contests around the world to assemble his multinational cast, featured one of the impresario’s most ingenious — and prescient — publicity stunts. While the bulk of the film remained the same in every region in which it screened, Castle had each of the film’s eponymous girls narrate a separate opening scene which seems to establish them as the protagonist of the picture, and then tacked on the appropriate intro for its corresponding territory. “Each girl will be the star of the picture in her own country,” Castle explained to a producer friend. “Her name will go on the marquee. For example, in Germany we’ll star the German girl, France the French girl, in Japan the Japanese girl, and so on.”
Castle’s gimmick is an early and extreme version of an increasingly prevalent Hollywood tactic, in which studios recruit international stars to play supporting roles in their tentpole blockbusters to increase the films’ global appeal: think Tony Jaa in Furious 7 (2015), Irrfan Khan in Jurassic World (2015), or Donnie Yen and Jiang Wen in Rogue One (2016). The growing importance of China — which is on pace to become the number-one film market in the world — and the country’s strict quota on the exhibition of foreign films makes Chinese actors and locations a natural starting point for Hollywood’s opportunistic internationalism, and in recent years such Western movie heroes as James Bond, Doctor Strange, and the Transformers have dropped in on the PRC for a scene or three. (Marvel’s Iron Man 3 even featured additional scenes that were included exclusively for the film’s Chinese release.)
While 13 Frightened Girls was profitable, Castle was growing frustrated and starting to crave the sort of critical appreciation he’d enjoyed on When Strangers Marry two decades earlier. “Having to create a new fresh gimmick for each picture was becoming tiresome,” says Castle. “Critics were starting to attack, claiming the only reason my films were successful was the gimmicks, and I was unable to make an important thriller without one.”
In this late-life quest for respectability, Castle resolved that his next film, Strait-Jacket (1964), would be gimmick-free — though as Waters casually remarks in Spine Tingler, it actually had “the biggest gimmick of all: Joan Crawford.” The aging star, who had recently revivified her career with her turn in the Grand Guignol shocker What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), added both a prestige gloss and proven drawing power to Castle’s thriller about an axe-murderer running amok.
After being convinced by Castle and Holloway to make a series of in-person appearances at theatres showing the film, Crawford travelled by tour bus and introduced two or three screenings a night, drawing huge audiences in every city.
Castle explored the idea of star-as-gimmick even further with his next film, The Night Walker (1964), which featured the onscreen reunion of Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor, who had been one of the most venerated marriages in Hollywood until their surprising divorce in 1951. In this instance, however, the gimmick wasn’t enough, and the film flopped at the box office. (It also sadly marked the end of Stanwyck’s unparalleled feature-film career.)
Castle worked with Crawford one final time on I Saw What You Did (1965), a thriller about two teenage girls whose prank phone-calling accidentally connects them with a man who has just murdered his wife. Castle reverted to his old ways for this film, offering exhibitors an abundance of gimmicks including seatbelts to hold viewers into their chairs, a “hit” single to accompany the film, and giant phones placed outside the cinemas by the phone company. (This stunt was cancelled as soon as cities showing the film suffered a surge of crank calls.)
After shifting gears into comedy for a few years, Castle returned to horror in 1968 with a film that would ultimately put him out to pasture, even as it brought him more success than he could ever have imagined. As he entered his office one afternoon, Castle found the galleys for a soon-to-be published novel by Ira Levin titled Rosemary’s Baby.
After reading it, Castle snatched up the film rights. The book was an instant success, and Paramount head of production Robert Evans came calling. Though Castle wanted to both produce and direct the film himself, he eventually ceded to Evans’ suggestion that celebrated Polish filmmaker Roman Polanski be handed the directorial reins.
In Step Right Up!, a palpable sense of disappointment permeates Castle’s pride about the film. While Rosemary certainly achieved the kind of respectability that Castle had long dreamed of, drawing critical accolades and winning a number of awards, it was primarily regarded as Polanski’s (or Evans’) baby, not Castle’s. Furthermore, when a number of people associated with Rosemary met with tragic fates — composer Krzysztof Komeda died after a freak accident at a party, while Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate was notoriously murdered by the Manson family — Castle came to believe that the film was cursed, and blamed it for a health scare that put him in the hospital for the better part of a year.
Rosemary’s Baby ushered in a new era of horror, putting an end to the sort of good-natured frights that had been Castle’s bread and butter. With prestige blockbusters like The Exorcist (1974) and The Omen (1976) on one hand, and low-investment/high-return shockers like Night of the Living Dead (1968), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Halloween (1978) on the other, chills gave way to carnage, and gimmicks to gore.
Though Castle continued to produce and direct films until his death in 1977, he never again connected with the public the way he had in the late ’50s and early ’60s. A showman to the end, Castle still had a few tricks up his sleeve: Shanks (1974) starred mime Marcel Marceau in a dual role, while for Bug (1975), Castle took out a million-dollar insurance policy on the film’s star Hercules, a one-year-old cockroach.
As Castle’s era came to a close, the generation of film fans he had reared was starting to come into its own, and those who found their way into the picture business began infusing their own work with more than a little of that old Castle charm. The King of the Gimmicks certainly would have gotten a kick out of Waters’ above-mentioned “Odorama” stunt for Polyester; ditto for Dante’s more direct homages, including a faithful recreation of The Tingler’s in-cinema scene (sans Percepto, of course) in Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990), and the feature-length love letter to Castle that is Matinee, in which John Goodman plays a Castle-like filmmaker premiering his new film Mant! (“Half-man! Half-ant!”) on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
In recent years, Castle’s daughter Terry has taken up her father’s legacy, publishing an unreleased young adult novel by the director, and a novel of her own about two kids who discover that their filmmaker dad is... homicidal.
Today’s promotional stunts tend to be restricted to the realm of viral marketing, but more blatant sales gimmicks still pop up sporadically. New technologies have played their part: films like App (2013) have utilized second-screen technology to augment their narratives, while in 2011 Francis Ford Coppola used an iPad to add a very Sardonicus-like gimmick to his film Twixt, assembling an in-cinema, on-the-fly-edit of the film in response to audience reaction. But the old standbys still work too: after a fainting incident during the cannibal horror movie Raw at TIFF 2016, one L.A. theatre began distributing barf bags to patrons.
Meanwhile, modern add-ons like D-Box — which is synchronized to move and shake the viewer at specific moments in the film — certainly have an antecedent in Castle’s Percepto. Unfortunately, these contemporary technologies that are designed to make filmgoing more like a ride are often confusingly paired with movies that take themselves Very Seriously. There’s little room for fun in that equation. Castle’s gimmicks may have been hokey, and his films often slapdash, but they suited one another.
The chasm between the technical amusements in the cinema and the humourless blockbusters on screen is just one example of the sort of contradictions that seem to be alienating audiences. As a recent Washington Post op-ed points out, at the same time that major theatre chains have installed premium-priced technologies to lure viewers back, they’ve all but abandoned the idea of making cinemagoing an experience that actually merits going to a cinema.
When Waters penned his paean to Castle-style ballyhoo, it came at the tail end of a year that included a Star Wars movie, a handful of Stephen King adaptations, and a Superman sequel that no one was really that hot for. “The industry as a whole should put on its collective thinking cap and realize that even with today’s computer-printout method of filmmaking, there’s still room for outlandish showmanship,” he suggested. “Stop fooling around and go for broke. The possibilities are endless.”