We just watched the excellent documentary “Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story” on TCM, and it inspired a cascade of memories of my preteen fascination with horror and sci-fi films and fiction. I was an avid reader of Famous Monsters of Filmland and member of the National William Castle Fan Club, where I was invited to recite the mantra, “William Castle is the master of movie horror.”
Castle was like Roger Corman, but with a big personality and personal brand. He produced and directed tight low-budget horror films, always with a gimmick. For “Macabre,” a film he mortgaged his house to make, he offered a $1,000 life insurance policy for any audience member who died of fright during the film – he had actual nurses on hand at some screenings. “House on Haunted Hill” had “Emergo,” a plastic skeleton that “emerged” seemingly from nowhere to the right of the screen and flew (actually rode a wire) across the audience. For “The Tingler,” Castle installed vibrators on some seats throughout a threatre so that random audience members felt the creepy tingle as the tingler in the film, a parasite that looked like a prehistoric centipede, was activated. These films were pretty good – Castle had worked with Orson Welles, was involved in shooting the great “Lady from Shanghai,” and knew his craft pretty well. He made most of his films in a matter of days with very low budgets.
But what was great about Castle’s films was that they were weird fun; I think this was an effect of his disposition and charisma. He became a brand, appearing in previews and introductions to his film, often selling the gimmick to his growing audience. He was a great salesman.
There’s a darker story that comes later, involving his involvement as producer of “Rosemary’s Baby.” I won’t get into that here, but follow the link if you’re interested.