Combustible Celluloid
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With: Vincent Price, Joan Crawford, Tom Poston, Robert Morley, Diane Baker, George Kennedy
Written by: Robb White, Robert Bloch, Ray Russell, Robert Dillon, Walter Karig
Directed by: William Castle
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 692
Date: 03/19/2013

The William Castle Film Collection (2009)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Gimcrack Gimmicks

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

William Castle was probably the epitome of crass commercialism combined with absurd creativity, but though critics dismissed him during his own era, it's safe to say that he has evolved into kind of a crackpot auteur, perhaps in the same league as Roger Corman or Edward D. Wood Jr. As many people know already, Castle started as a director for hire, but then sold everything he owned to start his own, independent production company; there, he made low-budget, high-concept horror movies complete with their own "gimmicks," and they were a big success. A new DVD collection from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment collects eight of Castle's films on five DVDs. The set also includes lots of little extras. A new feature-length documentary, Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, features interviews with Castle fans like John Waters, Joe Dante, John Landis and Leonard Maltin.

Among the most notable films in the set, we have The Tingler (1959), which could well be Castle's masterpiece. It's a very funny, knowing, self-reflexive piece that acknowledges -- at least to a degree -- the concept of sitting in a dark theater and getting scared. Vincent Price stars as a mortician, Dr. Warren Chapin, who spends his free time studying something he calls "the tingler," a centipede like creature that grows on one's spine when one is frightened. Only a scream can stop the creature. By chance, Warren meets Ollie Higgins (Philip Coolidge), who happens to run a silent cinema (playing, of all things, Henry King's Tol'able David). Ollie happens to be married to a deaf mute, Martha (Judith Evelyn). Warren discovers that, because she can't scream, Martha succumbs to the tingler and passes out whenever she gets scared. In an odd subplot, Warren and his wife attempt to kill each other from time to time. Eventually, Warren manages to extract a tingler and it gets loose in the movie theater. That leads to Castle's gimmick: a buzzer placed under random seats timed to go off during the movie theater sequence. The audience was supposed to scream to get the tingler to stop its crawly rampage.

13 Ghosts (1960) is a good-looking haunted house movie, with some effective imagery, but it falters just as most of today's movies falter: too much emphasis on effects and not enough on characters. After losing all their furniture due to excessive debt, the Zorba family suddenly inherits a creepy mansion, populated by the 13 ghosts that late uncle Plato Zorba collected and studied. The gimmick here was "Illusion-O," a special viewer with red and blue panels. The red panel allowed the ghosts to be seen on screen and the blue panel made them disappear. On the DVD, customers can look at the screen without the viewer and see both the red ghosts and the blue backgrounds. (Otherwise, the film is in black-and-white.) The ghosts actually have very little to do with the ultimate goal: to find Uncle Plato's hidden stash of money. Moreover, it seems that Castle had a difficult time balancing some potential humor with the scares, and it comes off as a bit of a misfire.

Homicidal (1961) was Castle's deliberate tribute to/ripoff of Hitchcock's Psycho. A weird, pretty blonde woman, Emily (Jean Arless) hires a handsome bellhop to "marry" her. It turns out that she's more interested in stabbing the justice of the peace to death than in matrimony. She returns to her home, where she cares for an old lady invalid Helga (Eugenie Leontovich). We meet Miriam Webster (Patricia Breslin), who runs a flower shop and is dating pharmacist Karl (Glenn Corbett). We also meet Miriam's creepy half-brother Warren, who is about to inherit their evil father's estate. Essentially, there's a murder and someone's responsible, and Castle tries to keep the secret from us as long as possible. I have to admit, it's a pretty good twist, and it's one that intensely impressed Michael J. Weldon of Psychotronic Video, who counts this as one of his favorite films. Castle's style is very clean and even, almost as if he were shooting for television, though the film is also neatly paced and economic. The gimmick on Homicidal was a "fright break." Just as one character is about to enter the house where the killer is hiding, the audience is given a ticking clock; if they can't stand the suspense, they can retreat to "coward's corner."

Strait-Jacket (1964) teamed the lucky Castle not only with Oscar-winning star Joan Crawford, but also with screenwriter Robert Bloch, who had written the famous novel Psycho; and indeed, it has Psycho-like tendencies. Joan plays Lucy Harbin, who hacked up her husband and her husband's lover and went to an asylum for 20 years. (The 59 year-old Joan actually looks pretty hot in the flashbacks!) Now she has been released and comes home to live on a farm with her grown daughter, the pretty Carol (Diane Baker, who was also in Hitchcock's Marnie the same year). Of course, there are more murders. This one has a very high quality of dialogue and performance, not only by Crawford and Baker, but also by George Kennedy as a lumbering, sneering hired hand. Though Castle's even, medium style of shooting still applies here.

The other films in the set include 13 Frightened Girls (1963), for which Castle auditioned girls from all over the world; The Old Dark House (1963), a kind of comedy remake of James Whale's 1932 classic, also based on the novel by J.B. Priestley; Mr. Sardonicus (1961), which was more or less based on The Man Who Laughs; and Zotz! (1962), a kind of fantasy/comedy, starring Tom Poston. It goes without saying that the box set was unable to include copies or representations of any of the gimmicks, but the real shame is that it omits two key films. First is House on Haunted Hill (1958), which is one of Castle's best; it's in the public domain and widely available on inferior DVDs, but I'm not sure there's a good, official DVD yet. Perhaps more importantly, the set could have included Castle's earlier gimmick-free film noir When Strangers Marry (1944), which has recently been rediscovered as evidence of Castle's actual talent, rather than his business acumen.

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