If you were to ask any child in the 1960s if they would want to see a William Castle film over the weekend, you'd hear a resounding "Hurrah!" in response. Every loyal follower of cheap horror schlock such as The Little Shop of Horrors, The Crawling Eye, or The Brain that Wouldn't Die, knew who William Castle was. Heck, he was a household name. Even non-horror buffs were familiar with the King of Camp. What made this man so famous? It surely wasn't the quality of his films. It was showmanship. That's right, when it came to promoting films, he knew what the public loved ....sensationalism. Castle delivered exactly what you came to see...spine-tingling squirm-in-your-seats awkward horror ( or a lot of laughs, depending on your taste ).
Macabre was William Castle's first film offering as an independent producer. After directing several dozen b-films for Columbia Pictures, he decided to be a man and venture out as an independent creator.
It all began while watching Diabolique one rainy night with his wife Ellen. Castle was amazed at how many young people were standing in line, in the pouring rain, to watch a movie that will scare their pants off. Charged with the creative fuel of a good idea surging in his blood, he went on a search for a story that would surpass Diabolique in fright. He found that story...it was called "The Marble Forest" . He pitched it to several studios but none thought the movie would sell, and so Castle hocked his house, and with $90,000 in his pocket, became his own producer.
The newly retitled Macabre was filmed in 12 days and looked to be equally as frightening as Diabolique, only it lacked one thing...a promotional gimmick. Then the idea hit Castle one night - an insurance policy! With nurses on standby and a hearst parked outside, audience members entered theatres with pen in hand ready to sign a Lloyds of London insurance policy guaranteeing that William Castle will pay the beneficiary that they name $1,000 in case they die of fright while watching the film ( hardly likely ). A small clause also read "I understand that if I have a known heart or nervous condition the One Thousand Dollars is not payable". It's always good to protect oneself.
Macabre netted over $5,000,000 nationwide - a phenomenal return for such a small investment. The success of the picture also ingrained in Castle's mind a philosophy he always believed....showmanship is pure gold when it comes to the film industry.
For his next film, House on Haunted Hill ( 1959 ) , he used one of the oldest promotional techniques in
the industry : a big name actor. Vincent Price to be precise. There isn't anything quite like a big name to draw audience members to theatres, but just in case certain kiddies weren't familiar with the legendary thespian, Castle concocted Emergo. It was promoted as "the new wonder where thrills fly right into the audience". It was really a lighted plastic skeleton that swooped down on the audience via a wire when the skeleton appeared onscreen. The effect was pretty good and the audience loved the trick, but most theatres disabled it after a few weeks...too many local hooligans would shoot rocks at it with their slingshots. Sometimes skeletons produce that effect.
House on Haunted Hill was a fun thriller and boasted a wonderful cast of characters. Aside from Vincent Price, it starred Richard Long, Alan Marshall, Elisha Cook and Carolyn Craig. The noted gossip columnist Louella Parsons hailed the film as being "more frightening than a graveyard on a cold, wet night". ( We didn't realize she frequented graveyards at night. )
What exactly was Percepto? Electric buzzers installed in the bottom of the seats.
Unfortunately, William Castle did not think about giving out rubber Tinglers to audience members as they exited. We would of much rather went home with a souvenir than a tingle down our spines.
One of the most entertaining publicity gimmicks William Castle utilized was Illusion-O for his 1960 classic, 13 Ghosts. Audience members received supernatural viewers and could sit, with mouth agape, to perceive exctoplasmic ghosts whiz by them....in COLOR. Oooohhhh. Basically, Illusion-O was a piece of cardboard with thin pieces of colored cellophane attached as "lens". By looking through the red plastic the ghosts appeared on screen. For the faint at heart, a peep through the blue filter magically made them disappear.
Dr. Plato Zorba developed his very own pair of glasses that enabled him to penetrate the supernatural world and hence, communicate with them on a face to face level, so what better way for the audience to participate then by offering them their very own supernatural viewers? Of course, at home these ghost glasses didn't seem to work as well when trying to see the spirit of Uncle Henry in the old barn out back.
"13 Times the Thrills, 13 Times the Screams, 13 Times the Fun!"
13 Ghosts was heavily promoted through billboards, television spots, and news articles. William Castle also selected thirteen youngsters to dress as ghouls and travel up and down Hollywood Avenue on an elaborately decorated ghost float. They waved signs which read "Vote for Castle..the only candidate with a ghost of a chance" ( this was during the Kennedy/Nixon presidential campaigns ) while a recording of Castle's voice boomed through a megaphone, "Do you believe in ghosts?".
Do you have a yellow streak down you back? Then don't walk out of Homicidal ( 1961 ) or you'll be labeled a coward! Just before the ending to Homicidal, a truly strange picture, a timer would appear onscreen announcing the "Fright Break"...while the clock ticked away you could sneak out of your seats with your little yellow "coward's only" certificate and receive a full refund.
In small print, the certificate reads, "To protect patrons of tender years from the psychological dangers of being labeled a coward, this money-back guarantee applies only to members of the audience 15 years of age and over" . For some reason, I imagine that alot of youngsters in groups took advantage of this gimmick to save their money for an ice cream shake after the flick.
For those who felt they wanted a little control over the ending of a film, attending Mr. Sardonicus ( 1961 ) enabled them to wield their voters right and decide whether the titled Mister received his come-uppance or not . The Punishment Poll allowed members of the audience to vote by raising glow-in-the-dark cards with a thumbs up or a thumbs down. Who stood behind the screen to count the votes, I'm sure I don't know.
An alternate "happy" mercy ending to the movie may have been filmed, but no audience ever offered Mr. Sardonicus mercy and hence, it was never screened. We live in such an unsympathetic age.
Mr. Sardonicus boasted some beautiful poster art of the grinning money-grabbing villian as well as this neat trailer, hosted by William Castle, whose facial expressions reminds me of a cross between Don Ameche and Ed Wynn in this trailer.
Another film which featured take-home freebies was Zotz! ( 1962 ) . This film told the story of a school professor who finds a magical coin which, when used with the magic words, lets him "pause" movement or give pain to those he aimed his finger at ( no, not that finger! ). "Magical coins" were issued to loyal patrons and, while we're not sure what they did, they sure do look neato!
Here's a coin that we found on Etsy, someone converted it into a kitchen magnet. Just imagine all that magical power sticking on your refrigerator, just waiting for the right person to come by and say the magic words.
William Castle's films were selling themselves perfectly well without the help of gimmicks and promo stunts, and so after Zotz , they began to wind down. However, one interesting pre-release gimmick Castle used was in 1963's 13 Frightened Girls. In a worldwide contest, young girls from thirteen different countries were selected to be chosen as the students who appear in the film. Here is one of the girls from Sweden :
Straight-Jacket ( 1965 ) didn't have much a promotional gimmick at all and quite frankly, didn't need one. Afterall, it featured Joan Crawford. She had recently created a sensation as Blanche in Robert Aldrich's has-been classic Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?. Joan Crawford seemed enthusiastic to be back in the spotlight again, even if it was for star billing in a horror film. To promote Straight-Jacket, Ms. Crawford smeared greasepaint on her face and went off on a national tour, visiting Lowes theatres and fan clubs across the nation, happily advertising the fact that she portrays a psychotic ax-murderer. The higher they climb, the lower they fall.
Audience members in theatres received their very own little cardboard axes so they could practice their hacking technique on friends, neighbors, and enemies at home. We weren't able to find any photos of how these axes looked like, which makes us come to the conclusion that they must be a rare bit of memorabilia indeed!
"Fate Dials the Number...Terror Answers the Phone!"
Joan Crawford was back again as Amy Nelson, the girlfriend of Steve Marak ( John Ireland ), who recently did a Norman Bates and energetically stabbed his wife to death in the shower in I Saw What You Did ( 1965 ). Joan Crawford's character is a bit more sympathetic here and we, as the audience, are moved to pity. ( More so for that fact that an actress once so famous could play such a cheesy role...but that's another story in itself ).
Posters advertising I Saw What You Did featured in bold letters the upcoming phenomena Uxoricide but obviously no one wanted to see a gimmick that sounded like a laundry detergent, so theatre chains didn't even bother installing them. What was Uxoricide? Seatbelts. You didn't follow that? We didn't either.
And lastly - scraping the bottle of the barrel here - was The Night Walker ( 1965 ). Once again, the really big publicity drawing feature to this film was the fact that it starred Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck, two big name actors who were once Hollywood's golden couple. Taylor up and left Stanwyck after twelve years of marriage ( for various reasons ) and this was their first teaming on screen in over 28 years. He plays a man out to kill her. Shouldn't it of been the other way around?
This great poster advertises everything that we did not see in the film - as posters are apt to do. That fierce looking creature is certainly something we wouldn't want to meet in our dreams. Castle botched it up again when it came to the giveaways and didn't provide little glass eyeballs for his motion picture attendees. There was a freebie however...a paper sheet called a "Dream Interpreter". We couldn't quite figure out how it worked so if anyone remembers or still owns one of these please let us in on the secret.
We're not done yet! We got our very own special treat for those members of the audience who were patient enough to wade through our writing...an extra-special deluxe photo gallery insert!
Let's take a peek at William Castle....
BEHIND THE SCREAMS!
William Castle and Mrs. Slydes on the set of House on Haunted Hill
Castle with an unknown man and an unknown head on the set of Straight-Jacket
The Master of Macabre hamming it up with some fan club members
Cary Grant, Joan Crawford, and John Ireland
Castle and Price practicing with ghouls
Castle with Mia Farrow on the set of Rosemary's Baby
Diane Baker, Joan Crawford and the Maestro
He's keeping his eye on you!
Some happy fan members get Castle's autograph
Castle enjoying a stroll down in the audience
William Castle ( Apr. 24, 1914 - May 31, 1977 )
This post, and The Films of William Castle, are our contributions to the fabulous William Castle Blogathon being hosted by The Last Drive-In and GoreGirl's Dungeon. You can see a complete line-up of blogs participating in this event here.
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