Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Written by Fantasma el Rey

William Castle, "the master of ballyhoo" knew what people wanted and how to hook them into buying a ticket. A wizard sideshow barker from the old school that filled seats and made a profit from his low budget horror films. He had a knack for finding the gimmick and pitching the hell out of it. This new five-DVD set offers eight gems, originally released by Columbia Pictures in the late '50s and early '60s, each running at a "fun" time of about 90 minutes. So join me, if you dare, as I take a peek at The William Castle Film Collection.

Castle's films didn't make a fortune but they made enough that the studio kept bringing him back to do more of what he did best: low-budget, gimmicky, spook movies. Hitting with Macabre and House On Haunted Hill in '58 and '59 Columbia brought him in to produce and direct. The films here aren't in chronological order but their placement does make sense in an odd way.

Disc one pairs 13 Frightened Girls (1963) and 13 Ghost (1960). Girls is a laughable look at the spy world as a young daughter of an international diplomat secretly, and unbeknown to daddy, gets involved with his intricate affairs. While getting chased by "Reds", she narrowly avoids death, capture, and becoming too entangled in the web of deceit that is being a secret agent. She also has 12 friends that attend the same Swiss boarding school to help her along the way, thus the title.

13 Ghost is a standard haunted house story, inherited by an unknowing family somehow related to the recently deceased that promised "13 times the thrills! 13 times the chills! 13 times the fun!" The gimmick here, 'cause Castle nearly always had one, was his use of "Illusion-O," a handheld piece of cardboard that had two transparent colored strips that would be used at the proper time. One was blue, to see the ghosts, the other red if you didn't want to see the ghosts, mostly pointless as the ghost would appear no matter what.

Disc two's Homicidal (1961) and Strait-Jacket (1964) are dominated by strong stories and the glue that is gore. Homicidal is an obvious "homage" to Hitchcock's Psycho with certain scenes filmed very much the same way. Our lead gal is a hot blond and our creepy male lead is an oddball with something not quite right about him. The twist at the end and the actual showing of stabbings put this one just over the Psycho edge. The gimmick is the "fright break" 45 seconds before the climax of the film which allowed folks to leave and get their money back but they had to hangout in the "coward's corner" for the remainder of the picture.

Apparently told to hold the gimmicks for Strait-Jacket, Castle went out and found something even better, Joan Crawford. After seeing What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? Castle had to create his own and hired Psycho author Robert Bloch to cook up a story that featured the aging Crawford. She plays an older women returning home to her daughter after being locked up for 20 years in an asylum for hacking up her husband and his lover with an axe. Upon her return, more folks begin to get whacked and who is to blame? That's right ol' Miss Crawford or is she? This one is enjoyable all the way to its twisted, axe-swinging end.

On disc three we venture into The Old Dark House (1963) and meet Mr. Sardonicus (1961). As the title implies, The Old Dark House is about just that and not much else. An American car salesman in England gets involved with a family of kooks in an old, rundown mansion and is almost killed as he investigates who is bumping off the others. Tom Poston (from TV's Newhart) makes this spooky comedy enjoyable but overall this one is passable.

Mr. Sardonicus takes us back to England, this time in a gothic tale set in 1880s London and is the story of a once decent fellow, Baron Sardonicus, forced to do ghoulish deeds. His face hideously frozen in a bizarre smile (very reminiscent of The Man Who Laughs), he attempts to pressure a talented doctor into restoring his good looks or suffer the consequences. Meanwhile, Sardonicus tortures young girls from the village with leeches and other devices as he gets his jollies and hides his true face behind a mask. A good film that finds Castle reaching back to the past and putting us in a setting much like the Universal monsters roamed. The gimmick here is The Punishment Poll, a card given to the crowd with thumbs up or down to decide the fate of Mr. Sardonicus. Castle appears and makes the tally himself.

Disc four is all comedy, intended or not, with The Tingler and Zotz! Tingler is a dumb movie with an outrageous plot that somehow Vincent Price gets to work. A lobster-like creature lives in the human spinal cord and is only active during fright but by screaming it's stopped and can no longer do harm. Price, a doctor, captures one. It gets lose in a theater and runs amuck leading to the gimmick of Percepto. Some seats where rigged to vibrate at a key moment in the film and gave the audience a "scream" or a giggle. Price and the really bad creature make this dumb flick fun.

Zotz! tells of an absentminded professor (Tom Poston) who comes across an ancient coin with magical powers. He tries to tell his fellow staff members, who laugh at him, and the government, who laugh as well. But they stop laughing when the "reds" show up and kidnap our hero who uses the power of the coin to thwart their efforts. He and the coin return safe and sound. It's an all-right comedy with some funny moments when watched at social gathering. Those who went to see this got a "magic" coin; tales tell it did nothing.

Finally there is a bonus disc with the documentary Spin Tingler! The William Castle Story featuring interviews from many people who knew or where influenced by Castle, including his daughter Terry, John Waters, Roger Corman, John Landis, and Joe Dante. We get a further look at Castle's adventures in life, movies, and what made him tick, his wife and family. The special feature on the documentary is a cool audio commentary by producer/director Jeffrey Schwarz and Terry. It's a great look at the life of a man who directed many films of all genres and could turn nothing into something.

The featurettes on the four other discs are pulled directly from this documentary and edited to focus on a specific film and/or gimmick. Along with those featurettes are other making-of pieces, vintage promo shorts, alternate opening sequences, and a bunch of original trailers. The set also includes two good episodes from the Castle-produced TV series Ghost Story (1972-73). So hurry, hurry, step on out and get your copy to enjoy and witness the ghoulish glory that is The William Castle Film Collection.