Powerhouse Films are currently distributing Volume One of their William Castle at Columbia collection, featuring an array of the director/producer’s horror films from the late fifties and early sixties, as part of their excellent and on-going Indicator Collection. The films in the boxed set are 13 Ghosts, Homicidal, Mr Sardonicus and The Tingler.

William Castle was a notorious American film producer/director operating throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies. This was principally because, like Alfred Hitchcock, he’d frequently engage directly with the audiences that he was making the films for, via short introductions to his films and trailers. And, due to his love of circuses and the stage, in general, Castle was probably most renowned for coming up with gimmicks to help sell his pictures. He made up fun names for these daft gimmicks including: ‘Emergo’, ‘Percepto’, ‘Coward’s Corner’ and ‘The Punishment Poll’. Those lucky enough to experience these madcap movie-going schemes, especially during the films’ first runs, often got excited enough about the more interactive experiences on offer that they told their friends to go and see the film, which was the whole point of the silly schemes in the first place.

Alas, I never got to experience any of these movie going gimmicks until I was fortunate to see a rare UK screening of The Tingler at the Abertoir Horror Festival in Aberystwyth, during which the organisers had brilliantly recreated the ‘Percepto’ gimmick and fitted some of the seats with vibrating devices that ‘went-off’ at certain times during the film. They also arranged for a ‘plant’ in the audience to start screaming at one point and, when they fainted, had some fake nurses come and see to them! Ahh, good times…

Anyway, I digress! So, how about the films themselves? Do they still stand-up to scrutiny after all these years or should they remain buried in the past? Instead of writing full-length reviews for each film I’ve elected to write more succinct ones, otherwise we’ll be here all day. Here goes…

13 Ghosts
Director: William Castle
Script: Robb White
Cast: Charles Herbert, Jo Morrow, Martin Milner, Rosemary De Camp, Donald Woods, Margaret Hamilton, John Van Dreelen
Running time: 82 minutes
Year: 1960
Certificate: 15

When Sirius Zorba, the father of a young family, finds himself to be the benefactor of a dead relative’s will he’s most happy since his pay as a geology lecturer barely covers the rent on the family home. It turns out that Sirius has inherited his Uncle Plato’s old mansion, with all its contents; the caveat being that they can’t sell the place, they have to live there.

The family move in and soon find out that Plato was something of an eccentric who collected ghosts, with 12 of them currently occupying the house (including Plato’s own ghost), and with another predicted to join them shortly thereafter!

As things get increasingly strange, with ghosts being seen (via some specially made ghost-viewing glasses that Plato created) all over the house, the family find themselves in a difficult position; either continue to live in the house, rent-free, or struggle to make ends-meet in the outside world. Plus, they have to contend with a sinister spiritualist housemaid, who kind of came with the house, and a rather dashing, but also dastardly, solicitor who knows something about the house they’ve just moved into that he would kill to get his hands on.

And, if you just think I’ve given too much away by that last sentence, think again, since that plotline is so heavily telegraphed, it’s really no spoiler at all!

One thing that’s quickly apparent watching William Castle’s films is that they’re obviously low budget, but are pretty well-made for what they are, with an array of decent actors chewing the scenery and clearly enjoying the nonsense that they’ve been given to spout. 13 Ghosts is a daft, crazy film, but it’s also a lot of infectious fun. The visual effects used to depict the ghosts have dated badly, but they’re still a good laugh to watch, and Castle even manages to squeeze in a couple of creepier moments, especially when the daughter is being stalked by a zombie-like creature in the house. This is certainly a lot more fun that its 2001 remake, Thi13en Ghosts.

As per usual Powerhouse Films has done a great job with the extras which include:

Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (82 mins) – This is probably the most significant extra feature in this collection. This feature-length documentary is an accomplished work in its own right and provides a nice overview to William Castle’s lengthy career as a celluloid showman. I learned a lot about the great man, including the fact that he once claimed he was being hassled by Nazis in order to help promote a movie! He also produced classic horror film Rosemary’s Baby, a fact I was unaware of. His life story is a fascinating one and, even if you’re not particularly a fan of his films, this is a fun-to-watch and informative documentary.

The Magic of Illusion-o (7.42) – Michael Schlesinger, from Columbia Pictures Repertory, and Donald F. Glut, a film historian, discuss the gimmicks.

Introduction by Stephen Laws (12 mins) – The horror novelist talks about his personal experiences watching Castle’s films.

Theatre Lobby spot (2.5 mins) – A radio slot played from a 78 rpm record.

Theatrical Trailer (2.5 mins) – Includes William’s intro.

Sam Hamm Trailer commentary (3 mins) – The scriptwriter talks about the gimmick for the film. 

Image gallery – 45 stills, including publicity stills

Larger than life: The making of Spine Tingler! (8 mins) – Does what it says on the tin.

Rating:

Homicidal

Director: William Castle
Script: Robb White
Cast: Glenn Corbett, Patricia Breslin, Eugenie Leontovich, Alan Bunce, Richard rust, Jane Westerfield, Gilbert green, Jean Arless
Running time: 87 minutes
Year: 1961
Certificate: 15

A striking blonde staying at a hotel pays a bell-boy to marry her; the caveat being that the marriage is just one of convenience and it will be annulled shortly thereafter. They turn up at the Justice of the Peace’s residence late at night to be married and, then, out of the blue, the blonde savagely murders the JP and drives off leaving her husband-to-be, the JP’s wife and us, the audience, with our jaws on the floor trying to make sense of the sudden violence. And so begins Homicidal, Castle’s homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho, from the previous year.

The less I say about the rest of the film, the better, since it’s best to let the viewer experience it as fresh as possible. Suffice to say, William Castle borrows heavily from Hitchcock, but, rather than rip the great man off, he just dials up the weirdness factor and violence levels for his own version of the classic psychological horror.

One, if observant, can kind of see what’s going to happen before it all unravels, but I still think it’s a strong film in its own right. There’s a bit too much exposition in a couple of scenes (probably to cut the budget down), but the film is well shot, with Castle making good use of shadows, especially during the final atmospheric scenes of the film. I could have done without the ‘Fright break’ gimmick though, as all this really does is to take you out of the film, by reminding you that you’re watching a film!

The film’s best quote: ‘I never liked your eyes, Helga – they see too much!’

Special features include:

Audio commentary with Lee Gambin;

Introduction by Stephen Laws (7.40 mins) – The author compares the film to Hitchcock’s Psycho, and explains how Castle’s films often appeared on double-bills.

Psychette: William Castle and Homicidal (7.42 mins) – A talking heads mini documentary that features some great clips of original audience members.

Youngstown: Ohio Premiere (5 mins) – Features footage of Castle interviewing paying punters about his film.

Ballyhoo! (4 mins) – An interview article with William Castle that’s read out to the camera by its author, Bob Thomas, who recalls that Homicidal had quite a lengthy 20-day shoot.

Isolated music & effects track;

Theatrical trailer (2.18 mins) – Sells the idea of the film’s ‘money back guarantee scheme’ if audiences aren’t shocked. William Castle also recommends a surgical knife for murder, which is a bit odd! 

Image gallery – 41 stills and publicity stills, including information on creating a ‘coward’s corner’ in a cinema foyer.

Rating:

Mr Sardonicus

Director: William Castle
Script: Ray Russell
Cast: Oscar Homolka, Ronald Lewis, Audrey Dalton, Guy Rolfe, Vladimir Sokoloff, Erika Peters, Lorna Hanson
Running time: 90 minutes
Year: 1961
Certificate: 15

When Robert (Ronald Lewis), a knighted doctor, is summoned by his ex-girlfriend to help her out, he drops everything and makes his way to the (made-up) country of Gorslava (probably what used to be Yugoslavia really) to see her. She’s now married to Baron Sardonicus, a cruel, mask-wearing recluse who seems to be involved in various forms of depravity and sadism at his country mansion.

It turns out that the baron once had to dig up the dead body of his own father and the shock of seeing it forever changed his own countenance, hence the reason for his mask-wearing. He wants the doctor to try out his new experimental massage techniques to see if he can cure him of his distorted facial features. When they don’t work the baron threatens to maim Maude, his wife, if the good doctor won’t stick around to help him further…

Mr Sardonicus is a good example of Grand Guignol and is also Castle doing a ‘Hammer’ number with its period setting and gothic trappings. The acting is also very good, particularly Guy Rolfe, as Sardonicus and Oscar Homolka as his sadistic assistant who the baron blinded in one eye for disobedience! Again, the whole ‘punishment poll’ gimmick cheapens proceedings somewhat, but it’s all good fun.

 

Special features include:

Audio commentary with Kat Ellinger and Samm Deigham; 

Gothic Castle (28 mins) – Jonathan Rigby talks about the film and about William Castle, who author Robert Bloch once described of being like ‘a polar bear with a cigar’! Rigby explains how the BBFC hated Mr Sardonicus and butchered it, removing the leech scene completely, for example. 

The Punishment Poll (6 mins) – Richard Kahn, from Columbia Pictures Publicity department, talks about the film’s gimmick.

Taking the Punishment Poll (7.5 mins) – An excerpt from the documentary Spinetingler! that deals with this particular Castle gimmick.

Isolated music and effects track;

Theatrical trailer (3.35 mins) – William Castle introduces the film and explains the Punishment Poll.

Stuart Gordon trailer commentary (3.37 mins) – Stuart, looking a bit burned, as if he’s just been on holiday, reveals that only one ending for the film was shot.

Image gallery – 52 stills, including posters

Rating:

The Tingler

Director: William Castle
Script: Robb White
Cast: Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn, Darryl Hickman, Patricia Cutts, Pamela Lincoln, Philip Coolidge
Running time: 82 minutes
Year: 1959
Certificate: 15

Vincent Price is a mortician obsessed with the notion of how some people literally ‘die of fright’. He lives with a wife who brazenly cheats on him, but he remains with her since she has all the money, which he needs access to in order to continue his research, and also to pay his young assistant, who is dating their daughter.

When a chance meeting brings him together with a strange cinema owner and his deaf – mute wife he wonders if his theory regarding screams being able to save us from ourselves, at times of adversity, might be proved for real. And, when his own experiment with LSD doesn’t work, he sets about a further experiment using the mute woman to see if he can isolate something he terms as the ‘Tingler’, which seems to be a lethal extension of a person’s own Id.

As I’ve said before, The Tingler was the only William Castle film that I’d seen previously to reviewing this boxed set. And, seeing it for a second time was still a lot of fun, although obviously not as good as when I enjoyed it in the company of other like-minded people, on the big screen, at a horror festival.

Even though Vincent Price is frequently criticised for his hammy acting – and there’s certainly one over-the-top scene in this film that illustrates that point – Price was a much better actor than he was normally given credit for and, especially during the quieter moments of this picture, one can appreciate how good he actually was.

The plot is as daft as they come, but the lobster/woodlouse type creature that emerges from a woman’s spine manages to be simultaneously silly and sinister, much to Castle’s credit. Although, apparently, Castle was too tight to have more than one creature built!

There are plenty of fun moments throughout this film, including the fright sequence where the poor mute woman is terrorised alone at night, and another scene where Price hilariously wrestles with the ‘Tingler’. The film and the boxed set in general, are most definitely worth the price of admission…

Special features include:

Audio commentary with Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby;

Imagining Biology (16 mins) – Journalist Kim Newman talks about The Tingler’s gimmick, Percepto, and about how the film fits into the pantheon of other weird biology movies such as Rabid, Brain Damage and The Asphyx. He also posits that Steven Spielberg probably saw the film in his formative years as he probably borrowed the concept of having one scene have a splash of red in it even when the rest of the film is black and white.

I survived The Tingler (4mins) – Actress Pam Lincoln talks about how Castle left her roses in her dressing room and was generally a very sweet guy.

Unleashing Percepto (3 mins) – Barrie Lorie, who worked as a PR agent for Columbia, talks about the film’s gimmick.

Scream for your lives! (15.40 mins) – A talking heads mini-doc that discusses the ‘Tingler’ itself, and how it was kept in a locked box with its own security guard as part of the film’s publicity.

Theatre Lobby spot (2.36 mins) – Audio-only recording of a promotional song used to advertise The Tingler.

Isolated music and effects track;

Theatrical trailer (2.24 mins) – A mix of a William castle intro with lots of people screaming!

Joe Dante trailer commentary (2.39 mins) – Another episode of the ‘Trailers from Hell’ series.

Image galleries – Promo materials gallery (34 stills) & the Percepto Instruction manual (26 stills)

Rating:

William Castle at Columbia Volume One (Ltd edition Blu-ray boxed set)
4.5Overall Score
Reader Rating: (0 Votes)

About The Author

Justin Richards is a journalist by day and a scriptwriter by night. His work has appeared in the darker recesses of the internet and in various niche publications including ITNOW, The Darkside, Is it Uncut?, Impact and Deranged. When he’s not sitting hunched over a sticky, crumb-laden keyboard he’s paying good money to have people in pyjamas try and kick him repeatedly in the face.

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