Monday, May 31, 2010

Deathday: William Castle 1914-1977 Producer 'The House on Haunted Hill"

William Castle (April 24, 1914 – May 31, 1977) was an American film director, producer, and actor.


William Schloss was born in New York City to a Jewish family. Schloss means "castle" in German, and Castle probably chose to translate his surname into English to avoid the discrimination often encountered by Jewish entertainers of his time. He spent most of his teenage years working on Broadway in a number of jobs ranging from set building to acting. This put him in a good stead to become a director, and he left for Hollywood at the age of 23, going on to direct his first film 6 years later. He also worked an as assistant to director Orson Welles, doing much of the second unit location work for Welles' noir classic, The Lady from Shanghai.

Castle was famous for directing films with many gimmicks which were ambitiously promoted, despite being reasonably low budget B-movies. Five of these were scripted by adventure novelist Robb White. Recently, two of his films have been remade, House on Haunted Hill in 1999, and Thirteen Ghosts in 2001 (the latter retitled Thir13en Ghosts).

He also produced, and had a brief non-speaking role in, Roman Polanski's film Rosemary's Baby (1968). Castle is the grey-haired man lurking outside the phone booth while Mia Farrow is attempting to get in touch with the obstetrician. According to the documentary featured on the film's DVD release, Castle had wanted to direct the film as well, but the studio insisted on hiring another director due to the reputation Castle had gained through his previous work. They felt that the novel deserved a better treatment than Castle was able to give it.

After a long career, William Castle died in Los Angeles, California, of a heart attack.[1] He is interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.

A documentary focusing on Castle's life, Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, had its premiere at AFI FEST 2007 in Los Angeles on November 8, 2007.[2] It won the Audience Award for Best Documentary.

Castle's gimmicks

Macabre (1958): A certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyd's of London was given to each customer in case he/she should die of fright during the film. Showings also had fake nurses stationed in the lobbies and hearses parked outside the theater.[3]

House on Haunted Hill (1959): Filmed in "Emergo". An inflatable glow in the dark skeleton attached to a wire floated over the audience during the final moments of some showings of the film to parallel the action on the screen when a skeleton arose from a vat of acid and pursued the villainous wife of Vincent Price.[4] The gimmick did not always instill fright; sometimes the skeleton became a target for some audience members who hurled candy boxes, soda cups or any other objects at hand at the skeleton.[5]

The Tingler (1959): Filmed in "Percepto." In the film a docile creature that lives in the spinal cord is activated by fright, and can only be destroyed by screaming. In the film's finale one of the creatures removed from the spine of a mute woman killed by it when she was unable to scream is let loose in a movie theatre. Some seats in theatres showing the Tingler were equipped with larger versions of the hand-held joy buzzers attached to the underside of the seats. When the Tingler in the film attacked the audience the buzzers were activated as a voice encouraged the real audience to "Scream - scream for your lives."[6] Articles regarding this often incorrectly state the seats in the theatre were wired to give electrical jolts.

13 Ghosts (1960): Filmed in "Illusion-O". A hand held ghost viewer/remover with strips of red and blue cellophane was given out to use during certain segments of the film. By looking through either the red or blue cellophane the audience was able to either see or remove the ghosts if they were too frightening.[7]

Homicidal (1961): This film contained a "Fright break" with a 45 second timer overlaid over the film's climax as the heroine approached a house harboring a sadistic killer. A voiceover advised the audience of the time remaining in which they could leave the theatre and receive a full refund if they were too frightened to see the remainder of the film. To ensure the more wily patrons did not simply stay for a second showing and leave during the finale Castle had different color tickets printed for each show.[8] In a trailer for the film, Castle explained the use of the Coward's Certificate and admonished the viewer to not reveal the ending of the film to friends, "or they will kill you. If they don't, I will."[9] About 1% of patrons still demanded refunds, and in response:

"William Castle simply went nuts. He came up with 'Coward's Corner,' a yellow cardboard booth, manned by a bewildered theater employee in the lobby. When the Fright Break was announced, and you found that you couldn't take it anymore, you had to leave your seat and, in front of the entire audience, follow yellow footsteps up the aisle, bathed in a yellow light. Before you reached Coward's Corner, you crossed yellow lines with the stenciled message: 'Cowards Keep Walking.' You passed a nurse (in a yellow uniform?...I wonder), who would offer a blood-pressure test. All the while a recording was blaring, "'Watch the chicken! Watch him shiver in Coward's Corner'!" As the audience howled, you had to go through one final indignity -- at Coward's Corner you were forced to sign a yellow card stating, 'I am a bona fide coward.' Very, very few were masochistic enough to endure this. The one percent refund dribbled away to a zero percent, and I'm sure that in many cities a plant had to be paid to go through this torture. No wonder theater owners balked at booking a William Castle film. It was all just too damn complicated."[10]

Mr. Sardonicus (1961): In this gothic tale set in 1880 London a baron's face is frozen into a permanent grotesque hideous smile after digging up his father's grave to retrieve a lottery ticket left in the pocket of his father's jacket. The audiences were allowed to vote in a "punishment poll" during the climax of the film - Castle himself appears on screen to explain to the audience their options. Each member of the audience was given a card with a glow in the dark thumb they could hold either up or down to decide if Mr. Sardonicus would be cured or die during the end of the film. Supposedly, no audience ever offered mercy so the alternate ending was never screened.[11]

Zotz! (1962): Each patron was given a "Magic" (gold colored plastic) coin which, of course, did absolutely nothing.[12]

13 Frightened Girls (1963): Castle launched a worldwide hunt for the prettiest girls from 13 different countries to cast in the film.[11]

Strait-Jacket (1964): Joan Crawford. Advised by his financial backers to eliminate gimmicks, Castle hired Crawford to star and sent her on a promotional tour to theatres. At the last minute, Castle had cardboard axes made and handed out to patrons.[11]

I Saw What You Did (1965): The film was initially promoted using giant plastic telephones but after a rash of prank phone calls and complaints, the telephone company refused Castle permission to use them or mention telephones. So he turned the back rows of theatres into "Shock Sections". Seat belts were installed to keep patrons from being jolted from their chairs in fright.[13]

Bug (1975): Castle advertised a million-dollar life insurance policy taken out on the film's star, "Hercules" the cockroach.[14]


Bug (1975, writer/producer)

Shanks (1974)

Rosemary's Baby (1968, producer only)

Project X (1968)

The Spirit Is Willing (1967)

The Busy Body (1967)

Let's Kill Uncle (1966)

I Saw What You Did (1965)

Night Walker (1964)

Strait-Jacket (1964)

The Old Dark House (1963)

13 Frightened Girls (1963)

Zotz! (1962)

Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

Homicidal (1961)

13 Ghosts (1960)

The Tingler (1959)

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Macabre (1958)

Uranium Boom (1956)

The Houston Story (1956)

Duel on the Mississippi (1955)

The Gun That Won the West (1955)

New Orleans Uncensored (1955)

The Americano (1955)

Masterson of Kansas (1954)

The Law vs. Billy the Kid (1954)

The Saracen Blade (1954)

The Iron Glove (1954)

Drums of Tahiti (3-D) (1954)

Jesse James vs. the Daltons (3-D) (1954)

The Battle of Rogue River (1954)

Charge of the Lancers (1954)

Slaves of Babylon (1953)

Conquest of Cochise (1953)

Serpent of the Nile (1953)

Fort Ti (3-D) (1953)

Cave of Outlaws (1951)

Hollywood Story (1951)

The Fat Man (1951)

It's a Small World (1950)

Undertow (1949)

Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949)

The Gentleman from Nowhere (1948)

Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven (1948)

Crime Doctor's Gamble (1947)

Crime Doctor's Man Hunt (1946)

The Return of Rusty (1946)

Mysterious Intruder (1946)

Just Before Dawn (1946)

Voice of the Whistler (1945)

Crime Doctor's Warning (1945)

The Mark of the Whistler (1944)

When Strangers Marry (1944)

She's a Soldier Too (1944)

The Whistler (1944)

Klondike Kate (1943)

The Chance of a Lifetime (1943)


1.^ "William Castle, 63, Movie Producer. Career Modeled on P.T. Barnum, Made Millions on Shockers Like 'Rosemary's Baby'." New York Times. June 2, 1977. "William Castle, who made millions producing and directing films that horrified audiences and often left critics muttering about poor taste, suffered a heart attack at his home in Beverly Hills, Calif., Tuesday night and died at the University of California at Los Angeles Medical Center. He was 63 years old."
2.^ Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story at the Internet Movie Database
3.^ Waters, pp. 15–6
4.^ Waters, p. 16
5.^ "House on Haunted Hill plot synopsis."
6.^ Waters, p. 17
7.^ Waters, p. 18
8.^ Waters, pp. 18–9
9.^ Castle, William. (1999). House on Haunted Hill special features - theatrical trailer. [DVD].
10.^ Waters, p. 19
11.^ Waters, p.20
12.^ Castle, p. 178
13.^ Waters, p. 21
14.^ Castle, p. 255


Castle, William, with introduction by John Waters (1976, republished 1992). Step Right Up! I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America: Memoirs of a B-Movie Mogul. New York, Putnam. ISBN 0886876575 (Pharos edition 1992).

Waters, John (1983). Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters. New York, Macmillan Publishing Company. Chapter 2, "Whatever Happened to Showmanship?" was originally published in American Film December 1983 in a slightly different form.

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