My notes on Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story
An entertaining, busy documentary on the life and times of William Castle, blending the usual talking heads (Joe Dante, John Waters, John Landis, Forrest J Ackerman, David del Valle, Bob Burns, Roger Corman, Don Glut) with collaborators and family (Terry Castle, Hawk Koch, Jeannot Szwarc, Jacqueline Scott, Darryl Hickman), following the familiar line of Castle’s autobiography (Step Right Up!), presenting him as a friendly showman whose endearing gimmicks sold fun schlock pictures but perhaps had some frustrated artistic ambitions. Twice, the story goes, he nurtured material for himself to direct only to be shoved aside for Orson Welles (Lady From Shanghai) and Roman Polanski (Rosemary’s Baby). Wholly wonderful as some Castle-directed films are, none show anything like genius: oddly, while everyone admits Polanski made a critical and commercial success Castle could never have managed out of Rosemary’s Baby, no one thinks to suggest a Castle-directed Lady From Shanghai might have at least been the box office-friendly Rita Hayworth vehicle Welles failed to deliver. Waters, who has been over this territory in his book Shock Value, is the most entertaining speaker, but he reinforces a print-the-legend version of Castle’s career in gimmickry that I think tends to obscure how odd and genuinely effective things like The Tingler, The House on Haunted Hill and Homicidal! are.
Oddly, some Castle films (When Strangers Marry, Let’s Kill Uncle, I Saw What You Did) get skated over or omitted completely because they don’t have gimmicks, but are strange and memorable pictures in their own right (certainly, moreso than, say, Macabre, which is covered). A few speakers touch on Castle’s strategy of promoting himself as the face of his films, obviously inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s rise to celebrity in the 1950s – but a sad side to this goes unexplored: Hitch could afford to be a clown because he was making Rear Window, North by Northwest, Vertigo and Psycho, whereas Castle compounded cigar-chomping, self-spoofery by turning out films which were blatant cash-ins on what Hitchcock or Robert Aldrich had just done. Some anecdotes skew Castle’s way without being questioned: it’s plain, reading between the talking heads, that Hitchcock and Castle were both inspired by the success of Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques, but extrapolating that to suggest Hitch was inspired by – or even aware of – Castle’s work in making Psycho is stretching a point too far. Similarly, playing up the ‘curse’ on Rosemary’s Baby is tabloid silliness: bad things happened to the makers of, say, The Naked Gun, but no one ever labels a comedy as cursed because OJ Simpson was in it, so puffing up Rosemary’s Baby, The Omen or The Exorcist as especially blighted is lazy hackery, especially in a business where if the Devil really hated you he’d make your film flop and all these movies were runaway hits.
Director Jeffrey Schwarz lands some coups (Marcel Marceau on the peculiar flop Shanks; and both Anne Helm and Diane Baker on Strait Jacket, where Joan Crawford had the former fired and replaced by the latter) but a few other folks (Roman Polanski, Mia Farrow and Robert Evans) are missing. It’s talking heads and clips, but with animated photo cutouts, a lot of editing pizzazz and other effects to get over the hump that there really isn’t any other way of doing movie-related documentaries. A key vintage clip of Castle, Crawford and author Robert Bloch ‘plotting a murder’ is disappointing in that the voice you’d like to hear (Bloch) never pipes up. If nothing else, the film settles on a proper pronounciation of ‘Emergo’ (soft G), the skeleton-on-wires gag from Haunted Hill.
I love Castle! His book was also a riot:)
Thanks for posting this. I was unaware of it and look forward to seeing it!
Richard Harland Smith
I had heard of it, forgot about it, and was just reminded of it by you. The circle of life. After 40.
I read “Step Right Up” years ago. Loved Castle’s complete and utter lack of shame. Still, I remember the original THIRTEEN GHOSTS as being one really scary movie back in my childhood.
Let’s not forget Bug – that rare thing, an unsensationalised pyromaniac cockroach from the centre of the earth movie. The underrated Brad Dillman gets to star, as well! A very good point that the (most welcome) joke shop gimmickry obscures a distinctive stylist and storyteller. Definitely his own patented brand of comic macabre. What else is quite like The Tingler? Not Diaboliques! Has Tim Burton remade Let’s Kill Uncle yet?