I'm going to introduce the screening of THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL tonight (Thursday) at 7:15 p.m. at the Stateside (next door to the Paramount). Come on down for what promises to be a night of fun, schlocky horror hi-jinks! If you can't make it, here are my notes for the film. Enjoy!
Over the course of his long and colorful career, William Castle wore many hats: director, producer, screenwriter and actor. But the title by which he is best known in film history is a simple sobriquet: showman.
Castle, born in 1914, began working in Hollywood at the age of 23. He began directing films in 1942 with the short subject, Black Marketing. Almost all of Castle’s output was strictly “B” material, low-budget genre fare that was serviceable but undistinguished. His brush with an “A” picture came when he shot much of the second unit location work for director Orson Welles on The Lady From Shanghai (1948). By the mid-‘50s, Castle had produced over 40 films, nearly all of which are forgotten today. He realized that something truly different and out of the ordinary was needed in order to make a name for himself and to produce financially successful films. It was time for the gimmick picture.
The movie industry in the 1950s was in a state of flux. The studio system was in decline and independent production companies were springing up left and right. Television was enticing more and more people to stay home and watch programming for free. To counter this, such innovative technologies as 3-D, color, wide screen formats and stereophonic sound were all used in film production as a way of offering something truly unique and different at the movies. Another trend of the ‘50s was the proliferation of the low-budget science fiction, fantasy and horror genre exploitation films. These films catered to the youth market, the very first of the Baby Boomers, who had both time and disposable income to spend at the movies.
Castle saw a way to take advantage of all of these factors to produce something truly unique. If low-budget horror films sold tickets, it stood to reason that low-budget “gimmick” horror films would sell even more tickets. Castle was determined to keep his productions on the cheap side but he came up with one “gimmick” for each of his horror pictures that made them unforgettable. He also put together some of the canniest marketing and advertising campaigns in motion picture history to promote his films. The age of the showman had arrived and William Castle was king.
Castle’s first “gimmick” horror film was Macabre (1958). This picture didn’t use a technological gadget to sell tickets. Instead, a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London was given to each customer in case they should die of fright during the film. Castle also arranged to have nurses stationed in theater lobbies and hearses parked outside of the theaters. Macabre was a perfectly average film, far from being something that could cause death by fright. But the gimmick worked and the film made money. In addition, it made a name and reputation for Castle.
His next film, House on Haunted Hill, will be covered below. Castle hit the jackpot with his third gimmick horror film, The Tingler (1959) which was filmed in “Percepto”. When the Tingler creature in the film attacked audiences members in a movie theater, real-life audience members were encouraged to scream for their lives. To insure participation, some seats in some theaters were equipped with military surplus airplane wing de-icers (with vibrating motors) which, when activated, gave anyone sitting in those seats an unexpected buzz. You bet there were screams.
13 Ghosts (1960) was filmed in “Illusion-O” which required the use of a handheld “ghost viewer” (strips of red and blue cellophane) to “see” ghosts at different points in the film. And Homicidal (1961) came complete with a “Fright Break” of 45 seconds at the film’s climax with a voice over advising frightened viewers that now was the time to leave if they wanted to receive a full refund. Almost everyone stayed in their seats.
For Mr. Sardonicus (1961), Castle came up with the “punishment poll” in which audience members could hold up a card with a glowing thumb to vote “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” on the title characters’ fate. Would he live or would he die? Of course, it didn’t matter how the audience voted. Only one ending was filmed and you can guess how it turned out.
The golden age of gimmicks was about over but Castle continued on. With Zotz! (1962), viewers were given a “magic” gold colored plastic coin which tied in to a prop in the film. For 13 Frightened Girls (1963), Castle allegedly launched a worldwide hunt for the prettiest girls from 13 different countries to cast in the film. But when he hired Joan Crawford to star in Strait-Jacket (1964), Crawford balked at appearing in a “gimmick” film (although slumming in a low-budget horror film didn’t seem to bother the Academy Award winning actress) and demanded there be no gimmicks. Castle agreed, then had cardboard axes made for distribution to audience members. Castle turned the back rows of theaters into “Shock Sections” complete with seat belts to keep viewers in their seats during I Saw What You Did (1965) and for Bug (1975), he returned to his roots and advertised a million-dollar life insurance policy for the film’s star, a giant cockroach.
In House on Haunted Hill, the wealthy, eccentric owner (Price) of a haunted house offers a group of strangers a fortune if they spend one entire night in his ghost-infested domicile. While doing so, they are terrorized by decapitated human heads, crashing chandeliers, and enormous vats of lye in what appears to be an elaborate ruse to kill the homeowner’s wife, the latest in a long line who seem to meet bad ends.
What sets this routine shocker apart is the use of “Emergo” in which an inflatable glow-in-the-dark skeleton attached to a wire floated over the audience during the final moments of the film to parallel the action on the screen when a skeleton arose from a vat of acid and pursued Price’s wife. The gimmick, as novel as it was, did not always instill fear. 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. Will a skeleton emerge from the screen of the Paramount? Wait and see.
Exterior shots of the house on haunted hill at the beginning of the film are of the Frank Lloyd Wright house in the Hollywood hills and the film was remade in 1999. But it’s the Castle original, in all its’ schlocky glory, that remains the best version.
William Castle had a brush with respectability when he produced Rosemary’s Baby in 1968, a film he originally wanted to direct. Joe Dante’s 1993 film Matinee, an affectionate homage to a Castle-esque showman played by John Goodman, is highly recommended.