Castle, William: Master of Screen Horror–Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

The master of screen horror is honored on October 20, 2009, when the William Castle Film Collection debuts from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment (SPHE).

The set features eight of the producer-director’s most notable films, including The Tingler (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960), Homicidal (1961), Mr. Sardonicus (1961), and Strait-Jacket (1964).

 

Also included in the collection are Zotz! (1962), The Old Dark House (1963), and 13 Frightened Girls (1963), each making their DVD debuts.

The bonus materials include original theatrical openings, alternate sequences, vintage footage and original theatrical trailers, as well as two episodes of the television series, Ghost Story produced by William Castle.

Also included as a bonus feature, is Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (2007), the docu on William Castle by director Jeffrey Schwarz that won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at the 2007 AFI Film Festival.

The film features archival interviews with John Landis (An American Werewolf in London), John Waters (Pink Flamingos), Budd Boetticher (The Tall T), Roger Corman (The Little Shop of Horrors) and legendary mime Marcel Marceau.

Intrigued by the circus of Barnum and Bailey, New York stage plays, radio and the movies, William Castle spent most of his teenage years working on the stage in jobs ranging from set building to acting. He left Broadway for Hollywood at the age of 23, and directed his first film, The Chance of a Lifetime, six years later.

Castle also worked as an assistant to director Orson Welles, doing much of the second unit location work for Welles’ noir classic The Lady from Shanghai, starring Rita Hayworth.

Castle had a reputation for getting the work done, and eventually decided to produce and direct his own pictures.

The first, Macabre, boasted ad lines like “See it with someone who can carry you home!” and “If it frightens you to death, you’ll be buried free of charge!” The hype worked and Castle became famous for directing films with gimmicks, which were ambitiously promoted, despite being low budget B-movies.

By the mid-60s, he abandoned the gimmicks, and produced the Roman Polanski classic Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

His autobiography was entitled “Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America.”

The Tingler (1959)

Horror star Vincent Price appears in The Tingler, the terrifying story of a docile creature that lives in the human spinal cord. It gets activated by fright and can only be destroyed by screaming.

Castle promoted the film with the gimmick of “Percepto,” where audiences would actually feel the sensations of the actors on the screen. To achieve this, theaters wired select seats with tiny motors underneath that would vibrate during key scenes in the movie. The audience would get a “tingling” sensation and were encouraged to “Scream–scream for your lives.”

Running time: 82 minutes.

13 Ghosts (1960)

Castle promoted this film with floats going up and down Hollywood Boulevard with “ghosts” riding along, holding signs that touted the movie. He named the gimmick created for 13 Ghosts “Illusion-O,” which was a special hand-held piece of cardboard with two transparent colored strips, one red and one blue. If you wanted to see the ghosts in the film, you looked through one, but if you were too frightened, you could look through the other and they weren’t visible.  The film delivered “13 Times the Thrills! 13 Times the Chills! 13 Times the Fun!” in the story of a family that inherits a haunted house, but discovers a special pair of goggles that allows them to see their ghostly tormentors.

The film starred Martin Milner (TV’s “Adam-12”) and Margaret Hamilton (The Wizard of Oz).

Running time: 85 minutes.

Homicidal (1961)
In Homicidal, the brutal stabbing murder of a justice-of-the-peace sparks an investigation of the dark family secrets in a sleepy small town. Castle promoted the film with a “Fright Break,” a 45-second timer during the film’s climax as the heroine approached a house harboring the sadistic killer. The 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 rest of the film. To ensure filmgoers did not opt for the refund, Castle instituted the “Coward’s Corner.” Patrons were expected to follow yellow footsteps up the theater aisle, bathed in a yellow light and sit in a yellow cardboard booth in the theater lobby. Theaters had a  nurse offering a blood-pressure test, a recording blaring “Watch the chicken! Watch him shiver in Coward’s Corner,” and required walkouts to sign a yellow “Coward’s Certificate” card stating, “I am a bona fide coward.” Needless to say, very few filmgoers opted out of the screening.

Running time: 87 minutes.

Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

In this gothic tale set in 1880 London, a Baron’s face is frozen into a permanently grotesque smile after digging up his father’s grave to retrieve a winning lottery ticket accidently left in his pocket. The gimmick allowed audiences to vote in a “Punishment Poll” during the climax of the film where 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 at the end of the film. Supposedly, no audience ever offered mercy and the villain was always punished. Mr. Sardonicus has a running time of approximately 89 minutes and is not rated.

Zotz! (1962)

Tom Poston (TV’s “Newhart”) finds a Zotz coin and discovers its awesome powers. After attempting to share its secret with the US government (where he is brushed off as a lunatic), his discovery captures the interest of foreign agents, who attempt to steal it. To promote the film, Castle provided each filmgoer with a “magic” coin which, unfortunately, did absolutely nothing.  Zotz! has a running time of approximately 87 minutes and is not rated.

Frightened Girls! (1963)

Castle launched a worldwide hunt for the prettiest girls from different countries to cast in 13 Frightened Girls!. The stunt helped generate publicity for the film about the thirteen daughters of international diplomats in a Swiss boarding school, who stir up trouble when they mess in the diplomatic affairs of their parents and a Russian spy is discovered murdered. 13 Frightened Girls! has a running time of 89 minutes and is not rated.

The Old Dark House (1963)

Tom Poston (Zotz!) was again cast by Castle in this project about an American car salesman in England who receives a mysterious invitation from an old, eccentric millionaire to visit the house in which he lives with his twin brother. The Old Dark House has a running time of approximately 86 minutes and is not rated.

Strait-Jacket (1964)

Advised by his financial backers to eliminate the gimmicks, Castle hired Hollywood’s legendary Joan Crawford to star as an ax-murderess in this story of a mother, who, after a 20 year stay in an insane asylum for killing her husband and his mistress, returns to her home and grown daughter. While trying to re-connect with her daughter, Diane Baker (The Best of Everything, Marnie) the mother’s behavior raises suspicions about whether she is still a dangerously deranged killer.  At the last minute, Castle had cardboard axes handed out to patrons and sent Crawford on a nation-wide promotional tour of theaters showing the film.

Running time: of approximately 93 minutes and is not rated.

DVD Special Features
Commentary with Producer/Director Jeffrey Schwarz and Terry Castle.

  • *        Disc 1 featuring 13 Frightened Girls/13 Ghosts includes:
    * Featurette: “The Magic of Illusion-O.”
    * Original Theatrical Trailers.
    * Original “British” trailer introduction for 13 Frightened Girls.
    * Original “Candy Web” trailer for 13 Frightened Girls.
    * Original “Candy Web” theatrical opening message from William Castle for 13 Frightened Girls.
    * Original “Candy Web” theatrical closing message from William Castle for 13 Frightened Girls.
    * Alternate opening (British) for 13 Frightened Girls.
    * Alternate opening (Swedish) for 13 Frightened Girls.
    * Alternate opening (French) for 13 Frightened Girls.
    * Alternate opening (German) for 13 Frightened Girls.
  • *        Disc 2 featuring Homicidal/Strait-Jacket includes:
    * Featurette: “Psychette: William Castle and Homicidal.”
    * Featurette: “Homicidal Youngstown, Ohio Premiere.”
    * Featurette: “Battleaxe: The Making of Strait-Jacket.”
    * Vintage Featurette: “How to Plan a Movie Murder.”
    * Original Theatrical Trailers.
    * Joan Crawford Wardrobe Tests.
    * Joan Crawford Axe Test.
    * Strait-Jacket TV Spots.
  • *        Disc 3 featuring Old Dark House/Sardonicus includes:
    * Featurette: “Taking the Punishment Poll.”
    * Featurette: “Ghost Story: Pilot (The New House).”
    * Original Theatrical Trailer.
    *        Disc 4 featuring The Tingler/Zotz!  includes:
    * Featurette: “Scream For Your Lives: William Castle and The Tingler.”
    * Featurette: “Ghost Story: Graveyard Shift.”
    * Alternate Drive-In Sequence for The Tingler.
    * Original “Scream” Sequence for The Tingler.
    * Original Theatrical Trailers.
    *         Disc 5 features the documentary: Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story.