The Stunt Man
William Castle's Gimmick Flicks Live Again!
Austin viewers will get a taste of Castle's roller coaster rides this weekend when the Paramount Theatre brings two Castle classics -- The Tingler (1959) and 13 Ghosts (1960) -- back to the big screen as part of its summer revival film series. Viewers who saw these films during their original releases may remember their gimmicks more than their plots, an unfortunate characteristic of most of Castle's films. His thrillers typically tell familiar and somewhat clumsily constructed tales of mad scientists, betrayed husbands, and frightened girls. But Castle bolstered these weak narratives with wacky stunts, such as insuring every theatre patron for $1,000 against "death by fright" through the prestigious Lloyd's of London insurance firm -- the gimmick he employed for Macabre, his first film in 1958. But it was through the sheer craziness and, some would argue, savvy of these promotions that enabled Castle to make a name for himself quickly in the late Fifties.
Although Castle had worked in Hollywood for some 25 years before he made Macabre, his experience as a director of low-budget westerns and melodramas for studios like Columbia and Universal-International left him wanting more. Castle's real dream was to direct Hollywood prestige productions, those films that had lavish budgets and played in first-run theatres across the country. The closest he ever came to prestige was producing one of the most talked-about horror films of the 1960s, Rosemary's Baby (1968). However, prior to that, he and a number of other independent producer-directors were able to capitalize on a volatile situation in the Hollywood film industry and acquire, if not major studio repute, at least a sort of Tinseltown notoriety.
In the late Fifties, Hollywood was experiencing a flux in terms of its product distribution and its audience. As a result of the legal battle between studios and independently-run theatres, major industry forces like MGM and Paramount were forced to sell off the theatres they owned and scale back their production output. In addition, television had begun to claim part of the once-faithful film audience, and the film industry was struggling to regain it. Finally, the demographics of the moviegoing audience were shifting downward in age, reflecting the growth of a new group of patrons called teenagers.
This last factor suggested to directors like Castle that certain genres of film (the horror film, the thriller) would be more lucrative than others. Castle became convinced of this on a rainy California night in 1955 while he was waiting in line to see Henri-Georges Clouzot's French thriller Diabolique. Castle was intrigued by the film's haunting effects, such as the dead body emerging from the bathtub, but he was even more impressed by the patrons with whom he was seeing the film: mostly young people in their teens. Castle called this an "amazing phenomenon -- hundreds of youngsters waiting patiently to have the shit scared out of them." The experience proved an inspiration.
Three years later, Castle began churning out his own brand of fright films. His first two efforts, Macabre and House on Haunted Hill (1959), achieved modest success. By 1960, following the release of The Tingler and Homicidal, Castle was a sensation. The existence of William Castle fan clubs prompted one journalist of the period to describe the producer as having a "following among teen-agers almost as riotous as Elvis Presley's." Part of this popularity was due to the ingeniousness with which Castle promoted his films. He made "live trailers" -- personal appearances in theater lobbies before the film -- to encourage younger patrons to see the films. He stationed fake nurses in the theatre lobbies to attend to medical emergencies brought on by the horror of his film. Often, he paid models and aspiring actresses to faint during the films in order to make the nurses look useful and substantiate the films' terrifying effects.
For The Tingler, Castle concocted one of his most memorable gimmicks, "Percepto." Ads for the film touted "Percepto" as "the newest and most startling gimmick on the screen!" The film stars Vincent Price (a Castle regular) as a coroner who discovers that a deaf-mute (Judith Evelyn) is possessed by a creature that grows on people's spines. The only way to liberate the person (and subsequently, the creature) is for the victim to scream, thus releasing "the Tingler" from his or her spine. "Percepto" was actually a motorized contraption hooked up to the theatre seats which, when activated, sent a mild electrical charge into the seats -- and into the seats of the patrons filling them. It was activated from the projectionist's booth when the shadow of the creature crossed the screen during the film. At the same time that viewers' bottoms were being buzzed, a recording of Price's voice instructed the audience: "Ladies and gentlemen, the Tingler is loose in this theatre, and if you don't scream, it may kill you!"
Alas, Austin viewers will not get to experience "Percepto" in the upcoming revival. Paul Beutel, general manager of the Paramount, jokingly advises that there will be "no electrocution" for The Tingler. He does promise an equally impressive gimmick, but he wishes to keep it under wraps until the actual screening of the film. What Beutel will reveal is that the Paramount powers-that-be are toying with the idea of stationing a nurse in the lobby, just as Castle did in other theatres nearly 40 years ago.
Beutel is more forthcoming about what the theatre will provide for its showing of 13 Ghosts, Castle's fifth effort and one which capitalized on the 3-D phenomenon of the time. The film follows what happens to a family that inherits an old mansion inhabited by spirits. The father (Charles Herbert) discovers a pair of glasses in the basement which allow him to "see" flying ghosts and decapitated heads belonging to past victims of the house's horrors. These visions were not supposed to be visible to audiences, but Castle provided special glasses to theatre patrons which allowed them to "see" the same apparitions as the characters. Billing the gimmick "Illusion-O," Castle described it as "a supernatural viewer... which will enable you to penetrate for the first time into the spirit world." Beutel contacted a film supplier of the blue- and red-lensed glasses that makes "Illusion-O" work and has ordered them for the Paramount's screenings.
As the Paramount screenings will surely illustrate, most of the fun of a William Castle film lay in its gimmicks. Director John Waters, himself a self-proclaimed, self-styled Castle devotee, likes to tell of the time The Tingler came to his neighborhood theatre in Baltimore. Too financially strapped to outfit every seat with "Percepto," Waters' hometown theatre wired only a few, and Waters arrived early at the theatre so as to claim for himself the prized rigged seats. Beutel also remembers experiencing the wonders of "Percepto" at the Majestic Theatre in downtown Houston. In part, these fond memories inspired him to program the Castle films at the Paramount, and attendance for the screenings most likely will dictate if the films return for future revivals. Beutel is confident that Castle's gimmick films will appeal to the 200 or so "regulars" who attend Paramount screenings, as well as viewers who saw the films in their original runs.
Although many of Castle's 13 gimmick films originally screened in theaters less majestic than the Paramount, Beutel believes the theatre offers a unique exhibition space for The Tingler and 13 Ghosts. "We're going to give to audiences something that they don't get anywhere else," Beutel remarks. And he's right. Castle's gimmick films would not "play" in the same way in a local multiplex theatre. According to Beutel, the Paramount's movie palace ambiance transports viewers back to a different time, and this gives the audience a different sensibility for films like Castle's. Beutel thinks the audience will respond to theexperience of seeing Castle's gimmick films, an assumption that Waters supports when he describes Castle's films as an instance of huge audience participation, "like Rocky Horror before its time for a younger generation." In his autobiography Step Right Up! I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America (published a year before his death in 1977), Castle laments that "there's no showmanship anymore." But revival series like Beutel's at the Paramount provide contemporary audiences with more than a motion picture -- a true interactive moviegoing experience. William Castle would be proud. n Alison Macor reviews film regularly for the Chronicle.
The Tingler and 13 Ghosts play Aug 23-25, Fri-Sun, at the Paramount Theatre.