August 7, 2008

Wacky Days of ’50s Horror Films Lovingly Recalled

By Michael Janusonis

Baby Boomers who went to the movies in the 1950s will surely remember the films produced by William Castle, a huckstering showman who prided himself on being in a direct line from P.T. Barnum.

Even if you didn't see Castle's Macabre, The House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, 13 Ghosts or Strait-Jacket, you probably will recall his gimmicks that had fans lining up around the block for his films. There were vibrators under the seats that made people jump in The Tingler. In The House on Haunted Hill he had a glow-in-the-dark plastic skeleton sailing over the audience on a wire at a scary moment on screen. Every member of the audience at Macabre received a $1,000 insurance policy from Lloyds of London should they die of fright, and there were real nurses on duty in the lobby if anyone had to be carried out.

These things may sound corny today ... and they later passed into oblivion when truly frightfully ghoulish films such as Night of the Living Dead and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre came along in the late '60s and early '70s. A plastic skeleton on a wire just didn't cut it any longer.

But in the 1950s, these things really shook up Castle's audience, largely composed of children between the ages of 8 and 14.

Those wacky days are lovingly recalled in documentary director Jeffrey Schwarz's Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story which will go on screen, appropriately enough, at 11:45 p.m. tomorrow at the Cable Car Cinema as part of the 12th Rhode Island International Film Festival.

Schwarz's film is told snappily, cutting breezily between interviews with the people who knew and loved Castle, who died in 1977, and clips from such horrors as The Tingler and his biggest success, Rosemary's Baby. Included also are Castle's own appearances in his films' trailers, introducing the films as a sort of low-rent Alfred Hitchcock. Film historians, such as Leonard Maltin and Bob Thomas, comment on screen as well as filmmakers who worked with Castle, famous filmmaking fans such as John Waters and his daughter, Terry.

Spine Tingler looks closely at the corny gimmicks Castle used to sell his films -- given names such as Percepto, Illusion-o and Emergo, the latter used for the flying skeleton -- as well as earlier gimmicks that demonstrated his lifelong ability to win publicity to lure an audience into a theater. In the late 1930s he fired off a telegram to Adolf Hitler, refusing to send the blond German star of a play Castle was producing back to Nazi Germany for fear she wouldn't be allowed to return. Then he painted swastikas all over the theater, claiming they were the work of hooligans.

Most of Castle's ploys worked very well. Macabre, which cost $100,000 to produce, earned $2 million. "The movie was not that scary, but the promotion was great!" enthuses star Jacqueline Scott in recalling the $1,000 life insurance policies issued to customers.

Spine Tingler is a great deal of fun and shows just how far a little ingenuity and a plastic skeleton can go to create a buzz.

Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story will be shown at 11:45 p.m. tomorrow at the Cable Car Cinema, 204 South Main St., Providence, as part of the 12th Rhode Island International Film Festival. Tickets are $10 at the door. For a complete schedule, go to


Rated: Not rated, contains nothing offensive.

Originally published by Michael Janusonis, Journal Arts Writer.

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