- Rated NR
- Buy the DVD
Reviewed by Bob Westal and Ross Ruediger
orty-two years after his death, B-horror legend William Castle remains synonymous with cinematic gimmicks with names like “Emergo,” (a glow-in-the-dark skeleton that flew over the audience), “Percepto” (a small vibrator under some theaters seats) and “Illusion-O” (a “ghost viewer”). Though his modestly budgeted productions delighted the young, they were impossible to take seriously and never earned him the kind of respect given to less avidly commercial auteurs. Still, he was a solid movie craftsman of the old school with a buoyant attitude who worked with Orson Welles, Roman Polanski, and possibly influenced Alfred Hitchcock’s move into sensational horror with “Psycho” and “The Birds.” As a director, he was a competent craftsman whose essentially good-natured works aimed a bit low. As a showman, however, Welles, Polanski, and Hitchcock had very little on him.
This collection kicks off with the oddest film in the set – odd simply because it’s so unlike the other seven films presented here. Despite its horrific-sounding title, “13 Frightened Girls” (1963) is not actually a horror film at all. Instead, it’s a sort of Cold War-era version of “Spy Kids,” although aimed at a more adult audience: “Lolita” meets James Bond. The frightened girls in question are only frightened en masse in the opening scene when a bus driven by the heroine nearly careens off a cliff due to the presence of an unexpected spider. The girls are all daughters of various diplomats, and they all attend the same private school, but it’s time for holiday and so they’re off to London. Precocious (and, for the time, oddly amorous) 16-year old Candy Hull (Kathy Dunn) discovers that her benign position is ideal for uncovering government secrets and exposing evil plots. She adopts the name “Kitten” and quickly becomes the #1 target of various world powers. It sounds ridiculous (and it is), and yet it’s a strangely compelling piece given the time in which it was made. It would have made a great Disney movie if not for all the violence and blood – which is admittedly tame by today’s standards – but when viewed in context, this thing is just plain out there.
Next up is “13 Ghosts” (1960), which is far more along the lines of what you expect from Mr. Castle. (You may have seen the 2001 remake starring Tony Shalhoub and Shannon Elizabeth.) The Zorba family – who might as well have been called the Cleavers – finds themselves on hard times, but at just the right moment an inheritance from a recently deceased uncle lands in their collective laps. The prize? A giant mansion, which they promptly move into. The uncle, it turns out, had an interest in the supernatural, and 12 ghosts leftover from his studies reside in the dwelling, and they’re not terribly nice either. But there may be something even more dangerous than the ghosts, and that’s the seedy lawyer who signed over the estate to the family. What form will the 13th ghost take? Will it be one of the Zorba family, or someone or something else? “13 Ghosts” is cheesy fun, and exactly the sort of fare you’d expect it to be. It was produced in “Illusion-O,” which was probably more engaging in the theatre than it is on DVD, as it basically used the red and blue parts of 3-D glasses. Viewers were asked to look through red if they wanted to see the ghosts, and look through blue if they were stubborn non-believers. Fortunately, you need no glasses to see the ghosts on DVD. Super-veteran actress Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch from “The Wizard of Oz”) plays the supporting role of the housekeeper, whom young son Buck (Charles Herbert) amusingly refers to as “the witch” throughout the picture.
Disc Two is an ideal double feature, as both films are clearly inspired by Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” which isn’t at all a bad thing. “Homicidal” (1961) tells the whacked story of a beautiful blond woman named Emily (Jean Arless), who we discover early on is homicidal, as the title indicates. She also takes care of a mute woman and is friends with Miriam and her brother Warren, who’s about to come into a rather large inheritance. To say anything more – and yes, clearly nothing’s really been said at all – would be to ruin the surprise ending, since everything in the film leads up to it. Man oh man, the things folks will do for money. The movie probably doesn’t work as well on subsequent viewings, but it was never meant to. Just in case it’s all too much for you, the film even has a “fright break” before the flick’s big reveal, which back in the day allowed timid viewers to leave the auditorium if they desired.
“Strait-Jacket” (1964) stars Joan Crawford as Lucy Harbin, a woman who’s spent 20 years in a sanitarium for hacking up her cheating husband (along with his girlfriend) right in front of their daughter. Now she’s out and trying to return to a normal life with her grown-up daughter (Diane Baker). If only it were that easy, and if only Lucy didn’t feel as if she were slipping back down the slope of insanity. Crawford gives a strangely sympathetic performance here. It all goes a bit camp in a few spots, but nothing really damages the integrity of the movie, assuming it has any to begin with. For a production that borrows openly from “Psycho,” one wonders if 20 years later the producers of “Psycho 2” didn’t in turn grab some ideas from “Strait-Jacket.” Keep an eye out for the soon to be ubiquitous George Kennedy playing a sleazy handyman.
Moving on to Disc Three, Castle unveils “The Old Dark House” (1963), which is a loose remake of the movie of the same name that the great James “Frankenstein” Whale directed back in 1932. If only Castle had some of that Whale spirit! He does not, and the film is played almost entirely for laughs. Sure, Whale’s version had its share of black comedy and wit, but this is all pratfalls and buffoonery, with Tom Poston as a goofy American who ends up in Wales, stuck in the creepy Femm household for an evening. Once again, there’s an inheritance involved (a favorite Castle plot device), and if anybody’s left alive in the morning, maybe it will be split several ways. If you’ve seen the Whale version, you’ll be completely underwhelmed by this effort, which fails to capture anything that made the story interesting in the first place.
“Mr. Sardonicus” (1961), on the other hand, may well be the gem of this entire collection. Unlike “The Old Dark House,” it harkens back to the great Universal horror films of the 1930s and tells a story of madness, cruelty and, as Castle explains in the prologue, ghouls. Set in the late 1800s, at a point when science was beginning to overtake superstition, it introduces us to a brilliant young doctor, Sir Robert (Ronald Lewis). He receives a summons that takes him from London to a dark castle in a faraway land. There resides his old flame, Maude (Audrey Dalton), who is now married to the evil, masked Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe). The Baron needs Sir Robert’s medical assistance, and if Sir Robert doesn’t give it, Maude will suffer. Sardonicus tells Sir Robert a lengthy, twisted tale involving his previous wife, his dead father and a lottery ticket, and how the fates conspired to bring him to his current condition, which we shall simply describe as a “facial anomaly.” This movie is great, spooky fun with plenty of leeches, and we don’t get nearly enough of those in our horror films these days. In the finale, the audience is supposed to vote on whether or not Sardonicus deserves to be punished. The film on this disc opts for the punishment angle, and it doesn’t appear that any other ending for the film was even shot. As very believable film legend has it, no audience ever opted for mercy.
Disc Four kicks off with “The Tingler” (1959)… in Percepto! It’s a thoroughly entertaining and very silly tale in which the great mid-century horror standby, Vincent Price, plays a pathologist who discovers that fright releases a deadly, lobster-like creature from the human spine that can only be subdued by screaming. Among other points of interest, “The Tingler” is notable as the first movie to mention lysergic acid (aka LSD), then a legal drug all but unknown to everyone except to the CIA, a few cutting-edge psychiatrists, and Cary Grant. Arguably Castle’s most famous production, it’s also Exhibit A on the true acting genius of Price. His entirely credible delivery of some of the most illogical pseudo-science ever committed to celluloid is worthy of a special Oscar or perhaps a Nobel Prize for hokum. In addition, its wonderfully meta, Percepto-driven, movie theater climax – filmed in L.A.’s famed and notorious Silent Movie Theater – is, yes, a scream.
“Zotz!” (1962), on the other hand, is not a horror film at all, but an attempt at a supernatural comedy with political overtones. Another Castle comedy starring Tom Poston, this time he is an energetically uptight academic who finds himself with a supernaturally powerful pendent (replicas were given to lucky audience members). This fast-paced but rather brainless farce – which like the first film in this set features some oddball cold war plot elements – fails to deliver a single decent laugh. Aside from a basic lack of good jokes or dialogue, Poston, a master of deadpan humor, struggles with a somewhat upbeat part that was likely intended for more effervescent nerd actors along the lines of Tony Randall or Wally Cox. A host of great character performers in supporting roles, including Jim Backus (aka Mr. Magoo and Thurston Howell III), straight-lady par excellence Margaret Dumont, Fred Clark, and Cecil Kellaway are mostly helpless as well.
Was William Castle a great filmmaker? No, not really. There’s plenty of evidence on this box set, however, to suggest that, at times, he could be a great moviemaker. Even when he’s happily ripping off other people’s ideas, his movies are an immense amount of fun and, unlike many of his B-horror competitors, they’re all technically well made, even if the stories are beyond preposterous. Watching his fare takes viewers back to a much different moviegoing time, when horror was allowed to be far more innocent but also more freewheeling than it is today. This guy didn’t make just one kind of horror film, he attempted to make every kind of horror film of his day. With the possible exception of the grindhouse-bred Wes Craven, a highly-skilled craftsman but not a Castle-style showman, it’s tough to find any directors we can say that about today.
This five-disc box set certainly doesn’t skimp on the extras, although they are definitely geared toward more fanatical genre fans. That’s definitely not a problem because, if you’re not that kind of a fan, what in God’s name are you doing buying this set? There are loads of trailers and TV spots featuring Castle-style publicity and numerous featurettes dedicated to explaining Castle’s various scare tactics. A promotional short for “Homicidal” has Castle cornering moviegoers exiting the theatre with a microphone, and asking them point blank, “So was it scarier than ‘Psycho’?,” to which every single person answers, ‘Yes, definitely!’” (Any dissenters no doubt wound up on the cutting room floor.) There is also two episodes from the Castle-produced TV series, “Ghost Story,” later renamed “Circle of Fear,” featuring TV legends John Astin ( “Addams Family”), Patty Duke, David Birney and Barbara Parkins, as well as a cameo appearance by Castle himself.
Still, by far the best of the special features is the feature length documentary, “Spine Tingler!: The William Castle Story.” Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, who also put together some of the older DVD extra featurettes on the disc (some material may feel a bit familiar), this is a highly affectionate look at the life of a devoted family man and the driven but good-natured master of the art of the cinematic con. Featuring interviews with daughter Terry Castle, director Joe Dante (“Gremlins,” “Piranha”), “king of the B’s” Roger Corman, bullfighter turned Western film legend Budd Boetticher, and lifelong appreciator of crass showmanship and #1 Castle fan, John Waters, this is a sweet treat for film buffs and all lovers of good, old fashioned movie baloney.