Monday, October 19, 2009

What's the Gimmick?

Oh, William Castle... your kind is not likely to be seen again. Castle was a producer/director who in the 50's and 60's became known as "The King of the Gimmicks."William Castle started his film career making cheap exploitation films in the 40's like Black Marketing and When Strangers Marry.

Then, in 1958, he made a strange little movie called Macabre, in which a doctor had 48 hours to find his kidnapped daughter who had buried alive. Castle offered every ticket buyer a $1000.00 Lloyd's of London Life Insurance policy should they die of fright while watching the movie. I have no idea if anyone ever collected (though I doubt they did), but the gimmick worked and Macabre was a hit with audiences.

Soon after, Castle was using all sorts of weird and wacky gimmicks to get audiences to attend his films.

Next came the Vincent Price thriller House on Haunted Hill, which featured Castle's patented "Emergo" technology. Emergo simply consisted of a plastic skeleton on a wire, which swooped down over the audience just as a skeleton emerged from a vat of acid in the movie. Cheesy? Without a doubt. Effective? Just ask the audiences who attended the 1959 fright fest.

That same year and starring Vincent Price again, Castle made a delightful little picture called The Tingler. It was about a scientist (Price) looking for the thing that caused fear. He discovered that a creature he dubbed the 'Tingler" was responsible for our fearful reactions to fearful situations and that only by screaming could the Tingler be killed. So, what better way to find the Tingler than by terrorizing a mute woman who was unable to scream, so that he might remove the creature from her spine and study it further? Of course, the monster escapes and makes its way to a movie theater where Price encourages the patrons to scream in order to save their lives. And this is where the gimmick came in. Certain seats in the actual theatre were rigged with a mild electrical shock, so that patrons could experience the effects of the Tingler for themselves. Castle dubbed this gimmick "Percepto."

In 1960, Castle jumped on the 3D bandwagon with a movie called 13 Ghosts, about a young man who inherited a haunted house from his uncle. Using special glasses invented by his uncle, the ghosts could be seen by anyone wearing them. He called this process 'Illusion-O.'

Next came 1961' Homicidal, a rip-off of Hitchcock's Psycho, in which audiences were given a "Fright Break" during which they might leave the theater before 'dying of fear.'

I just want to know where the bullet hit Warren/Emily, to kill him/her so quickly.

By the early 60's, gimmicks had lost their appeal and castle was making films like The Old Dark House, a comedy based on the novel by J.B. Priestly:

Recently, some of Castle's films have bee remade, with his daughter as Producer. I particularly liked 1999's House on Haunted Hill starring Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs and "Heroes" star Ali Larter, despite its rather silly ending:

Of course, the 2001 version of Thir13en Ghosts, starring the usually brilliant Tony Shaloub, leaves much to be desired. The presence of Matthew Lillard, Shannon Elizabeth and Academy-Award Winner F. Murray Abraham do nothing to elevate this schlockfest to a movie worth seeing:

I am looking forward to the planned remakes of The Tingler and The Old Dark House (I appeared in Priestly's "An Inspector Calls" not too long ago), though I fear they may recieve the same treatment as Thir13en Ghosts, which does not bode well.

Still, Castle produced (Rosemary's Baby) and directed (I Saw What You Did) some seminal Horror movies from which modern producers and directors can take many a lesson.

Gimmicks still abound in Horror. Most recently, those gimmicks have been relegated to the Internet (Paranormal Activity), but they still make us want to see those movies. If Castle was alive today, I think he'd be most pleased with the state of modern Horror movies.

More terrors, anon.


Stephen said...

House On Haunted Hill is one of my favorites... I used to race home fromschool to catch it on the 3PM movie. Somehow it was on rather frequently. I am an only child of working parents & I would watch it alone & work myself up into a frenzy of frightened.
Great posts of late, young man.

Prospero said...

Love that you are lovin' them!