William Castle Double Feature

 

When Monstergirl of The Last Drive-In asked if I’d participate in her William Castle Blog-a-thon, I was giddy with joy.  You want lil’ old me? Blush. Here we go!

So lately, I’ve been thinking about William Castle, a man who wanted to scare the pants off America. What? Who is William Castle?  Mah lawd! He’s best known as the director/ producer of such films as House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler and 13 Ghosts.  If you not familiar with any of these films, I have two things to say to you: Why are you reading this?  And go watch House on Haunted Hill then come back.  We’ll wait. I promise.

 
Rob gives himself a manicure while “The Girl from Ipanema” plays in the background.
 

Good. You’re back.  Wasn’t that great?   Didn’t you just love that part where. . . Ah, I get ahead of myself. 

You have to agree, there is something wonderful in his movies; there is something he managed to capture in a way few others couldn’t or wouldn’t. Sure, Castle’s films, by and large, were not all that scary – even by the standard of the day.  That’s beside the point; a good horror movie is not a single ingredient recipe.  There is more to it than simple scares. Castle’s films share a recipe containing one ingredient that is sorely lacking in many horror films today – fun!

Let’s go wind-up the Way Back Machine.  As a kid I read comic books; I’m nothing special in that regard.  Kids have been pouring over inky paneled pages since the first comic books appeared in the 1930s.  Until recently comics were cheaply printed publications with minimal colors on newsprint.  Most issues had half their pages dedicated to some of the best advertising ever.  The ads were often as imaginative (and as full of verisimilitude) as any of stories of alien invaders, walking corpses and super powered humans nestled between the gaudy or lurid covers.  X-Ray Specs! See through walls (and clothes?)! Mystic Smoke! Make Smoke From Your Fingers! And perhaps the best (worst) one of all (drum roll): Sea Monkeys!  Some of these products did what they said– most didn’t.  The Charles Atlas strength building program was on the up & up, but the Hypo-Goggles, on the other hand, not so much.  To me, the promises and mysteries were the thing.  Even my discovery that those tiny, castle building Sea Monkeys were nothing more than brine shrimp did nothing to dampen my daydreams about mail order laser pistols and build-your-own-monster kits.  This mix of magic and schlock appeals to me at my very core; it takes me to my own slightly dark Never-Never Land where daydreams and crass materialism meet to play.

The ads offering to teach you things like the “seven deadliest fighting secrets” paired well with the comics I liked: lurid stories involving murderous plots and supernatural monstrosities.  The comics themselves featured weird fictitious hosts with names like: Uncle Creepy, The Old Witch or The Crypt Keeper.  The hosts were horrific but also friendly and more than a little campy.   It’s a formula that works so well, that even now, decades later, I still recall the happy shudders I felt as a kid, cracking open new comic book – a promise of miracles and horrors, hope and dark weirdness.

It’s these same qualities that make so many of William Castle’s films great.   There is a dark gleefulness to his work, and though the subjects may be macabre there is nothing cruel in it.  In promoting his movies, Castle, a distinguished looking gentleman, beckoned us to pay the box office, step into a dark theater and see things we’d never seen before.   As an added enticement, Castle included some form of blatant gimmick.  For Macabre, patrons were insuranced by Lloyd’s of London; your beneficiaries paid up if the movie scared you to death. In Homicidal, we get the “Fright Break,” which allowed patrons to leave the theater before things got too scary.  Then there was Percept-o, a new “technology,” that let fearsome The Tinger loose in the theater.

The best (worst) of these was, in my opinion, “Emerg-o,” a glowing inflatable skeleton on a zip wire that soared above the audience, not so much a scare, as a target for kids to launch their empty popcorn boxes.

While “Emerg-o” disappeared, its specter haunting nothing more than William Castle retrospectives, House on Haunted Hill lives on, thanks to home video and late night spook shows.  House on Haunted Hill is, in my opinion, the crown jewel of William Castle’s filmography.   I’m not going to argue for its greatness.  We’re just going to take that as read.  I’m also not going to recap the plot.  The plot doesn’t matter much.  If it did, I wouldn’t be able to watch it one-hundred and fifty-seven times.  A recap isn’t necessary; I’m not really writing a review anyway.  Actually, I’m more or less assuming that you’ve seen the film at least once (after all, I did give a link to it) and want to join the revelry. So what makes House on Haunted Hill so great?  Let’s take a look . . .

 

To see how House on Haunted Hill stands up, we showed it six-year-old Asher, a boy who loves Godzilla movies, Batman and Blue’s Clues.  As with most kids his age, he doesn’t do well with black & white films, especially those that have a lot of talking.  I fully expected him to get bored and head down to the playroom to fire up Skylanders on the Wii.  He sat through the entire movie in rapt attention.  Often, even with movies he’s enjoying, he‘ll slip into chatterbox mode.  Through The House on Haunted Hill we heard nothing.  Nada. He sat quietly and watched it in peace.  Dani and I were surprised, but only a little.  Any old movie that in an age of video games and Happy Meals holds a modern boy’s attention is certainly special.

Sure, you could say that the kid is an anomaly.  Maybe.   Or not. I showed The House on Haunted Hill to my daughter Alaine when she was that age — the result? She came away with a lifelong love of Vincent Price movies that she doesn’t have for other classic horror films.  Ah-ha! There is the clue.

Vincent Price, over the course of his career, has been accused of being hammy and over-the-top in his performances.  Sure, in many cases that’s true, though not, for me at least, to the detriment of his films.  Hammy or no, Vincent Price is always fun to watch.

In my opinion, it’s Vincent Price that makes House on Haunted Hill not only timeless, but eminently re-watchable.  His performance as Frederick Loren comes off less like the multi-millionaire industrialist than the public persona of Vincent Price: campy and urbane with dark sense of humor. In contrast to the other actors in the film, who play their parts relatively straight, Vincent Price seems slightly amused.  Through the whole thing I get the distinct impression that he knows we’re watching; that he is playing as much to us as he is his fellow actors.  He clearly knows something the other characters don’t and he’s letting us in on it.  There is a subtle sense that we are sharing the scene with Price every time he’s on the screen.  This may be as close as we can get to hanging out with one of Hollywood’s most likeable stars.

On the flipside is Elisha Cook, who plays Watson Pritchard, the penniless alcoholic who owns the house.  He delivers his fear filled dialogue, ranting of murders and ghosts, with exceptional vigor.  In contrast to the cool Price, Cook is a sweating, craven mess, utterly convinced the house is drenched in malevolent spirits.  The rest of the cast is bounced back and forth between the two, creating a sense of unease among them, which is the whole point, of course, to drive the rest of the cast out of their minds.

Yes, there is a convoluted murder plot that could be pulled straight from one of the horror comics of my childhood.  There is some unexplained spookery that is thrown by the wayside like a greasy half eaten Howard Johnson’s hamburger.  There was, in its time, the promise of Emerg-o flying through the air, spreading fear among the movie going masses with the same effectiveness as the X-Ray Specs I wanted as a kid.   All of that might have brought people to The House on Haunted Hill, but it’s a night in the funhouse with dear Uncle Vinny that makes us want to stay.

The second film in our double feature is Homicidal, where William Castle takes a stab at Hitchcock’s Psycho.  Here Castle goes straight after Hitchcock. Homicidal opens with a jovial Castle, seated before a fireplace, finishing up some rather cloying needlepoint as he introduces the film:

The more adventurous among you may remember our previous excursions into the macabre – our visits to haunted hills – to tinglers and to ghosts. This time we have an even a stranger tale to unfold… The story of a lovable group of people who just happen to be homicidal.

Castle then holds up his needle point revealing the word “Homicidal” stitched into the framed fabric.

Where Psycho subtly builds to bit by bit toward the pivotal shower scene, which is shot with such perfection, Homicidal is a layer cake of “what the hell?” moments.  It might have been tempting for critics of the day to say that Castle poorly aped Hitchcock here.  I dunno.  Castle clearly wanted to be another Hitchcock, which is patently ridiculous.  Hitchcock was a genius who had an understanding the medium that is almost unequaled.  Castle wasn’t in the same league.  Psycho, Hitchcock’s B film, was an A film.   Castle burned to make something truly great. Homicidal wasn’t going to be it.

Now that we’ve dispensed with the Alfred Hitchcock-shaped elephant in the room, we can look at Homicidal for what it is: a very entertaining movie.  To a large degree this film is carried by the completely over-the-top performance by Joan Marshall, who plays Emily, a woman pretending to be a man who is pretending to be a woman who is married to the man she is pretending to be and who also at one point pretends to be the sister of the man she married who she is also pretending to be.  Whew! Just roll with it.  It all comes out in the wash. So why is she doing this? How better to cut a knifey path to a fat inheritance?

Ah, but there is more than that.  There is revenge, gender bending, more revenge, and the specter of child abuse.  The ground between the dark region of the film’s subtext and the black campiness on its surface is a macabre little playground in which Emily leaves a trail of blood and insanity a mile wide.  That’s why I want her to get away with it.  Alas, sadly, the Code prevails and goodness wins.  Emily is caught in mid stab by a piece of flying lead and her plot is dissected in the movie’s post-mortem.  Taken on its own, what Homicidal lacks in genuine tension and fear, it more than makes up for in good clean stabby fun.

There is a twisted joy to the proceedings in a William Castle film which extends beyond nostalgia, a fine time that warms my horror-lovin’ heart.  Though he’ll always probably be known for sideshow-like humbuggery, these sea monkeys truly have castles . . . William Castles.

 

 

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