The William Castle Film Collection
Rated: Not Rated
Program Length: 692 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen (Color & Black and White)
Languages: English Dolby Digital 2.0
Nobody wants to see a William Castle picture with their parents. – John Waters
Just keep saying to yourself – “It’s Only a Movie…It’s Only a Movie…It’s Only a Movie…It’s Only a…It’s Only…It’s…” – Ad for Strait-Jacket
Producer/Director William Castle was, above all else, a master showman. His low-budget but highly effective suspense and horror films from the fifties and sixties have style and flair which make them immediately identifiable as Castle projects. Castle put his personal imprint on his films by speaking directly to his audience in prologues and epilogues, and also through the introduction of clever gimmicks. His 1958 thriller for Allied Artists, Macabre, insured audience members for $1,000 against “death by fright.” House on Haunted Hill, another Allied Artists release, featured “Emergo” (supposedly more startling than 3-D!), in which a luminous skeleton floated over the audience on a pulley. For his first film for Columbia, The Tingler, Castle introduced “Percepto,” which involved wiring select seats in theaters to produce mild vibrations. Mr. Sardonicus ostensibly allowed the audience to vote on the ending of the film. Homicidal included a “Fright Break,” during which those who were “too timid” to watch the horrifying climax could leave their seats and go to the “Coward’s Corner.”
Sony has now collected eight of the films which William Castle made for Columbia between 1959 and 1964 in a fun box set, The William Castle Film Collection. The following films are included in the set:
The Tingler (1959)
Vincent Price stars as a doctor who discovers that a lobster-like creature lives on the spinal cords of frightened people. This creature, called a Tingler, can only be destroyed by screaming. Otherwise, it kills people by pinching their nerves. A Tingler gets loose in a movie theater and mayhem ensues. The film is in black and white, with one scene in color.
13 Ghosts (1960)
A family inherits a house, only to discover that it is haunted. A special pair of goggles allows the family members to see the ghostly apparitions which live in the house. The audience was provided with “Illusion-O” cards which contained transparent cellophane panels in red and blue. Viewers who had the courage to see the ghosts were encouraged to look through the red panel. Those who were too scared to watch could “remove” the ghosts by looking through the blue panel. It was decidedly low-tech, but today Illusion-O cards are prized by collectors. The film stars Martin Milner and Margaret Hamilton.
Clearly inspired by the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, this film arguably is the best of Castle’s career. Jean Arless (real name: Joan Marshall) stars in a dual role, playing the parts of both the psychotic killer and her husband! Glenn Corbett and Patricia Breslin also appear in this thriller, which is considerably more graphic than Psycho. In addition to the “Coward’s Corner,” theaters also had a nurse on hand to check the blood pressure of audience members who might become overcome by fright.
Mr. Sardonicus (1961)
Guy Rolfe stars as the title character, whose face was frozen into a permanent, hideous smile after he exhumed his father’s body in order a retrieve a winning lottery ticket which was left in the deceased’s suit. His wife (Audrey Dalton) entices a London doctor (Ronald Lewis) to come to the Sardonicus castle to restore Mr. Sardonicus’ appearance. Oscar Homolka gives a memorable performance as the title character’s servant. Before the final scene the audience was given the opportunity to participate in a “Punishment Poll,” which supposedly allowed viewers to vote on whether Mr. Sardonicus should be granted mercy.
The weakest film in this set, Zotz! is a comedy starring Tom Poston as a college professor who discovers an ancient coin which gives him lethal powers. The Pentagon learns about these powers, but so do Communist spies who want to get their hands on the coin. Others in the cast include Louis Nye and Margaret Dumont. Theater patrons were given a plastic Zotz! coin with each paid admission.
13 Frightened Girls (1963)
Castle’s publicity stunt for this movie took place before filming began. He undertook a worldwide search for the prettiest girls from various countries to play students at a Swiss boarding school. Kathy Dunn plays Candy Hull, the daughter of an American diplomat (Hugh Marlowe). Candy falls for a CIA agent (Murray Hamilton). International intrigue ensues when the body of a Communist spy is discovered by the girls. This film is in color.
The Old Dark House (1963)
Castle had a larger budget than usual for this remake based upon J.B. Priestly’s novel. It is actually a macabre comedy, complete with main title illustrations by Charles Addams. Tom Poston stars as a salesman who is invited to a spooky mansion owned by the eccentric Femm family. Other cast members include Robert Morley and Mervyn Johns. A highlight is the mother who sleeps with knitting needles in her neck! Castle filmed The Old Dark House in color, but reportedly it was screened theatrically in black and white. Here it is shown in color.
Joan Crawford stars as Lucy Harbin, who uses an axe to decapitate her husband and his lover after she unexpectedly returns home early and discovers them in bed together. 20 years later she is released from an insane asylum and returns home to live with her daughter (Diane Baker). Is Lucy really cured, or she still a psychotic axe killer? George Kennedy and Leif Erickson are two members of the supporting cast. Theatergoers were given miniature cardboard bloody axes. The story and script were written by Robert Bloch, the author of Psycho.
Zotz!, The Old Dark House and 13 Frightened Girls are being released on DVD for the first time.
The video quality of this DVD set is excellent. The black and white films are generally very sharp, with solid blacks and very good contrast. I noticed a few soft sequences in The Tingler, but nothing which is overly distracting. The color prints of 13 Frightened Girls and The Old Dark House have been beautifully restored. An appropriate level of film grain has been retained in all eight features. The 1.85:1 aspect ratios appear to have accurate framing. These films look terrific and fans of William Castle are sure to be pleased.
The Dolby Digital audio is nothing to get excited about, but it does the job with clear, intelligible dialogue and no noticeable distortion. The occasional screams come through loud and clear.
This box set is packed with extras.
13 Frightened Girls includes its original trailer and the original introduction to the British Trailer. The film also was released as Candy Web, and viewers can see the original Candy Web trailer and William Castle’s introduction to Candy Web. Several alternate openings for foreign venues also are included.
13 Ghosts has its original theatrical trailer and a featurette called “The Magic of Illusion-O.”
The extras for Homicidal include its original theatrical trailer, footage from the film’s premiere in Youngstown, Ohio (William Castle questions audience members about their reactions to the film), and a featurette entitled “Psychette: William Castle and Homicidal.”
Strait-Jacket comes with a featurette called “Battle-Axe: The Making of Strait-Jacket,” Joan Crawford wardrobe tests, the original trailer, television spots, and “How to Plan a Movie Murder,” a fascinating vintage featurette with William Castle, Joan Crawford and Robert Bloch.
The Old Dark House has its original trailer as the only extra.
Mr. Sardonicus extras include its original trailer, a featurette on the “Taking the Punishment Poll” gimmick, and the pilot episode of “Ghost Story,” a television series produced by William Castle.
Extras for The Tingler are its original trailer, several alternate sequences, and a featurette entitled “Scream For Your Lives: William Castle and The Tingler.” Also included is another “Ghost Story” episode called “Graveyard Shift.”
The only supplement for Zotz! is the original theatrical trailer.
The set also contains a bonus disc with the 82-minute documentary Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story. This is a fascinating look at Castle’s life and career. It includes comments about Castle by John Waters, Joe Dante, Roger Corman, Budd Boetticher, Forrest J. Ackerman (publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland), and others.
The eight features are spread over four discs, two films per disc. The discs are encased in a three-part gatefold box which is encased in a slipcase. A listing of all eight films appears on the back of the slipcase.
The Final Analysis
The William Castle Film Collection is one of the more entertaining box sets I have come across this year. While these films were largely intended for a young audience, they retain a considerable amount of camp appeal and should be appreciated by anyone who enjoys horror and suspense films from the late fifties and early sixties.
Equipment used for this review:
Toshiba HD-XA-2 DVD player
Panasonic Viera TC-P46G15 Plasma display
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: Available Now (released October 20, 2009)