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DVD Review: The William Castle Film Collection

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As the old adage goes, “There’s no business like show business.” There’s also no man like a showman — and in all the annals of cinema, there was no one quite like William Castle. While his films were never regarded as much more than B-movies, his masterful method of luring audiences in via ingenious gimmicks has become the stuff of legend. Thus, producer/director Castle himself has become a cultural icon as the unofficial “King of Gimmicks.” And now, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has unleashed a box set containing eight of Castle’s latter-day films, all of which were made during his heyday of gimmickry.

Presented in no specific order whatsoever, The William Castle Film Collection starts out with 1963’s 13 Frightened Girls!  Originally entitled The Candy Web, the campy ‘60s tale of espionage opens at a Swiss boarding school for girls — and all of the multinational students are the daughters of ambassadors and diplomats. Sixteen-year-old Candice (Kathy Dunn) has a crush on her father’s top spy (Murray Hamilton), and, after accidentally spying on the Red Chinese uncle (the great Khigh Dhiegh, whom all faithful Hawaii Five-O fans will recognize), she creates the alter ego of “Kitten” — and quickly becomes one of the world’s top spies by eavesdropping on her classmates. Hugh Marlowe co-stars as Candy’s oblivious father, and Three Stooges alumni Emil Sitka (who performed with every incarnation of the comedy trio and is even referred to as the seventh Stooge sometimes) has a small part as the boarding school’s handyman/bus driver.

Also on Disc One is Castle’s 13 Ghosts (1960), a “spooktacular” follow-up to Castle’s earlier Vincent Price vehicles, The Tingler and House On Haunted Hill. The story here involves a bookworm museum employee named Cyrus Zorba (Donald Woods), who, on the eve of losing all of his family’s furniture to creditors, learns he’s inherited his late uncle’s house. And so, Cyrus packs up his family (Rosemary DeCamp, Jo Morrow, and Charles Herbert) and moves in — only to find that the house is filled with malevolent ghosts. Castle’s gimmick for 13 Ghosts was “Illusion-O,” wherein patrons were given a “Ghost Viewer” (a cardboard viewer with a red cellophane filter to see the ghosts and a blue one to not see them). Route 66 star Martin Milner co-starred, along with Margaret Hamilton (The Wizard Of Oz).

Disc Two’s features are Homicidal and Strait-Jacket. As the story goes, Alfred Hitchcock was rather impressed with the grosses Castle’s House On Haunted Hill had made in 1959, and so he released Psycho — his own low-budget horror film — a year later. Castle then tipped his hat to the great director in 1961 with Homicidal, a similar kind of thriller in which an obviously psychotic woman (Jean Arless) commits a few murders in and around the sleepy-headed town of Ventura, California. Like Hitchcock’s film, Homicidal has a great twist ending. The gimmick here was a “Fright Break,” in which an onscreen clock appeared, giving timid viewers only 45 seconds to leave the auditorium so as not to subject their nerves to the horrifying conclusion.

1964’s Strait-Jacket fulfilled Castle’s dream to work with Psycho writer Robert Bloch and Award winner Joan Crawford. Lucy Harbin (Crawford) has spent the last 20 years in an insane asylum for beheading her husband (Lee Majors, in a brief, early role) and his lover. Released at last, Lucy returns to the outside world with her artist daughter (Diane Baker), who is very suspicious about her mother’s mental status — especially when people start to disappear once again. Leif Erickson co-stars as Diane Baker’s boyfriend, and George Kennedy plays a farmhand.

Moving on to Disc Three, we have the 1963 Castle/Hammer co-production, The Old Dark House. A remake of the classic 1932 James Whale film, this incarnation ditches its serious side and opts for comedy instead. Comedian Tom Poston stars as Tom Penderel, an American living in England who drives to his flatmate’s ancestral home to deliver a car. Arriving at the Femm family mansion, Tom discovers an entire household full of eccentric psychopaths, portrayed by the likes of Robert Morley, Peter Bull, Mervyn Johns, Fenella Fielding, Danny Green, and others.

The next film, Mr. Sardonicus (1961), is a far better tale. Based on a short story first published in Playboy, Mr. Sardonicus brings us a period piece set in Europe, about an English neurosurgeon (Ronald Lewis) who is called on to visit the strange Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe). Clad in a blank, expressionless mask in order to conceal his actual face, the Baron was once a poor peasant who was forced to dig up his father’s grave in order to retrieve a winning lottery ticket. The result for such heresy was an undying curse: a permanent grimace that only Conrad Veidt or The Joker would be proud of. Interestingly enough, supporting character actor Oskar Homolka gets top billing here (and rightfully so, when you look at his long and distinguished career of playing heavies). Castle’s wonderful gimmick for Mr. Sardonicus involved a “Punishment Poll,” in which the audience could declare “Mercy” or “No Mercy” on the titular character by holding up a ballot card at the appropriate moment. Castle didn’t even bother filming a “Mercy” ending, since he knew his audiences wouldn’t be so kind!

Disc Four begins with one of Castle’s best known vehicles, The Tingler. Vincent Price is once again allowed to leave no piece of scenery unchewed, as a medical examiner who discovers all human beings have a strange creature existing within them that grows on their spine when they are frightened. The only way to prevent “The Tingler” from killing you is to scream. Yes, that’s the plot — but it’s still great fun for the absurdity alone (it’s also perhaps the first movie ever in which a character uses LSD). Released the same year as Castle’s House On Haunted Hill, The Tingler also holds a special place in history for having one of the most notorious gimmicks ever conceived. Certain theater chairs had small mechanical vibrators attached. During a specific scene in the movie (when The Tingler is loose in a theater, appropriately enough), the voice of Vincent Price is heard pleading with the audience to scream for their lives — and the seats would start to “tingle” (the gimmick was called “Percepto”).

The final film in The William Castle Film Collection is the light-hearted comedy Zotz! (1962), starring Tom Poston once again. Absent-minded college professor Jonathan Jones (Poston) lives with his niece (Zeme North) and is about as health-conscious as you can get. He doesn’t smoke, nor does he drink — with the exception of sauerkraut juice, that is. One day, his niece’s boyfriend sends her a rare coin from an archeological expedition. Transcribing the inscription on the coin, Prof. Jones soon finds he has several magical and potentially lethal powers, most of which are executed by shouting the magic word, “Zotz!” His fellow university snobs (Cecil Kellaway, Jim Backus, Margaret Dumont) all think Jones is nuts — as do several members of the United States government. But when the Commies get wind of Jones’ powers, they move in to take possession of the coin. Think of Zotz! as a low-rent Disney film, and you’ll just about have it.

Considering the age of these pictures and the limited budgets most of them were made with, The William Castle Film Collection presents all eight films in the best possible presentations available. Five of these classics were issued by the Sony/Columbia label back between 1999 and 2002 as standalone releases, but you can get rid of those old titles, since this set features newly remastered transfers. All eight films are presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen ratios, and are about as crisp and clean as they will ever be. Grain is kept to a minimum, and exists mainly during “special shots” — e.g. those moments of rear-projection. All titles also boast their original English mono soundtracks, which have been reworked into stereo (and stereo surround, in some cases). The only downside to this new set is the lack of any additional language tracks or any subtitles at all (frown).

Every film in the set contains at least a theatrical trailer for the respective film, while the other, more prominent titles boast additional special features. For the most part, the extras included are the same ones found on the older individual releases (a few mini-documentaries by Castle fan Jeffrey Schwarz; vintage featurettes; alternate sequences, etc.), while a few new bonus items have also been brought in, including two ‘70s television episodes from Ghost Story/Circle Of Fear, which William Castle produced and also makes an appearance in. 13 Frightened Girls (which, incidentally, has 15 girls!) also has several alternate openings, trailers, and an intro/outro from Castle. A fifth disc in the set contains the documentary, Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story. Made by Jeffrey Schwarz, the film gives us an inside look at the life and career of Mr. Castle (from his early days as a theatrical showman, to his final features, Rosemary’s Baby and Shanks), and contains many an interview (most of which were archival by the time the docu was released in 2007) with actors and family members. The documentary also has an audio commentary with Schwarz and Castle’s daughter, Terry Castle.

Oddly enough, this set lacks the “Ghost Viewers” included in the 2001 DVD release as well as the regular B&W version of the movie. So, you might want to hold on to your old viewers or break out the 3-D glasses from another set. But other than that, The William Castle Film Collection is a milestone in cult cinema on DVD, and Sony’s commitment to appease its consumers is commendable.

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About Luigi Bastardo

Luigi Bastardo is the disgruntled alter-ego of a thirtysomething lad from Northern California who has watched so many weird movies since the tender age of 3 that a conventional life is out of the question. He currently lives in Chico, CA with four cats named Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Margaret. Seriously.