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June 05, 2018

The Films of William Castle

films of wm. castle cover.jpg

Edited by Murray Leeder - 2018
University of Edinburgh Press

My introduction to William Castle was initially second hand. As a gullible seven year old, I was told about The Tingler by two slightly older neighbor boys who convinced me that there really was such a creature that could take over my spine. It wasn't until my parents were out of town, that away from their protective gaze, I saw my first Castle film, The House on Haunted Hill. I think it took me five viewings before it dawned on me that the Frank Lloyd Wright exterior had no relation to the creepy Victorian mansion interior of the titular house.

While one of the contributors here tries to frame Castle's often illogical narratives within Queer Theory, I think there is a simpler explanation. In his book on giallo cinema, Mikel Koven discusses the lack of narrative logic based on the premise that for the original Italian audience, movie going was a social experience that took place in second or third run theaters, and attention to the screen was mainly for the set pieces, usually a scene of murder. I have to think that as Castle's horror films were made primarily for an audience of older children and teenagers watching his films in neighborhood theaters and drive-ins, he understood that narrative logic was less important, and that the films would be seen and remembered for the reanimated corpses, skeletons and other visceral moments.

It's unsurprising that the contributors of an academic study on the films of William Castle would put more thought regarding Castle's films than Castle would have, if at all, with recurring themes and social significance. The book makes the point of noting that Castle made more than the horror films he is best remembered for, with a chapter offering an overview of his westerns. What I did find a bit frustrating is that the first chapter is devoted to Castle's first important film, When Strangers Marry, also known as Betrayed (1944). It's the second title that most connects Castle's well regarded film noir with the horror films he began making fourteen years later, with adulterous couples, and marriages and murder for financial gain in several of those films. One could make the case that Rosemary's Baby, originally bought by Castle to be his entry into A films, thematically fits with Castle's often brittle view marriage. Castle's horror films aren't just linked by the gimmicks, but by their plots centered on betrayal, spousal or otherwise.

Where the book is truly valuable is in placing Castle as a descendent of silent showmen in cinema's earliest years, before narrative filmmaking took over. There is also a review of how Castle understood how to use mass media to sell his films, with part of a chapter discussing the pioneering work of publicity agent Terry Turner. Castle's history as a filmmaker is also part of the film history that includes "spook shows", saturation booking, and a variety of publicity stunts. While there is also discussion on Castle versus Alfred Hitchcock, what is overlooked is how they both responded to Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les Diabolique (1955) in the same year, 1958, with markedly different results. Hitchcock's response was to get the film rights to the next novel by the authors of Les Diaboliques. It took several decades for Vertigo to gain critical attention or to be a profitable film. Castle mortgaged his house and made Macabre for $90,000.00, reworking Boileau and Narcejac's plot of an unfaithful spouse and a plan to scare someone to death, with a couple of moments of horror, all set in anonymous small town USA. Hitchcock essentially took Castle's playbook after getting his commitment to MGM out of the way.

Among the essays I liked best was Alexandra Heller-Nicholas on Mr. Sardonicus and the mask as a transformative device. One of my favorite Castle films is also one of his more serious films, with the option to "vote" on the fate of Sardonicus reportedly forced on Castle by Columbia Pictures who insisted on a gimmick when none was planned. Castle's film is rightly linked with The Man who Laughs (1928), which Castle probably saw as a teenager, with Guy Rolfe's grotesque "smile" more extreme than that of Conrad Veidt in the silent film. Michael Pettiti makes the case for The Night Walker (1964), a financial failure, critically dismissed like most of Castle's films. The onscreen reunion of the formerly married Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor wasn't enough to interest adults away from the television sets, or a younger generation who had their proportionately younger stars. I haven't seen The Night Walker, but some of the elements suggest that there is a connection to be made between Stanwyck and Taylor and the more contemporary Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes in Rosemary's Baby.

That said, only the stuffiest and saddest of cinephiles would need this book to justify watching something as delirious and endearingly nutty as The Tingler or Homicidal!.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 5, 2018 10:00 AM