William Castle, to put it delicately, wasn’t much of a director in the conventional sense of the word. There’s an oddball huckster quality to his work that feels personal though, particularly his run of no-budget horror movies from 1958 to 1964, which are mostly accounted for in the new William Castle Film Collection. Castle and his fans had an implicit agreement, underlined by the director’s appearance at the beginning of many of his movies. Castle would give them a picture cheap and falling poignantly short of the ad campaign selling it, but guaranteeing what most audiences go to the theater for anyway: to be at the center of the water cooler, to be a part of what’s going on. In exchange, the audiences made Castle the showman he always wanted to be, a brand above the movie. This box set assembles together for the first time the eight films Castle made for Columbia: The Tingler, 13 Ghosts, Homicidal, Mr. Sardonicus, Zotz!, 13 Frightened Girls!, The Old Dark House, and Strait-Jacket.
Tingler, the earliest film in the set, has, as director Joe Dante attests, one of the more absurd concepts the movies have given us: A scientist (Vincent Price), mad of course, discovers a creature that manifests itself along a person’s spine as their fear mounts, dying when the person purges their tension by screaming. Inevitably, Price finds a deaf-mute theater owner for experimentation and, in the best scene, removes the creature from behind a white operating room sheet. Ludicrousness aside, Tingler is still one of the more confident Castle pictures: a well paced, at times intentionally, funny parody of 1950s domestication, with every couple in the story trying to off one another for a variety of amusingly convoluted reasons. Think Burn after Reading with dime store production values and a plastic spinal cord at its center.
Castle came closest to his dreams of respectable movies, the sort that didn’t rely on plastic skeletons to sell them, with his sleazier, gaudier twin Psycho rip-offs, Homicidal and Strait-Jacket, made to capitalize on Hitchcock and the shifting horror market. Homicidal has a reputation among certain buffs as being superior to Hitch’s film, but that’s probably more of a response to Psycho over-exposure than the movie Castle actually made. Hitchcock, even at his sloppiest, had a control over his films that Castle may not have even known possible. Homicidal does, however, benefit from Castle’s self- and studio-imposed “done in 20 days” philosophy: It has an authentic sick rot that Psycho, for its clear calculation, doesn’t. The murders—sloppy, awkward, jarring—are less defensible technically and far scarier, and the killer (Jean Arliss), who isn’t what she appears to be (or is she?), has a look of feral madness. Castle’s equal parts amateurishness and cojones reward him.
From a script by Psycho novelist Robert Bloch, Strait-Jacket, starring Joan Crawford as an ax-murderer returning home to her now grown daughter, is better still. The sleaze of Homicidal pervades, but with an actual actress to balance the picture: The weird mixtures of pathos and gore and sentimentality and inanity are more of a piece with Crawford at the center. One doesn’t have to go mining for subtext: Crawford’s murderer is the same somewhat self-martyred control freak she played in a number of more famous roles, and the horror movie tropes bring her out further, seemingly completing her (she always seemed to be in a horror movie anyway and it tells you something about a film when an ax-murderer played by Crawford is its most sympathetic character). The Psycho associations would go further than anyone might have expected: Psycho II, nearly 20 years later, features a set-up identical to Strait-Jacket. Regret: Crawford’s ego supposedly botched the ending, which now has her sobbing on a porch in the fashion of a woman’s issue movie from the ’40s. The original ending, of Diane Baker screaming behind the door, is considerably harder to shake.
13 Ghosts and Mr. Sardonicus are sometimes amusing—tedious juvenilia that may inspire nostalgia even in those who weren’t alive during their release; they affirm the myth of ’50s America as a small-town commune of asexual, good-natured mannequins. Zotz!, Old Dark House, and 13 Frightened Girls! are pretty tough to take by any measurement, but round out the Castle set as a portrait of a filmmaker who’d give virtually anything a go. The opportunism and lack of any apparent self-censor can be wearying (watching a couple of these in a row works as a sort of cinema sensory depravation tank), but the bald obviousness of it all has an honesty that many of our current pretentious, cynical “dark” horror movies could use; even though Castle undeniably made a joke out of a genre that needs all the respectability it can get. For that, a bit of the Castle enthusiasm sticks in the throat, but only a bit.
The image and sound have been cleaned up without being too cleaned up; the pictures are clean and vivid without betraying their low budget, on-the-fly roots (and the effects haven’t been as compromised by the upgrade as you might think; the wires are only as visible here as they’ve always been). The sound is functional and adequate, as it should be for this set. One scene that’s always stood apart in The Tingler, the only color moment in the otherwise black-and-white picture, still retains a graininess mismatching everything before and after-and there’s something reassuring in that.
The extras have an appropriate, generous funhouse quality. "Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story" is an entertaining, affectionate run-through of Castle’s notable pictures (including every one featured in the set) with tributes from the likes of the aforementioned Joe Dante, John Waters, Roger Corman, and Budd Boetticher. (Terry Castle and director Jeffrey Schwarz provide commentary on the documentary.) The trailers and alternate scenes, included with each picture, are a contextually complementary way to cleanse the palette in between the features. Various promotional odds and ends, including a mock conference between Castle, Joan Crawford, and Robert Bloch, as well as alternate openings and even "ax tests," give one the pleasurable buzz of stumbling upon an all-night monster marathon after school or work. Truthfully, many of the extras are redundant, but that seems just right too.
The William Castle Film Collection is an ideal tribute to the horror staple.