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Director Joe Dante's 1993 comedy Matinee memorably cast John Goodman as a burly low-budget horror movie producer-director who traveled the country in the early 1960s with his latest offering, attending to local ballyhoo and gimmick-laden come-ons to get kids into the movie theater. Any B-movie aficionado worth their salt knew that the larger-than-life huckster depicted in Dante's film was a thinly disguised portrait of William Castle, the publicity-loving director behind such horror hits as House On Haunted Hill (1958), The Tingler (1959) and 13 Ghosts (1960). Dante is one of the many Castle fans interviewed in the affectionate documentary Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (2007). The Castle films clearly influenced many "Monster Kids" (those fans who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s during the Monster Craze of the era) to get into the film industry; in addition to Dante, John Landis and John Waters also share their fond memories of seeing the Castle movies as kids.
Produced by Automat Pictures and directed, co-produced and co-edited by Jeffrey Schwarz, Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story covers all aspects of Castle's career, from his journeyman days as a B-unit director at Columbia Pictures to his final years in the 1970s, suffering from illness and decline following his career summit as the producer of the wildly successful horror film Rosemary's Baby (1968) at Paramount Pictures. The meat of the documentary, though, covers the glory days in between as Castle promoted himself to Junior Hitchcock status as a creator of kid-friendly horror pictures. Interviewees such as historians Leonard Maltin and Bob Thomas, fan/collectors Forry Ackerman and Bob Burns, and contemporaries Roger Corman and Darryl Hickman take turns detailing the outrageous promotional stunts that Castle would employ to sell tickets. For his first independent production, Macabre (1958), Castle handed out insurance cards to his patrons informing them that they were insured by Lloyd's of London against Death by Fright! Castle followed this up with such named gimmicks as "Emergo" (a plastic skeleton that floats over audience heads during House on Haunted Hill), "Percepto" (vibration devices that "tingled" select theater seats during The Tingler) and many others. Fortunately, Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story features a generous amount of vintage newsreel footage, press clippings and photographs of the on-site use and promotion of these gimmicks at local theaters around the country. The huge lines of excited kids on view in this vintage material is an inarguable testament to Castle's genius for promotion, and a bittersweet record of a time in pop culture history that is now long past.
Director Jeffrey Schwarz may be excused if his feature film plays a bit like several DVD featurettes strung together, because that is pretty much how it came to exist. In the DVD commentary for the film (recorded alongside Terry Castle) Schwarz described the background of the project. In the late 1990s he made a test reel featuring an interview with director Fred Olen Ray and presented it to Sony (owners of the Columbia Pictures catalog); subsequently, in 1999 Sony hired Schwarz to produce a featurette for the video release of The Tingler. Schwarz set off on a career producing such DVD extras for Sony and other studios and along the way collected further interviews with Castle fans and contemporaries while covering such films as 13 Ghosts, Mr. Sardonicus (1961) and more. The oldest interviews in Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story are those with Bob Burns and Daryl Hickman, which date to the 1999 Tingler featurette.
Schwarz also reveals in his commentary that his picture about Castle needed a "heart and soul" to complete the story, and he found that in his interview with Castle's daughter Terry. She gives the film the personal touch with remembrances of Castle as a family man and with the revelation of the producer's professional insecurities. When Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story was nearly completed, with the editing already set, Schwartz was able to incorporate clips of William Castle's own voice. One recording located was an interview done for a radio station in New York during the publicity blitz for House on Haunted Hill and the other came from an extensive lecture given to a film class at the University of Southern California in 1975, around the time Castle's last horror film Bug (1975) was released. The addition of these audio snippets compliment the many clips in the documentary in which Castle is in full-on ballyhoo mode, hawking his films and gimmicks in trailers and prologues.
Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story premiered at the AFI Film Festival in November of 2007, winning the Audience Award. Variety critic Robert Koehler called the documentary "little more than an extended DVD extra, [which] has been made with genuine affection... but is so breathlessly paced that one wonders what the hurry is all about." Koehler goes on to write that the film "...perhaps makes too much of President Kennedy's assassination and '60s cultural tumult as causes for Castle's decline; more likely it was the technical advances in genre moviemaking, which made many of his pics look fairly cheap."
If Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story is overly affectionate toward its subject (and forgiving of Castle's oftentimes pedestrian handling of his fantastic subject matter), it still shines when detailing the gimmicks and ballyhoo on which Castle built his reputation. Castle's enthusiasm for promotion was contagious and at least half the fun of experiencing his pictures, and the same holds true for this documentary of (and fan letter to) his life and career.
Producer: Jeffrey Schwarz, Jack Mulligan, Taryn Teigue
Director: Jeffrey Schwarz
Music: Michael Cudahy
Film Editing: Philip Harrison, Jeffrey Schwarz
Interviewees: Forrest J. Ackerman, Budd Boetticher, Bob Burns, Terry Castle, Roger Corman, Joe Dante, Stuart Gordon, Darryl Hickman, John Landis, Leonard Maltin, Marcel Marceau, Fred Olen Ray, Jeannot Szwarc, Bob Thomas, John Waters
by John M. Miller