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Directed By William Castle
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William Castle Profile
* Films in Bold air on 10/20

It should come as no surprise to fans of "The King of the Gimmick" that William Castle was not his real name. Born William Schloss in New York City on April 24, 1914, the future director of such B-movie cult classics as The Tingler (1959), House on Haunted Hill (1959) and 13 Ghosts (1960) was a shy, awkward boy whose parents sent him to camp to make a man of him. Teased for his lack of athletic ability, he found salvation in the discovery of a freakish anatomical elasticity. Being double jointed and able to wrap his legs around his neck made "Slush" a hit when he appeared as "The Spider Boy" at the camp's annual circus.

The Depression found William Schloss shouldering a series of odd jobs, from washing dishes at the Horn & Hardart Automat to appearing as Simple Simon in Bloomingdale's front window "Living Nursery Book." Occasional theatre work lifted his spirits. As William Castle, he made his Broadway debut in 1922 in The Torch Bearers. Passing himself off as the nephew of Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn, Castle bluffed himself into the ensemble of Jules Leventhal's revival of An American Tragedy in 1931. In 1941, he charmed his way into the office of Orson Welles, then vacating his Connecticut theater in Stony Creek to prepare for filming Citizen Kane (1941). Assuming the posture of a well-heeled producer, Castle got Welles to not only offer a lease on the theater but to seal the deal with one of his cherished Churchill cigars.

In Stony Creek, Castle got the most out of his Berlin-born leading lady Ellen Schwanneke. When The Third Reich invited the M├Ądchen in Uniform (1931) star to return to Germany, Castle capitalized on her refusal by billing Schwanneke as "The Girl Who Said No to Hitler" and vandalizing his own theater with swastikas to generate publicity. The gambit paid off and the success of the play (which he had written in forty-eight hours and passed off as the work of a German playwright to skirt labor restrictions on using foreign talent) got Castle an invitation to meet Columbia Pictures studio boss Harry Cohn. Castle met with "King" Cohn only once before he was put to work absorbing the mechanics of Columbia's A and B-picture mills. A chance meeting with director George Stevens got Castle his first Hollywood job, as a dialogue director on the set of Penny Serenade (1941). Three years of frenzied activity followed, as Castle toiled as a dialogue director, assistant editor and bit player in dozens of Columbia productions.

Castle's debut as a director was the "Boston Blackie" mystery The Chance of a Lifetime (1943) with Chester Morris. Castle hated the script and the critics hated Castle, with The Hollywood Reporter branding him "unfit to handle a motion picture." Despite the vote of no confidence, Castle plunged back into work, racking up an impressive resume of forty-plus films before he broke out on his own. (Castle had also endured amoebic dysentery and a thirty-five pound weight loss while associate producing and shooting second unit footage in Mexico for Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai in 1947.) The American success of the French psychological thriller Les Diaboliques (1955) sparked in Castle a long dormant desire to make scary movies. With scenarist Robb White, he adapted the novel The Marble Forest (the work of several writers published under the collective nom-de-plume "Theo Durrant"), which they gave the vaguely French titled Macabre (1958).

Seeing the finished product (self-produced for $86,000 and shot in a week), Castle knew he was no Henri-Georges Clouzot and decided a gimmick was needed to sell the film. For $5,000, he purchased an insurance policy from Lloyds of London guaranteeing a $1,000 payout to the beneficiaries of anyone felled by fright while watching Macabre. Castle sold the package to Allied Artists for twice his shooting budget and a percentage of the substantial profits. For their follow-up, Castle and White co-opted Macabre's triple dog dare to ticket buyers with a terror tale in which millionaire Vincent Price offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who could survive a night in House on Haunted Hill (1959). Castle arranged to have a plastic skeleton flown over the heads of moviegoers during a key point in the film as part of a gimmick he called "Emergo." While Columbia had turned down Macabre, the success of House on Haunted Hill prompted the studio to invite him back.

Arguably Castle's signature film, The Tingler (1959) imagines a creature born of human fear that can be released only by screaming. In addition to the novelty of color film used for sequences involving blood, Castle dreamed up "Percepto," a device installed below theater seats that simulated the vibrations of The Tingler as Vincent Price implored customers to "Scream... scream for your lives!" For 13 Ghosts (1960), he provided patrons with "Ghost Viewer" glasses enabling them to see the eponymous spooks hidden in the film by dint of the optical process "Illusion-O." Borrowing a trick from Alfred Hitchcock, Castle introduced Homicidal (1961) in an onscreen appearance, announcing a "Fright Break" for those who found the suspense too much to bear. Castle pulled a similar stunt in the gothic Mr. Sardonicus (1961), in which the denouement was stalled to allow audiences to vote on the fate of its disfigured title character.

Through the 1960s, Castle's promotional campaigns were often more satisfying than his features. The gimmick of Strait-Jacket (1964) was the sight of aging Hollywood icon Joan Crawford as an axe-wielding, head-chopping hellion. In 1968, Castle produced Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby, whose success was for him tempered by the subsequent deaths of composer Krzysztof Komeda and Polanski's wife Sharon Tate. Castle himself suffered a spell of uremic poisoning and later a nervous breakdown. His output slowed during the next decade. He produced the short-lived anthology TV series Ghost Story (which underwent a mid-season title change to Circle of Fear) and Jeannot Szwarc's Bug (1975) before his death by heart attack on May 31, 1977. His 1976 autobiography, Step Right Up, I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America, was reprinted in 1991 with an affectionate foreword by John Waters, who eulogized Castle as "a famous showman in today's lackluster showbiz environment."

by Richard Harland Smith

Sources:
Step Right Up, I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America: Memoirs of a B-Movie Mogul by William Castle
Horror Film Directors, 1931-1990 by Dennis Fischer
The Horror People by John Brosnan
The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz

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