Where to begin with William Castle

With Halloween season upon us, we pick a beginner’s path through the schlock tactics of horror’s greatest showman: jump-scare genius William Castle.

26 October 2020

By Chloe Walker

Strait-Jacket (1964)

Why this might not seem so easy

William Castle is best known for the run of films he directed from 1959 to 1965: feasts of gleeful gore and extravagant scares, where the wild publicity campaigns were often as notable as the films themselves. For the first 16 years of his movie-making career, however, Castle languished in ‘director for hire’ obscurity, working in TV and on numerous unremarkable B pictures. With the exception of a couple of engaging noirs, nothing he produced during this period has stood the test of time. Nothing deserved to. 

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

But in 1959, when Castle was 45 years old, he finally made a name for himself. The 2 spooky films he released that year – The Tingler and House on Haunted Hill – became instant cult classics, cementing Castle’s reputation as a showman with a great love of gimmicks. From then on, almost all of his output would be released with some extra added dimension: seats that shook, skeletons that swooped down from the roof of the cinema, polls that let the audience decide whether or not characters would die. 

Castle is often accused of being a low-talent rip-off of Alfred Hitchcock, and it’s true that the thumbprints of the legendary director are all over his work: Psycho (1960) was a clear influence on the narrative of Homicidal (1961), and Castle even used Psycho writer Robert Bloch on Strait-Jacket (1964) and The Night Walker (1964). Nevertheless, there was some reciprocity to their relationship. It was the financial success of House on Haunted Hill that convinced Hitchcock there was an audience for a low-budget horror like Psycho in the first place. So, in a sense, the 2 directors functioned as a kind of scary-movie ouroboros. 

Although today, on a smaller screen and with fewer people in the room, the experience of watching a William Castle movie can’t touch the experience of the 1950s and 60s, there’s still an awful lot of fun to be had with the one of the foremost masters of the cinematic macabre. 

Where to start – The Tingler     

The second of 2 William Castle films released within 6 months of each other in 1959, both of them starring Vincent Price, The Tingler is perhaps the purest and most enjoyable example of Castle’s eye for spooky spectacle. 

Price plays Dr Warren Chapin, a pathologist studying the physical effects of fear on the human body. Through a series of morally dubious experiments, he discovers that a creature he christens ‘The Tingler’ lives in the spine of every human being, and when a person is frightened, The Tingler gets strong enough to kill them. The only way to stop it is to, “Scream! Scream for your life!”

Poster for The Tingler (1959)

At the time of its first release, cinemas showed The Tingler with ‘Percepto’, a Castle-coined term that meant some of the seats had a buzzer beneath that would vibrate at the scariest moments, eliciting even more of those screams that the director was so fond of.

There are many pleasures to be found in Castle’s movie, even for 21st-century viewers who don’t have the benefit of a tricked-out cinema. Price’s performance is a riot throughout; he and Castle and their shared love of campy horror made a perfect professional marriage. Price shows formidable range as he switches between being an amiable mentor to his young assistant (Darryl Hickman), a bitter husband who loathes his philandering wife (Patricia Cutts), and a mad scientist experimenting with LSD (this film boasts the first such trip committed to celluloid). 

A particularly striking sequence concerning an attempt to scare a deaf woman to death (Judith Evelyn, who played Miss Lonelyhearts in Hitchcock’s Rear Window) features a bath full of ketchup-red blood, though everything else is shot in black and white. Then there’s the design of The Tingler itself, which looks somewhere between a scorpion and a giant centipede. It’s ridiculous, yes, but even so – the thought of one living inside of you is enough to give anyone the shivers.

What to watch next

If you enjoy The Tingler, the obvious next step is the other 1959 Price/Castle collaboration, House on Haunted Hill. Price’s character invites 5 strangers to spend the night in a haunted house, offering them $10k if they can survive until morning. Surprise, surprise, not all of them do. As in The Tingler, Price has an unfaithful wife with whom he shares a mutual hatred, and much of the film’s fun derives from the gleefully cutting remarks they lob back and forth (“Darling, the only ghoul here is you!”).

Poster for Strait-Jacket (1964)

Feel like something a little bit different? Try Strait-Jacket, which was released with the immortal tagline, ‘Warning – vividly depicts ax murders!’ It sees Joan Crawford play a woman trying to reconnect with her daughter (Diane Baker) after spending 20 years in an asylum for the murder of her cheating husband (philandering spouses are a common occurrence in William Castle movies).

Although, like many of Castle’s films, it starts with a blood-curdling scream, Strait-Jacket stands out for its comparatively strong narrative. Remove a couple of the more sensational moments and it becomes a prestige drama about the lasting and inherited effects of trauma. Still, the finale – which features Crawford fighting Crawford– is one of the best single-scene examples of Castle’s distinct brand of lurid madness.

Poster for The Night Walker (1964)

Castle was one of the pioneers of ‘hagsploitation’ – a kitschy, sexist subgenre that capitalised on Hollywood’s fear of older women (think Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), Lady in a Cage (1964), Fanatic (1965)). Strait-Jacket falls under this category and so does The Night Walker, starring Barbara Stanwyck in her final film role. It isn’t one of Castle’s more entertaining works – it’s weighed down by a charisma-less performance from Robert Taylor – yet Stanwyck is as regally magnificent as ever, and it features a couple of the creepiest scenes in any Castle picture.

A handful of Castle’s noirs – When Strangers Marry (1944), Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949), Hollywood Story (1951) – are also worth watching. None are remarkable, but it’s still interesting to see the beginning of his fascination with the shadowy side of cinema. 

Where not to start

Macabre (1958), which follows a doctor (William Prince) racing against the clock to save his daughter who’s been buried alive, sounds gripping. It’s not. Castle undercuts his ‘all in real time’ premise by including copious flashbacks, which kill any sense of pace. The performances are flaccid, and there’s a general lack of the sensationalism that makes his movies so giddily enjoyable. The sole highlight is the animated closing credits sequence, which – like the best of Castle’s work – is full of morbid charm.

Other things to explore