Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story: Review

20 July 2010

Written by: Jean Kemshal-Bell

The lyrics ‘You gotta get a gimmick, if you want to get ahead’ by Stephen Sondheim for the Broadway musical Gypsy have never been more appropriate than when discussing ’60s horror-film icon William Castle. Showing as part of Melbourne International Film Festival, Jeffrey Schwartz pays homage to the director’s legacy in Spine Tingler!

Inspired by circus showmen such as P.T. Barnum, Castle used an array of gimmicks to enhance the cinema going experience for his films, including: House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (1959), Mr. Sardonicus (1962) and Strait-Jacket (1964). Renowned as a B-grade film director, these gimmicks were what generated publicity rather than the mediocre films themselves.

Schwartz introduces Castle’s use of Emergo, ghosts and skeletons leave the screen and roam around the theatre, hovering above the audience; Fright Break, a chance to leave the theatre and get your money back but first you must go to the Coward’s Corner; and the Punishment Poll, where the audience chooses the ending of a film and has the power to punish.

A legendary showman, Castle knew how to appeal to audiences with his horror films of the ’50s and ’60s. From an early start in Hollywood, Castle quickly learnt everything there was to know about show business. After 15 years of working as a director across varied genres such as noir, melodrama and westerns, Castle moved into horror films. Even though horror films generate a degree of instant popularity, Castle, driven by the fear of an empty audience, wanted to give the audience something else.

Often referred to as ‘the poor man’s Alfred Hitchcock’, Spine Tingler shows Castle as an auteur of his own class. It’s interesting to note that Castle’s Homicidal (1961), which was a gender-bending thriller, very similar to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1961), landed on TIME magazine’s Best 10 films of the year. While his films warranted criticism, Castle went on to produce one of Hollywood’s finest horror films, Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

Clocking in at a short 82 minutes, Spine Tingler has a wealth of knowledge packed into a very slick and swift documentary. What surely could have been dragged out into a much longer piece is a film accompanied with interviews from his family, friends and noted film historians and directors, including Leonard Maltin, Joe Dante and Roger Corman. It is these interviews, especially from Castle’s daughter, that make Spine Tingler a love letter to a true showman and one of the most endearing men in show business.

Spine Tingler! is showing at the Melbourne International Film Festival at 9.30pm, 24 July and 7pm, 27 July.

James Madden completed his Bachelor of Arts at La Trobe University, majoring in Cinema and Media Studies. He contributes to The Vine, Portable.tv, X and Y Magazine and is the founder of Film Blerg, where this review was originally published.