Thursday, October 27, 2011

In Defense of William Castle

I’ve had to spend an unusual amount of time with my mother lately. Yesterday, when we were driving together back towards my home, my mind frequently returning to the thought that it’s almost Halloween, I asked her if she remembered any particularly noteworthy horror films from her generation that I might have missed.

I have no idea what it will be like to try to remember childhood when I’m fifty-six years old. She sort of struggled to drag some old memories to the surface and did a bit of free association. She mentioned The Pit and the Pendulum, and got to wondering about the entire arc of Vincent Price’s career. I mentioned that lately when I think of Vincent Price one of the first films that comes to mind is The Tingler. Mentioning the title evidently opened up a flood of memories for her, and though she didn’t give much detail she seemed to vividly recall having watched the film in her youth.

The Tingler came out in 1959, so either my mother is manufacturing the memory, or she saw it in some sort of re-release, or else her older sister took a four-year old child to an interactive horror movie, but my mother claims to have seen The Tingler in a theater complete with the William Castle promotional gimmick.

If true, I am delighted to know that my mother got to have that experience, which must have been exquisite fun – at least for people older than four. I recall, perhaps a year ago, tormenting myself by reading the events list in the New Yorker and seeing that an East Village cinema was going to be having a showing of The Tingler which restored the gimmick, installing joy buzzers in selected seats and, presumably, planting professional screamers in the audience. Oh God how things like that make me desperate to be in New York again. I would have loved to be part of such a wildly interactive cinematic experience. No one promotes or executes anything with such originality.

Am I the only one who genuinely admires William Castle? He seems to be widely laughed at by people who are knowledgeable about the history of film, horror or otherwise. From everything I’ve seen, his promotional gimmicks are remembered as little more than cheap stunts aimed at practically tricking the audience into buying a ticket. But to say the least, I don’t understand why his cheap stunts don’t stand up in most people’s minds against modern studios’ cheap stunts of peddling the same garbage to their customers over and over again.

I don’t think that William Castle had any illusions that he was the next Orson Welles. He wasn’t out to create cinematic masterworks; he directed horror films. And his aim in so doing was seemingly to offer the audience a unique thrill and an hour or so of escapist excitement. Towards that end he was marvelously original, and frankly I wish the popular cinema had taken its cues from him going forward.

Castle directed several 3-D western films for Columbia Pictures in the fifties when 3-D was all the rage. He must have been impressed with the notion of having the film interact with the audience, because he adopted his own various takes on the idea in his horror films later on. The studios had made bank on a fad, and as far as I know only Castle had the personal conviction to take the underlying impulse and adapt it in fresh and creative ways.

Considering the recent surge of new 3-D movies, and my sense that it belies the creativity of film studios and suggests a myopic devotion to fads and groupthink, I believe the film industry would benefit greatly from a new William Castle. As a horror fan, I, for one, would much rather go to see a film and see a hearse parked in front of the theater, as was part of Castle’s first effort, than go there knowing that some of the images are going to pop out of the screen at me. Neither may be particularly scary, but the more original alternative at least aspires to establish an atmosphere that reaches past the space between the screen and my eyes, and gives me a reason to believe that I’ll remember not just the content of the film but the actual experience of going to see it.

In an era of cheap, ubiquitous DVDs, studios ought to be interested in advertising new reasons why people should be interested in going to see a movie in theaters. And in an era of increasingly diminished interpersonal relations, a few gimmicks might accomplish that aim and have a positive social effect as well. When I imagine what a thoughtful promotional gimmick might look like today, I think that it would have the potential to make an original film into the sort of shared experience of fandom that is usually reserved for huge franchises like Star Wars. When I was between the ages of twelve and eighteen, I went to midnight showings of each of the Star Wars prequels. What was especially exciting about that was not so much the films themselves (obviously), but the tail gate party in the parking lot, the sense of community, the unusual awareness that everyone was going into that theater to expand upon an experience that had already begun for each of us.

If a modern horror film had a physical skeleton swinging over the audience, or allowed different members of the audience to see different things on screen depending on which glasses they were wearing, or let the viewers choose how the film ends while still watching it, as were all William Castle gimmicks, those in attendance would be aware of their relationship with audience as well as with the movie, and that might give them a reason to not wait for the movie to come out on Netflix.

William Castle single-handedly made movies more than just pictures on (and sometimes leaping off) a screen. Why do we make fun of that? Why did we decide that it was an idea not worth revisiting for forty-six years and counting?

1 comment:

William Castle said...

What a lovely tribute thank you!