Some horror filmmakers are lovers of the medium who desire nothing more than to simply share a tense psychological moment with an audience, to do whatever outrageous surprise necessary to elicit that prized reaction, the scream, from the people who have rewarded their films with their hard-earned money. One such driven filmmaker was gimmick king William Castle.
It is perhaps ironic that William Castle is known historically as the purveyor of the horror B-movie, because in a film career that spanned nearly forty years, the first twenty were spent making mysteries, dramas, biographies, and crime dramas, with titles as varied as “Music in my Heart,” “Coney Island,” and “The Crime Doctor’s Warning.”
Though known best for his low-budget horror work, Castle worked on several projects with impressive pedigrees: second unit director on Orson Welles’ “The Lady from Shanghai,” dialogue director on Cary Grant’s “Penny Serenade,” and most famously, as producer on Roman Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby.”
His career as a horror filmmaker was marked by low budgets, mediocre films, and brilliantly crazed marketing campaigns. From magic coins to special glasses to buzzers in seats to fake ghosts flying over the heads of movie patrons, Castle was never above doing any weird gimmick he could think of to get young people in to watch one of his movies. When the gimmicks themselves stopped working, he created new gimmicks that were intended to “scare them off,” such as stationing a nurse outside the theater to make people sign a waiver that they wouldn’t sue the filmmakers after being injured from fear.
A filmmaker as well-known as any of his works, Castle has been paid loving homage in Joe Dante’s “Matinee” and the remake of Castle’s own “House on Haunted Hill.” In a genre marked with excess and gimmick, Castle stands as one of the first innovators of the idea, and one of the early independent filmmakers whose successes motivated other indie horror icons to attempt the same.