You can’t talk about gimmicky b-movies without mentioning William Castle. The prolific director, producer, screenwriter and actor made a name for himself in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s with a series of low budget horror/thrillers. What set Castle apart was not only his competence as a filmmaker, but his trademark movie theater gimmicks.
For his first independently produced feature, Macabre, Castle gave every member of the audience a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy on the chance that they die of fright during the screening. From stationing nurses in the lobby to hearses in front of the theater, Castle quickly became known for his theatrical presentations both on screen and off. Today we’re taking a look at William Castle’s five best movie theater gimmicks.
House on Haunted Hill (1959) | “Emergo”
Produced and directed by William Castle in 1959, House on Haunted Hill has cemented its status as a genre classic. The film follows Frederick and Annabelle Loren, eccentric millionaires played by Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart, as they host a “haunted house” party with a $10,000 prize. During the film’s climax, a skeleton rises from a pool of acid, frightening Annabelle and causing her to fall in.
Coining the term “Emergo” for the effect, Castle had an elaborate pulley system placed into the theater allowing a plastic skeleton with red lighted eye sockets to be flown above the audience during the final moments of the film. One of Castle’s earliest and simplest gimmicks, younger movie-goers eventually caught on and attempted to knock the skeleton down with candy boxes and drink cups.
The Tingler (1959) | “Percepto”
1959 saw another collaboration between William Castle and Vincent Price in the form of The Tingler. The titular creature, a parasite that attaches itself to the human spinal cord to feed on the fear of its host, can only be destroyed by screaming. The film’s finale breaks the fourth wall when one of the creatures gets loose in the actual movie theater.
In order to complete the “Percepto” illusion, Castle purchased military airplane wing de-icers for their vibrating motors and had a crew travel with the film attaching them to the bottoms of select seats. During the film’s climax, the motors were activated as on-screen Vincent Price’s voice instructed the audience to “scream – scream for your lives!”
13 Ghosts (1960) | “Illusion-O”
Released in 1960, 13 Ghosts tells the story of a financially unstable family who inherit a house occupied by twelve ghosts and the promise of hidden treasure. Mimicking special glasses used in the film which allow the ghosts to be seen, Castle introduced a handheld ghost viewer/remover dubbed “Illusion-O” that permitted brave members of the audience to see the ghosts while the easily frightened could hide them from view.
Handed out at the beginning of the film, the viewer/remover was fitted with two pieces of cellophane – one red and one blue. During scenes involving ghosts, the film was shown with a blue filter while superimposed ghosts were shown in red. Looking through the red cellophane during these scenes would intensify the ghosts while looking through the blue would “remove” them from the screen.
Homicidal (1961) | “Fright Break”
The first of two movies that Castle directed in 1961, Homicidal follows a brother and sister at the center of a murderous scheme to collect a large inheritance. Towards the climax, while the heroine is approaching the location of the murderer, the film pauses and a “fright break” timer appears on the screen. If anyone in the audience is too afraid to watch the rest of the film, they are granted 45 seconds to leave the theater and receive a full refund complete with a “Coward’s Certificate”.
Filmmaker and William Castle fan, John Waters explains what happened after 1% of viewers left the theater and requested their refund:
William Castle simply went nuts. He came up with ‘Coward’s Corner,’ a yellow cardboard booth, manned by a bewildered theater employee in the lobby. When the Fright Break was announced, and you found that you couldn’t take it anymore, you had to leave your seat and, in front of the entire audience, follow yellow footsteps up the aisle, bathed in a yellow light. You passed a nurse, who would offer a blood-pressure test. All the while a recording was blaring, “‘Watch the chicken! Watch him shiver in Coward’s Corner’!” As the audience howled, you had to go through one final indignity – at Coward’s Corner you were forced to sign a yellow card stating, ‘I am a bona fide coward.’
Mr. Sardonicus (1961) | “Punishment Poll”
The last gimmick on our list comes to us from the 1961 film, Mr. Sardonicus. Transformed with a disturbing permanent grin after robbing his father’s grave, Baron Sardonicus has been experimenting on young woman in order to find a cure. Just before the film’s final moments, Castle appears on screen and asks the audience to decide the Baron’s fate in a “punishment poll”.
Given a glow-in-the-dark card when they entered the theater, each member of the audience is then asked to hold up their vote for whether Mr. Sardonicus should be shown mercy or be put to death. After tallying the votes from the screen, Castle announces that the audience has chosen punishment and the final three minutes of the film are shown. Although there are conflicting reports, there is no evidence to suggest that the alternate “mercy” ending was ever even shot.
Did we miss your favorite William Castle gimmick? Let us know in the comments!