The William Castle Film Collection
Containing eight William Castle films on four discs, plus a bonus-disc documentary, this collection highlights Castle's work for Columbia Pictures. Five of these films are previously released, though some of them have a new extra or two, but only three, 13 Frightened Girls, The Old Dark House and ZOTZ! are making their DVD debuts. Let's dive in and see what's on offer!
13 Frightened Girls:
Castle's career wasn't limited to gimmicky horror movies, as 13 Frightened Girls demonstrates, even though the title might lead you to believe otherwise (and indeed early intentions for this film were in line with Castle's 'showman' persona). No, this 90-minute color diversion nominally involves the 13 daughters of international diplomats, home on vacation from their boarding school. There are really only one - maybe two - frightened girls of which to speak, since our tale quickly focuses on young Candace, (Kathy Dunn) a girl with a severe crush on one of her father's attachés. But this hunky older spy isn't quite earning his pay lately, so Candace - AKA Kitten - decides to help out by becoming an international spy herself. Who would suspect her, right?
This campy cold war effort is certainly loopy, at times resembling the later World of Henry Orient crossed with a James Bond movie. Mixing kittenish humor with intrigue and extreme peril - like threatening to impale teenaged girls on meat-hooks style peril - makes this a sincerely weird effort. But despite incongruously strong violence and subject matter, our ride is mostly breezy and fun, with brutes dropping off balconies sharing space with impromptu twisting teen dance parties. With only one prior (now out of print) DVD release, this is a nice find.
Probably Castle's most famous, most well loved movie, 13 Ghosts proves more than worthy of its reputation. Unlike the glitzy modern remake filled with gore and elaborate special effects, the original is filled with 'Illusion-O' and emphasis on low-level intrigue. The Zorba family ekes out a living on patriarch Cyrus's paleontologist's salary. Since that's not a lot of scratch, they're excited when they inherit a furnished mansion from Cyrus's crazy uncle - it beats living on the street without any furniture. Trouble is, Uncle Zorba's pet ghosts haunt the house. Luckily, the domicile hides a secret fortune, but sleazy lawyer Ben Rush (Adam 12's Martin Milner) wants to bilk the Zorbas out of their rightful inheritance with an additional spook show.
The youth of the day may have been frightened, but even in 1960 it would have been clear that Castle intended to populate this haunted house with fun-toms rather than phantoms, and that audiences would likely be most interested in seeing slimy Rush get his comeuppance. Light performances suitable to Perry Mason or I Love Lucy attest to this while making 13 Ghosts absolutely entertaining. In addition to the ominous presence of Margaret Hamilton (The Wizard of Oz) as witchy housekeeper Elaine, Castle lards proceedings with plenty of goofy spectral sequences. If you believe in ghosts, look through the red lens of your Illusion-O viewer (sadly not provided with this set - but standard 3-D glasses will do the trick) and see attacking lions, heads chopped off, and creepy possessions - none of which are remotely scary, but reliably fun. (If you don't have 3-D glasses handy, don't worry either, you'll still see the red ghosts superimposed onto blue backgrounds.) 13 Ghosts is nothing short of loveable and stands up to repeat viewings with ease.
Top-loading a fairly bloody stabbing to pique our interest, Castle settles in to a tale of twisted intrigue and unhealthy relationships. Ice princess Emily (Joan Marshall) takes poor care of an old invalid woman who speaks by banging a doorknob on her wheelchair. She checks into a hotel under an assumed name, offering the bellboy $2000 to marry her immediately. There's a little stabby-stabby. Invalid Helga's niece Miriam Webster (Patricia Breslin) wonders why Emily's other purported husband Warren is so freaky, and why the cops come looking for her during the murder investigation.
This thinly veiled Psycho knock-off features plenty of low-key, casual exposition between its shocking opener and pretty mind-bending conclusion. While much more adult than some of Castle's other creep-fests, this thriller is still fairly mild. Yet it's never boring, thanks to gorgeous camera work and black-and-white photography, not to mention a group of excellent performances. Marshall (billed as Jean Arless) is so fragile and unhinged she seems constantly on the edge of insanity - it's a wonder why she's kept around. Breslin and Glenn Corbett as her paramour Karl anchor things nicely, while Eugenie Leontovich wrings as much as she possibly can from her doorknob and frightened face. However mystery hubby Warren is a true revelation, eerie, creepy and totally unsettling. Tame by today's standards, Homicidal still racks up a good amount of killer karma.
A young girl witnesses her mom hacking up husband and tramp with an axe. She really goes at it, too, hacking and hacking at the just off-screen bodies until you can't help but imagine the horrific results. Mom's sent to the nut-hatch, rehabilitating for 20 years before she's sent home to live with her now adult daughter. Of course bad, mysterious things start happening, and as heads begin to roll it seems mom might have been released a bit too soon. Castle asks the musical question: what do you do when you suspect your mom's an axe-murderer?
Another black-and-white feature of the killing kind, Strait-Jacket mixes some good with some bad. A whole lot of psychotronic melodrama shares space with an intrusive van Alexander score that telegraphs and contours every bit of onscreen action. Lots of dire, breathless activity surrounds crazy mom Joan Crawford, her fragile daughter, various men-folk and Crawford's psychiatrist - not all of it terribly compelling - while van Alexander's score swells and shudders at all the right places, actually just before the right places, to ensure you don't miss the point.
Yet there's Crawford herself, wrenching powerfully from mania to mania, with real-close-to-the-top brio. Just as she's throwing herself full-bore into histrionics, she'll suddenly break down in tragic vulnerability. She delivers blunt lessons in physicality too, heaving like a bellows in one scene; repeatedly puffing up to deliver an enraged screed, then deflating as her thought is spent - it's a B-Movie tour-de-force.
Occasionally van Alexander quiets down, until only rhythmic sounds of distant machinery remain, in the dark, as someone with an ax creeps up and chops someone's head off. These scenes, simple and brutal, don't sport the most advanced makeup effects, but their pulsing tension prefigures many much more famous sweat-baths (I'm looking at you Alien). Effective tension bolsters Castle's otherwise simple, economical direction. Beyond van Alexander's hyper-descriptive score, Strait-Jacket embellishes nothing, Castle coolly shows - never outlines - incidents from A to B. This relaxed, non-precious direction carries us easily from shock-scene to blow-up. On balance, Strait-Jacket is a definite B+ picture.
The Old Dark House:
Tom Poston stars in this, the only color feature in this collection. Playing a cool, dopey-cum-rakish bachelor, Poston's invited to the family home of his mysterious roommate. A Chas Addams-designed credits sequence sets the tone nicely for this horror-comedy populated by eccentric, cartoonish weirdos. Poston learns family members are bound to stay in the family home every night or risk losing their part of an inherited fortune - last one standing gets it all. Of course someone is intent on speeding up the process, and Poston's caught in the middle. Lucky for him there's a beautiful daughter to distract him between murders.
Hardly scary, this odd collaboration between Castle and Hammer Studios enjoys a nice mix of Hammer atmosphere and Castle's agreeable goofiness. Poston's the perfect foil for this cast of loonies, meeting their seemingly inbred British Isles obtuseness with a bit of clueless-American casualness. Though some murderous activity on display is nearly as amusing as intentional humor, it's not the point of the movie. Castle's top-notch cast presents the true raison d'etre, as they gallop merrily through each more-ridiculous-than-the-last set-up.
Sardonicus feels a bit like a very liberal interpretation of Beauty and the Beast, as the stately titular Baron, with his unwilling wife, lives in virtual exile due to extreme ugliness. The difference is the Baron, in his disturbing, nearly featureless mask, is a pretty nasty guy. Not only has his face been frozen in a hideous rictus because of greedy crimes against his family, but he's also not above using potentially deadly blackmail to set things right for himself.
Castle's gimmick this time around is the 'Punishment Poll', during which he stops the action, asking the audience to choose whether Sardonicus should get his comeuppance. It seems like a no-brainer, who wouldn't vote to punish the villain, right? Obviously the deck is stacked, as there's only one ending to the film, but Castle and Sardonicus essayer Guy Rolfe make it appear less simple. Sardonicus is imbued with enough class, sympathy and regard for his guests that it's not hard to feel sympathy for the frightening fool.
An overall serious tone and plenty of nice, gothic atmosphere overcome a bit of questionable pacing - the Baron's spooky visage is revealed too soon and shown too often, for instance - and some unintentional silliness. Or maybe it's just me, but sincerely delivered lines like "now that you're here, maybe the experimenting will stop?" can't help but make me chuckle. Still, such minimal missteps don't overshadow the overall eerie quality of Mr. Sardonicus.
Castle sets up The Tingler in one of his usual movie introductions, going as far as alerting the audience to the fact that some of them may get a tingly goose from their seats during scary parts of the movie. Possibly Castle's most outrageous gimmick, his in-theater 'tickler' was a little motor installed under select seats in various movie theaters; when action in the movie gets intense, the motor vibrates, giving viewers a wiggly thrill. As per his intro - and the premise of the movie - people; can best release their fear and tension by screaming, screaming, screaming! (We're then lead further in with a shrill montage of people letting it rip, as hopefully the audience will too.)
Actually pretty short on thrills and chills, The Tingler is best represented by that vibra-gimmick, some mild psychotic situations, and lead Vincent Price's performance. Absent any booty-goosing, we're left mostly with Price, who carries the show as a researcher into the physical causes of fear. He's discovered a spine-dwelling creature that grows when a person feels fear (hence the 'chills' up your spine). If not appeased by screams, the creature grows and grows, ultimately killing its host. Price meets a man with a deaf-mute wife, (can't scream when she's scared, don't you know) endures the ignominies of his ultra-hot, ultra-shrew-ish, trampy wife, and drops acid so he himself can feel real fear.
It all adds up to the big reveal - the Tingler itself revealed to wiggle around on the floor and chase after people. With at least one bona-fide jump-scare, The Tingler still glides by on both some other nifty ideas (blood-red hallucinations in an otherwise black-and-white movie, for instance) and also Price's excellent performance. With soothing tones he adds totally unmerited weight to goofy ideas he spouts, with suave dignity he strikes sparks while arguing with his wife, and even manages to make his tussles with the rubber tingler seem real. Castle's gung-ho showmanship is on full display (at least conceptually, since you're unlikely to wire your own couch for tingling) with The Tingler. It's too bad there aren't more serious scares, or a slightly more probable plot on which to hang the stunts, but by the grace of Vincent Price and plenty of crackpot situations, there's still a lot to like in The Tingler.
Not only is there no more fun a word to type and admire than 'zotz,' but also the inclusion of ZOTZ! in this collection (something many Castle fans were clamoring for) proves wrong those who think the showman is only good for horror gimmicks. A vaguely edgy, broad comedy starring deadpan everyman Tom Poston, this black-and-white feature follows a 'professor wore tennis shoes' vibe, as absent-minded professor Poston finds an ancient medallion that grants him magic powers.
The black-and-white feature chugs along under Castle's metronomic direction, and by metronomic, I mean smooth and solid, not boring. Poston breezes through any situation - scuffles with his boss, or a rival professor played by Jim Backus - with distracted aplomb, until he discovers special abilities which include injuring or killing with a point or a word. This slightly dark, cruel premise first founders through lengthy scenes of Poston testing his powers, (unfortunately his power-word utterances sound wrapped in marshmallows) and traipses around contrived set-ups before lining up quite a few laugh-out-loud gags, including a toupee attack at a posh party.
Meanwhile Poston romances a ravishing new professor (Julia Meade) and fights for a promotion. Subplots aside, ZOTZ! highlights Castle's other talent: backing up gimmicky hucksterism with assured, meat-and-potatoes direction. Style isn't on display, but smart pacing and the ability to keep performances just this side of excessive means ZOTZ! and the other pictures in this collection are all easy and pleasing, even when the subject matter is ridiculous.
All films come in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, and - though those movies with previous releases don't appear to be remastered - all of them look pretty good. Both the two color and six black-and-white features display minimal film damage and fully acceptable levels of film grain, especially for their age. Much of the black-and-white cinematography is creamy and gorgeous, with deep velvety blacks and striking shadow play. The color features display relatively vibrant hues - not too saturated, but naturalistic enough - and none of the movies suffer from much in the way of compression artifacts.
Dolby Digital Audio is uniformly good. These movies sound fresh, without hiss or decay. Screams and shock-cues are quite loud - especially during The Tingler and Strait-Jacket, but those ear-shattering blasts certainly display the healthy upper-register audio available. Otherwise, soundtrack music is consistently audible but not too loud - it never conflicts with dialog - even though some of it is a bit overbearing. Dynamics aren't terribly sophisticated, but authentic for movies of this vintage.
In addition to extras included with every movie, from simple theatrical trailers to original featurettes, a fifth disc presents Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story. Produced and directed by Jeffrey Schwarz and Terry Castle, this excellent, highly entertaining doc follows Castle's improbable life and times in Hollywood, utilizing plenty of stills, clips, and interview subjects like Leonard Maltin and John Landis. It's a bit sad to note that Castle felt somewhat hemmed in by his status as a B-movie helmer, but nice to admire his status as one of the best of that bunch. The Documentary also includes its own Commentary Track with Schwarz and Castle, which is just as entertaining and interesting as the doc itself. Each of the other four discs includes two movies, with extras:
13 Frightened Girls comes with: Original Theatrical Trailer, Original "British" Trailer Introduction, Original Candy Web Trailer, (Candy Web being the original title for the film) the Original Candy Web Opening and Closing Message from William Castle and Four International Alternate Openings. Each short extra is a bit like a tasty piece of candy in and of itself.
13 Ghosts includes the Original Theatrical Trailer and a fun 8-minute The Magic of Illusion-O featurette from the 2001 release DVD
Homicidal comes with Psychette: William Castle and Homicidal, a 7-minute featurette from the 2002 DVD release, and Homicidal Youngstown, Ohio Premier 5-minute featurette, much like a newsreel story, with Castle himself interviewing folks who've just seen the movie.
Strait-Jacket includes some extras from the 2002 DVD release, including Battle-Axe: The Making of Strait-Jacket, a 15-minute featurette, and three-minutes of Joan Crawford Wardrobe Tests, plus a quick Axe Test. TV Spots and a four-minute How To Plan A Movie Murder - Vintage Featurette, with the Original Theatrical Trailer round out these extras.
The Old Dark House comes with its Original Theatrical Trailer.
Mr. Sardonicus drags along from its 2002 DVD release the seven-minute Taking The Punishment Poll featurette, as well as "Ghost Story": Pilot (The New House) a creepy, color, 48-minute TV pilot scripted by Richard Matheson, that should please fans of TV horror. Lastly included is the Original Theatrical Trailer.
The Tingler comes with "Scream For Your Lives: William Castle And The Tingler", a 15-minute featurette, plus a curious, brief Alternate Drive-In Sequence and Original "Scream" Sequence - both of which are audio-only with a silly graphic. "Circle Of Fear": Graveyard Shift is 50-more minutes of televised terror incorrectly identified on the menu screen as being from 'Ghost Story'. Plus you get the Original Theatrical Trailer.
ZOTZ!, finally, comes with its own Original Theatrical Trailer.
With just three new-to-DVD features in this 5-disc, 8 feature collection, hardcore Castle fans won't find too much new to justify the $80 MSRP. Yet this collection, highlighting the relatively wide range of films Castle made for Columbia Pictures, includes nary a dud, plus a great documentary, and a fairly healthy selection of other extras. For those new to Castle, or those who don't have any of his films already on DVD, this could be a great Christmas gift, (tell your deep-pocketed friends and family) or an easy way to bolster your horror collection. All things being equal, this is a Highly Recommended (albeit somewhat expensive) addition for any true horror fan's collection.
- Kurt Dahlke
~ More of Dahlke's DVD Talk reviews here at DVD Talk I'm not just a writer, I paint colorful, modern abstracts, too! Check them out here KurtDahlke.com