Today we celebrate the centennial of the P. T. Barnum of motion pictures. If Alfred Hitchcock was the Master of Suspense, than William Castle was his B movie equivalent. While nowhere near as talented as Hitchcock, Castle made up for it in gimmickery.
Castle enhanced his low budget horror thrillers through the use of in theater gimmicks. Castle was lucky enough to make movies in the days before the multiplex; a movie theater would only show one movie and typically that theater would be the only one in town showing that film. So, Castle took advantage of this situation and was able to install gimmicks in the big city theaters that were showing his flicks. He financed his first film, Macabre, by mortgaging his house and then presented every filmgoer with a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London in the event that they should die while watching the film. Additionally, he had nurses on hand and placed hearses outside of the theater to drum up publicity. The film was a hit, and several other gimmicks followed:
- 1959’s House on Haunted Hill was allegedly filmed in “Emergo“, which meant that during the film’s climax, a plastic, glow in the dark skeleton floated over the audience’s head.
- For 1959’s The Tingler, which was filmed in “Percepto“, Castle rigged seats in the theater with buzzers to give audience members a tingling sensation.
- 1961’s Mr. Sardonicus featured a “punishment pole”. Towards the end of the film, Castle appeared onscreen and asked the audience to use the glow in the dark ballots they had been given upon admission to vote on whether or not the film’s villain should receive mercy. It’s said that no audience voted for mercy, precisely because Castle only filmed the “no mercy” ending.
Of course Castle’s gimmick masterpiece was for the movie Homicidal, released in 1961. Towards the end of the movie, the movie’s heroine made her way to a house in which a sadistic killer is lying in wait. At that moment a clock would appear on screen as a 45-second “fright break” during which patrons could leave the theater and receive a full refund. Unfortunately for Castle, several patrons who weren’t particularly keen on the film decided to get their money back. Other patrons simply sat through a second showing of the film and then got their money back.
This did not sit well with Castle, so he went over the top with the film’s gimmick: Now, if you wanted to get your money back, you had to walk down an aisle marked by yellow footprints to go to a yellow booth marked “Coward’s Corner”. All the while, a recording played saying “Watch the chicken! Watch him shiver in ‘Coward’s Corner’!” At Coward’s Corner, a nurse would administer a blood pressure test before the “cowardly” patron could sign a yellow card that simply read “I am a bona fide coward.” It was only then that a theater goer could get his money back.
So, let’s toast the King of Gimmicks with an appropriately spooky cocktail. The cocktail called Liquified Ghost sounds like it could be the name of a Castle gimmick, so it’s only appropriate that we drink this cocktail that’s kind of like a homemade (alcoholic) cream soda.
- 2 ounces Vodka
- 1 ounce vanilla simple syrup
- 1 ounce cream
- 2 ounces soda water
Shake all ingredients together with ice and then strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Tomorrow: One of rock and roll’s first great songwriters.