6 (Non-3D) Movie Gimmicks from The Warped Mind of William Castle

By  · Published on July 28th, 2011

Most cynical internet denizens will tell you that the resurgence of 3D is a mere gimmick, meant to drag more people to theaters and jack up ticket prices. (I am one of those cynical people.) Average movie-goers seem to be agreeing, with a resounding “I paid five bucks extra for this crap? I could have had nachos!”

3D has come and gone throughout film history, and each time we come to the same general conclusion: We kinda don’t like it. Until we have some kind of full immersion films (and would they even be films at that point?) we’ll probably never be satisfied.

When 3D movies fell apart the first time, Hollywood just went back to doing what they had been doing before the 3D boom: Trying to make good movies. One man was not satisfied, though. William Castle, director and producer of ridiculous B-movies, had a vision. He wanted to make every single one of his films into a spectacle event (much to the annoyance of theaters that booked his movies) that drew the masses to the cinema for the experience. Here are six of his most notorious gimmicks.

6. Life Insurance Policies for the Audience

Castle’s 1958 film, Macabre, features a man trying to find his daughter, who has been buried alive, before she suffocates. You may have seen this exact same plot in 90% of horror movies and in at least one episode of every TV show ever, and it was about as thrilling then as it is now. That didn’t stop Castle from laying it on thick in the movie’s promotion though.

Every audience member was given an insurance certificate from Lloyd’s of London guaranteeing a $1,000 payout if they “died of fright.” (Now you’re lucky to get a box of Red Vines at the movies for $1,000.) Of course, according to the trailer, it didn’t cover people with heart conditions or suicides. Really? What kind of movie were they preparing these people for? “Fuck walking out, honey. I’m just gonna kill myself. Tell the kids I love them!”

5. Emergo!

House on Haunted Hill, starring the ever-awesome Vincent Price, is one of the classics of the B-horror genre. Five people are invited to Vinnie’s big, fancy mansion and offered $10,000 if they can stay the night. Of course, it’s really all a big, overly-complicated scheme to catch his wife and her lover trying to kill him or something, because apparently that’s how people settle infidelity disputes in William Castle Land.

Toward the end of the movie, there’s this way schlocky scene where Vincent Price’s character uses a fake skeleton on puppet strings to make it chase his wife into a vat of acid. Seriously. That actually happens. Watch it if you don’t believe me. The “Emergo!” part came during this scene, where the skeleton slowly shambles toward the doomed woman. In some theaters, Castle had rigging installed that would hoist an inflatable, glow-in-the-dark skeleton above the audience. Because that apparently scared people over the age of five in 1959.

4. Percepto!

After the success of House on Haunted Hill, Castle followed up with another Vincent Price-led film called The Tingler, which sounds more like a really terrible wrestler than anything frightening. Note that the trailer even says “Guarantee: The Tingler will break loose in the theater while YOU are in the audience.” So, you know, if you really want to sell stuff, promise your customers that terrible things will happen to them if they buy your product. The ad writer probably followed that up with, “Guarantee: An elephant will break loose and fuck you while YOU are at the zoo.”

In the film, Price plays a doctor who discovers a parasite that lives in every human’s spine and feeds on fear, which he calls a Tingler. If the host doesn’t scream, the Tingler will kill them. One of Vincent Price’s buddies, whose wife is deaf and mute, uses this to his advantage and kills her… because, again, William Castle apparently had a rough childhood. Vincent Price extracts the Tingler from her corpse, which later escapes his lab and gets loose in a crowded movie theater. At this point, the screen was meant to go black and a voice would announce that the Tingler is loose in the theater the audience is in, and would encourage everyone in the theater to scream and try to kill it. Some seats would even vibrate, thanks to surplus airplane de-icers that Castle must have picked up on the cheap. When the audience had “subdued” the Tingler, the movie resumed. That’s it. Why’s it called Percepto? Because making your ass buzz is what it takes to make you perceive that you should have sat somewhere else, I guess.

3. Illusion-O

For William Castle’s next film, 13 Ghosts, he used a gimmick inspired by 3D movies that he called “Illusion-O,” which sounds like the worst stage magician name ever. With Illusion-O, each audience member was given a cardboard viewer that resembled red/blue 3D glasses.

The idea behind Illusion-O was that the ghosts showed up throughout the film in blue. Therefore, if you were a huge wuss, you could look through the blue side of the viewer and you wouldn’t be able to see the ghosts. If you looked through the red side, the ghosts showed up more strongly. And if you tossed your Illusion-O in the garbage on the way in, well, you could see the ghosts fairly easily without the stupid thing anyway.

2. The Fright Break

In 1961, William Castle released Homicidal, which was essentially a Psycho knock-off. A woman and her brother have to deal with the brother’s crazy wife. The big marketing piece for this film was what Castle called “the fright break.” At the film’s climax, the movie paused for 45 seconds to allow any patrons who were too scared to watch the rest of the film a chance to get a full refund. Well hey! What a nice guy! (I guess he didn’t account for people who just thought the movie sucked.) Except if you did take the refund, you had to walk to a “Coward’s Corner” in front of the whole audience, who were encouraged to laugh at your pansy ass the whole way.

Another big part of the marketing was Castle going around in ads for the film and making people promise not to give away the film’s big surprise. Before the 1960s, it was totally customary for people to spoil movies to their friends. (Now we have ubiquitous access to just about any information you could want and it’s a cardinal sin to do so.) For this film, Castle specifically disallowed people to be seated in the theater 15 minutes before the twist ending. Even in the trailers, Castle says that if you spoil the movie, your friends will kill you, which is pretty messed up. Then he smiles, points directly at the camera, and says “…and if they don’t, I will.” Holy shit, man. That’s like Mickey D’s telling customers that if they reveal what the special sauce is, they’re gonna get Ronald McDonald’s clown shoe up their ass. (Note that I am specifically not spoiling the film for you because I don’t want some sort of zombie William Castle crashing through my door later.)

1. The Punishment Poll

Later in 1961, Castle released Mr. Sardonicus, an 1800s period piece about a man who tries to rob his dad’s grave for a lottery ticket and ends up horribly disfigured as a result. You see, he’s given the face of his father’s badly decayed corpse (despite the fact that his father’s been dead for only a few days at that point, so maybe his dad looked like Hugh Hefner before he died or something). Like Homicidal, one of the promotional techniques Castle used was to conceal much of the plot. More specifically, the face of Mr. Sardonicus isn’t show in any of the promotional material. Ostensibly, it’s to not terrify people, but come on, how bad can the guy look?

Holy shit! It’s like an Enzyte commercial on shrooms. Apparently he decided not to screw around on the whole “horror” thing this time.

The film’s audience participation gimmick was in the form of placards handed out to the audience before the film started. Each featured a glow-in-the-dark thumbs-up or thumbs-down, which the audience held up in the direction of the projector booth at the end of the movie to “decide” Mr. Sardonicus’s fate. Reportedly, two endings were shot – one in which Mr. Sardonicus was given a cruel fate and another in which he was cured of his disfigurement. Legend states that the merciful ending was never shown because the audience always voted for the punishment ending (it doesn’t help that William Castle, in full period garb, emphasizes how Sardonicus should “suffer… and suffer… and suffer.” To be fair, movie theater audiences can be kinda full of huge bastards).

In reality, though, the reel doesn’t change between the poll and the ending scene, so it’s almost certain that no alternate ending was shot, and no one has found any footage from one to this day. So, really,William Castle was just a huge cynic who thought that humanity loves to be horrible and judgmental. What a guy!

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