Hell Plaza Oktoberfest III
Adam Jahnke - Main Page
|The William Castle Film Collection
1959-64 (2009) - Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Released on DVD on October 20th, 2009
Most movie fans my age and younger know William Castle only by reputation, if they are even aware of him at all. But for the generation of monster kids who came of age just before us, Castle was huge. A larger-than-life but approachable figure, Castle was one of the most brilliant showmen the motion picture industry ever produced. A William Castle picture promised more than just a movie. It was a communal event. He may not have made the best movies on the planet but they were some of the most fun.
Unfortunately, those self-same gimmicks that audiences loved so much are part of why the Cult of Castle hasn't grown much in recent years. Many of Castle's films were simply unavailable and those few that were released on DVD became different experiences at home. I don't care how state-of-the-art your home theater is, your seats aren't wired with Percepto buzzers. Hopefully, that will change with the release of The William Castle Film Collection, Sony's outstanding new 5-disc box set collecting eight of this neglected director's best work including several titles never before on disc. Let's go through this treasure trove disc by disc, movie by movie.
Disc 1 - 13 Frightened Girls
Despite the title, this 1963 comedy is not a horror picture. No, this is something much weirder. Contest winner Kathy Dunn stars as Candy Hull, daughter of an American diplomat. She attends a boarding school with twelve other diplomats' daughters, a veritable teen-age United Nations. Back in London on holiday, she comes into information that can save the career of Wally Sanders (Murray Hamilton), a spy she's had a crush on for years. Realizing that her access to various embassies makes her a perfect spy, she anonymously sends tips to Wally using the codename "Kitten". Kitten's wealth of knowledge strikes terror into the heart of the international intelligence community and it isn't long before Red China wants her dead.
This is a far cry from Castle's finest hour and yet, the Gidget Meets the Man From U.N.C.L.E. premise is so outlandish that it's impossible to look away. Castle's gimmick for 13 Frightened Girls was casting the Teenage Diplomats with winners of an international talent search. The disc includes alternate opening sequences from other markets (British, Swedish, French and German), each one spotlighting that country's winning girl. The opening sequence is already gratuitous in the American release and the alternates turn it into an even more hilarious non-sequitur. You also get the introduction to the British trailer, introducing UK winner Alexandra Bastedo, the American trailer, and a trailer and messages from Castle for a retitled version of the movie called The Candy Web. Quite honestly, 13 Frightened Girls is pretty bad. But for me, the movie was so utterly bizarre that it falls into the "so bad it's good" category. However, I completely understand if you think it's so bad, it's just plain bad. Film Rating: D+
Disc 1 - 13 Ghosts
Now this is more like it! Donald Woods stars as a paleontologist who inherits a haunted house from his eccentric ghost-collecting uncle, as well as the spirits inside including a decapitated lion tamer (and his lion!) and a cleaver-wielding chef named Emilio. Margaret Hamilton (the Wicked Witch of the West herself) is the creepy housekeeper and medium who informs the family that the thirteenth ghost will be one of them.
13 Ghosts is presented on disc in Illusion-O, a process with red-tinted ghosts appearing against a blue-tinted background. The set does not include a replica of one of the Ghost Viewers originally handed out to theatre patrons (a grievous oversight) but you can presumably make your own if you have a pair of red-and-blue 3D glasses lying around. The movie isn't the least bit frightening but it is loads of fun with ghost effects ranging from the silly to the sort of creepy. Extras include the original trailer and a featurette called The Magic of Illusion-O. Note that all of the interviews in the featurettes in this set are excerpted in documentary on disc five (more on that in a bit) but are still absolutely worth checking out on their own, as in many cases they feature extended or unseen interviews not in the documentary. Film Rating: B
Disc 2 - Homicidal
One of the strongest films in the set, Homicidal was Castle's attempt to one-up Hitchcock's Psycho, released a year earlier. And I'll be damned if he doesn't come awfully close to doing just that. Jean Arless stars as Emily, whom we first see checking into a hotel in Ventura, California, offering a bellboy two grand to marry her at midnight, no questions asked. He agrees but when the Justice of the Peace leans in to kiss the bride, Emily stabs him in the belly, savagely and repeatedly. She flees and goes back home to Solvang, where we learn that she's from Denmark and takes care of a mute, wheelchair-bound stroke victim, the mother of a popular local boy named Warren. Warren's half-sister Miriam doesn't like or trust Emily (obviously with good reason) and is suspicious of her claim that she and Warren got married before coming back to the States, even when Warren backs it up. And when the Ventura police start nosing around, Miriam and her boyfriend Karl decide it's high time to start checking into Emily's past.
For Homicidal, Castle thoughtfully included a "Fright Break" for the more lily-livered members of the audience. If you were afraid your heart couldn't stand the shocking climax (and it is pretty surprising, even today), you had 45 seconds to make your way to the "Coward's Corner" set up in the lobby. There, after everyone else in the auditorium had filed past and quite rightly made fun of you for being such a chicken-shit, your money would be cheerfully refunded. Gimmicks aside, Homicidal is a tight, well-crafted thriller, surprisingly graphic for its time. Extras include the featurette Psychette: William Castle and Homicidal, footage from the Youngstown, Ohio premiere with Castle interviewing members of the audience, and the trailer. Homicidal is a terrific, underrated movie long overdue for rediscovery. Film Rating: B+
Disc 2 - Strait-Jacket
Castle went relatively gimmick-free for 1964's Strait-Jacket, relying instead on star Joan Crawford (fresh from What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?) to draw the crowds. Working from a script by Robert Bloch, author of Psycho, Castle cast Crawford as Lucy Harbin, recently released from an asylum twenty years after killing her husband and his lover with an axe. She moves in with her brother and his wife to reconnect with Carol (Diane Baker), the daughter she barely knows. She isn't there long before her peculiar behavior makes the family wonder if her release wasn't a wee bit premature.
Strait-Jacket isn't exactly subtle or sophisticated but it works, thanks in large part to Crawford's committed (no pun intended) performance. She's given ample opportunity to chew the scenery with gusto and boy, does she ever. Whether she's lopping off heads with an axe or seducing her daughter's boyfriend, Crawford gives it everything she's got. Extras include the featurette Battle-Axe: The Making of Strait-Jacket, footage of Crawford's wardrobe tests, test axe footage (I'm dying to work the phrase "Joan Crawford Axe Test" into conversation), TV spots, the trailer and the hilarious vintage featurette, How to Plan a Movie Murder with Castle, Crawford and Bloch. Film Rating: B
Disc 3 - The Old Dark House
Castle teamed up with Hammer Films for this 1963 horror-comedy based on the novel by J.B. Priestley. Tom Poston stars as an American car salesman living in London. His flat-mate Caspar Femm invites him out to his ancestral home for the weekend but when he arrives, Caspar is dead. This leaves Poston stuck, surrounded by the bizarre Femm family, including gun-collecting Roderick (a very funny Robert Morley), the obsessively knitting Agatha, vampish cousin Morgana, and Uncle Petiphar, who has been building an ark and collecting animals in preparation for a second great flood. And wouldn't you know, it isn't long before the other Femms begin dropping like flies.
The Old Dark House is a light-hearted comedy in the vein of Haunted Honeymoon and Transylvania 6-5000. No gimmicks this time out, just silly fun, some of which works and some that fall flat. The cast is a lot of fun and it's worth noting the opening title sequence features original art by legendary cartoonist of the macabre Charles Addams. It certainly isn't a bad movie and its intended audience of young kids will probably get a kick out of it even now. But it doesn't have anything over the original 1935 version directed by James Whale. Whale's version is terrific. Castle's is simply an acceptable rainy-day movie. The disc includes the original trailer but no other extras. Film Rating: C+
Disc 3 - Mr. Sardonicus
I know several people who remember seeing Mr. Sardonicus as a kid and being utterly creeped out by it. I can see why. Ronald Lewis stars as a respected British doctor who has developed a successful technique for overcoming paralysis. He's summoned to a small country in Central Europe by an old flame who was forced into marriage by her father. Her husband, Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe), performs strange experiments on local girls and constantly wears a mask to hide his hideously deformed face, permanently stretched into a grotesque smile after defiling his father's grave. Sardonicus wants Sir Robert to cure him, even if it means resorting to exotic poisons.
Mr. Sardonicus doesn't exactly add up... I'm not sure that there's really much of a threat when somebody orders you to inject poison into his face but you'd better not kill him, or else! But the individual parts of the movie are a lot of freakish fun. Oscar Homolka is suitably threatening as Sardonicus's one-eyed servant, Krull, and the movie has plenty of creepy highlights, including torture with leeches and Sardonicus slurping gruel straight from the bowl. The gimmick this time out was the "Punishment Poll". Audience members were given a thumbs up/thumbs down poll and as the film winds down, Castle appears to ask if we think Sardonicus has suffered enough or if he deserves no mercy. Ostensibly there were two different endings but of course, nobody ever voted for him to live. Extras on this include the trailer, a featurette called Taking the Punishment Poll, and the complete pilot episode of the short-lived Castle-produced TV series Ghost Story from 1972. Sebastian Cabot hosts the anthology series and in this episode, The New House, Barbara Parkins and David Birney move into their new home, only to discover it was built on the site of an old gallows. Hauntings ensue. It's fun and carries a heavy Twilight Zone vibe, no surprise considering it was written by legendary Zone scribe Richard Matheson. Look fast for Castle making a cameo at the bar next to Cabot at the beginning of the show. Film Rating: B-
Disc 4 - The Tingler
One of Castle's best-loved films, The Tingler is goofy 50s horror at its best. Vincent Price is a pathologist obsessed with the physical effects of fear on the body. He discovers that intense fear creates an actual physical manifestation, a Tingler, on the spinal cord that can only be removed by screaming. He's able to remove a Tingler from the body of a deaf-mute woman but it proves to be just as nasty outside the body as it is inside.
The Tingler featured the legendary gimmick of Percepto. Select theatre seats were rigged with electric buzzers and, when the Tingler gets loose in the cinema, you'd get shocked if you had one of the lucky Percepto seats. Obviously the movie loses a little something when seen at home but it's still a lot of fun with Price injecting himself with LSD to provoke a fear reaction (a movie first) and a great sequence with a hand rising up out of a bathtub filled with blood (the blood is bright red in an otherwise black-and-white movie). Extras include the featurette Scream for Your Lives! William Castle and The Tingler, the trailer, an alternate Tingler sequence for drive-in exhibition, and another episode of Ghost Story (now under its second season title, Circle of Fear). The episode, Graveyard Shift, stars John Astin as a security guard at an abandoned movie studio harassed by a local gang, as well as the studio's ghosts. It's even better than The New House and Castle makes a nice cameo appearance as the studio chief. Film Rating: B+
Disc 4 - Zotz!
Tom Poston is back, this time as a professor of ancient languages who comes into possession of an ancient coin inscribed with the word "Zotz". The coin gives its owner three powers. If you point at someone while holding it, you cause that person sudden, severe pain. If you say "Zotz", you make them move in slow motion. And if you point AND say "Zotz", they die. Nobody believes him, of course, not even at the Pentagon when he volunteers his services as a human weapon. But a Communist spy overhears and does believe him, making him a target for the Russians.
Zotz! is like a slightly darker version of a live-action Disney comedy from the 60s. Imagine The Absent-Minded Professor if Fred MacMurray invented Flubber that could kill you and you get the general idea. The movie has a few laughs but doesn't really go anywhere with its novel premise. There's very little conflict and Poston is remarkably OK with the fact that he can kill people just by pointing at them. One of Castle's weaker efforts. The trailer is the only extra. Film Rating: C-
Disc 5 - Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story
If for some strange reason you remain immune to Castle's charms after watching his movies, this 2007 documentary will make you a believer. Director Jeffrey Schwarz creates a well-rounded video biography of Castle, showing us a boisterous, lively man whose love of showmanship was infectious. Schwarz speaks to family members, former colleagues and a who's who of notable Castle fans, including John Waters (who took a page from the Castle playbook with 1981's Polyester in Odorama), Joe Dante (director of the Castle-inspired Matinee), John Landis, Stuart Gordon and many, many more. This is a top-notch documentary, captivating, charming and great fun throughout. The disc also includes an audio commentary by Schwarz and Castle's daughter, Terry Castle, and their affection for the man carries over here. It's well worth a listen. Film Rating: A
All the movies in this set look and sound fantastic. Their age comes through only occasionally (as in the tinted sequences of 13 Ghosts) but generally, these are beautiful transfers. The William Castle Film Collection is one of the highlights of this year's Oktoberfest and a contender for one of my favorite DVD releases of the year. If you're looking for Halloween fun the whole family can enjoy, look no further. William Castle is ready to make you scream for your lives!
Film Rating: See Above
Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): A-/B/A
Adam Jahnke - Main Page