After television invaded the homes of America in the 1950’s, the movie community struck back offering films in unique fashions. There was “W-i-d-e-s-c-r-e-e-n”, where bigger was better. The introduction of “Stereophonic” sound added realism and splendor. And of course, 3D came out of the screen and put the audience into the picture. But in the late 50’s to early 60’s when some of these processes started to wane, someone was lurking with imagination and showmanship parallel to P.T. Baunum.
His name was William Castle.
His “gimmicks”, unlike other processes of the day, went beyond expanding the presentation of the film. Instead they offered the audience a piece of active, though limited, participation.
Similar to the movie MATINEE, with John Goodman, Castle was a producer who tested his gimmicks on an unsuspecting audience. And yes, Virginia, it really happened.
For his movie MACABRE, audiences were accually insured by Lloyds of London against death by fright. HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, staring Vincent Price, had a large glow-in-the-dark skeleton which was suspended by a wire and drifted over the audience. This technique was dubbed “EMERGO”. This film was also re-made in 1999.
“HOMICIDAL” featured a “Fright Break” in which the film was
stopped for 45 seconds. Although all of these “gimmicks” proved to be successful, Mr. Castle searched for the ultimate to be extremely successful. His ultimate “gotcha” was only a movie away.
THE TINGLER opened in October 1959 with the gimmick “Percepto”. In a nutshell, certain seats were wired with a slight electric charge, just enough to tingle the viewer. I attended a revival screening and was lucky to experience “Percepto” - it felt more like a seat buzzer than an electrical shock.
13 GHOSTS was Castle’s next film and was the first time the audience got to make a gimmick work themselves. A cardboard Ghost Viewer containing a red and blue cellophane window allowed the viewer to either see the ghosts or make tthem disappear. This process was known as “Illusion-O”.
By the time STRAIT-JAKET was released, Castle’s films had elevated in both story and star power, making the gimmick secondary. Thus the handing out of cardboard axes at each screening seemed more of a afterthought than an essential.
Supposedly I SAW WHAT YOU DID inspired a wave of prank phone calls by teen-agers at the time of the film’s release. Today with the aid of caller ID and forced
number identification it’s getting harder for teens to achieve the more simpler and cheaper thrills of not too long ago. Though I fear calling someone and stating, “I saw what you did, and I know who you are!”, could probably get you in more trouble today than in the year of the film’s release. I SAW WHAT YOU DID was re-made as a made for TV film in the early 80’s for CBS.
But how do these films stand up without their gimmicks now that they’ve been released on home video; in one format or another?
By today’s standards these films are campy and melodramatic, but it is amazing how much was achieved with so little. They are, in a sense, a time capsule of anouther time... when a scream suggested a horror too horrible for the eyes to see, and when going to the movies meant having the time of your life. So gather your friends, hand out some cardboard axes and scream for you life, because even on DVD, William will prove to you that he is still the king of the Castle.
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