This post is in honor of the William Castle Blogathon being put on by The Last Drive-In. You can read other contributing pieces here.
Last Halloween, this 2007 documentary made my TCM Top 12. It may not be Halloween this month, but Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story is a documentary you shouldn’t wait till Halloween to see. The documentary is a loving tribute to the last great showman; a man who desperately wanted to be taken seriously, but settled for giving audiences scares. His gimmicks are legendary, and the intimate group interviewed about him have fond memories of actually watching Castle’s work. Whether you have a cursory background on the director, enjoy his movies, or want to hear his friends and family reminisce about him, this documentary has it all.
William Castle was a horror director primarily known for his horror classics: 13 Ghosts, Macabre, Homicidal, Straitjacket. He also had a flair for gimmickry such as allowing audiences to purchase life insurance policies in case people died of fright, or putting buzzers under seats to make them believe the creature was underneath them. His films have taken on a hokey, camp quality, but he was revolutionary for the time and has created a legacy as being the last director to truly engage with his audience in an interactive way. (I have to wonder how Castle would feel about YouTube and Facebook pages being prime marketing?) The documentary takes on a similar kitschy attitude with fun horror movie tinged music and “re-enactments” of key Castle moments.
The doc charts Castle’s life from birth to death, and I had zero knowledge about the man behind the gimmicks; in Spine Tingler! you learn about Castle the director and the family man. Orphaned at the age of eleven, Castle grew up yearning for applause and a family, which he gained by entering the theater and film industry. His sheer gumption is incredible, on par with Orson Welles (they would eventually work together on The Lady From Shanghai). Castle got his start as a line director, a role he believed involved directing people’s dialogue. He found himself, oddly enough, working on the Cary Grant film Penny Serenade, and at 22-years-old Castle yelled “Cut” and told Grant he was reading the dialogue wrong! This was completely unorthodox, and the interviewers claim that Castle was almost attacked by director George Stevens. It’s willpower like that shows you Castle knew what worked, and wasn’t afraid to do the inconceivable.
Castle was a jack-of-all-trades early in his career and directed everything from film noir to sword and sandal epics. Eventually, he discovered that audiences love horror and a legend was born. Separating Spine Tingler! from other docs is the love emanating from those interviewed. Leonard Maltin, John Landis, John Waters, and Castle’s daughter all revere the director. Several of them detail going to the movies as kids, and Maltin even holds up a Castle “ghost finder” he has. They all acknowledge that Castle’s gimmicks were a money-making device – “Give me your money-o!” – but they don’t care. Later on, members of Castle’s casts discuss behind-the-scenes stories and all of them are still grinning because of having worked for him. There’s no serious faces in this doc, and it’s refreshing to watch a bunch of people genuinely express love and respect for the man they’re talking about.
There is a dark turn towards the end, especially in detailing Castle’s frustration at being considered a discount Alfred Hitchcock. Castle desperately wanted to create an A-picture that would place him next to Hitchcock, and for various reasons things never worked out. He originally hoped to bring Lady From Shanghai to the screen, only to have it taken away and given to Orson Welles. (While Castle agreed that Welles was the better choice, he still felt bad.) When Castle got the chance to work on Rosemary’s Baby, he finally felt he’d arrived. He still lost the right to direct it, and eventually a series of casualties (including a massive decline in Castle’s health) had him believing the film was cursed.
Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story is a beautiful, honest tribute to a man who set out, and succeeded, in scaring audiences. The surprise on his daughter’s face at watching people continue to see his movies is a perfect capper to the picture; proof that Castle has become immortal through his work.
Interested in purchasing today’s film? If you use the handy link below a small portion will be donated to this site! Thanks!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.