It’s difficult to watch Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story without a smile. A documentary traversing the career of a legendary producer and renowned architect of moviegoing gimmicks, the feature takes viewers back to premium era of theatrical exhibition, where a cigar-chomping man could make a splash dreaming up ways to deceive his audience, creating a sensation everywhere he went. Though lacking a truly in-depth analysis of Castle’s private life, the doc achieves a distinct tone of nostalgia, goosed by interviews from an impressive assortment of admirers and employees, generating an affectionate atmosphere befitting a man who loved to entertain.
Born William Schloss in 1914, Castle grew up with a deep desire for attention. Orphaned at a young age, Castle developed an incredible sense of self-reliance, sharpening his gift for theatricality on Broadway and soon Hollywood, educated in the ways of the business under the likes of Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn and fellow director Orson Welles. Developing a knack for quickie productions, Castle turned his focus to promotional gimmicks as a way to lure audiences into theaters and to command the attention of the press. Starting with Macabre! in 1958, Castle commenced a run of low-budget hits, using his natural charisma and imagination for shock value to help develop himself into a brand name — a label that ultimately came to stymie his efforts to achieve industry legitimacy.
Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, Spine Tingler! is a giddy collection of memories and footage, centered on the natural appeal of Castle and his efforts to turn that charm into a brand. A born showman with ballyhoo running through his veins, Castle strove to funnel his filmmaking drive into his own industry, creating a series of pictures beloved for their campy appeal and attention-grabbing promotion, making Castle a jovial figure of dime-store magic to a legion of pre-teens who heartily devoured every release.
With terms such as “Emergo,” “Percepto,” and “Illusion-O,” Castle created bedlam wherever his pictures played, deploying seat-buzzers, flying skeletons, and cellophane viewers to keep his audience alert. The gimmicks were the only attraction in some cases, making the experience of watching a William Castle production more entertaining than the film itself. However, a few cult classics were released, including House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, and The Tingler, with Castle developing fruitful relationships with screen legends such as Vincent Price.
Schwarz permits a few moments with each of the famous productions, exploring the imagination and effort that went into the gimmicks, with Castle constantly looking to outdo himself, eventually meeting his match in Joan Crawford, the high-maintenance star of 1964’s Strait-Jacket. The movies are the centerpiece of the documentary, offering interviews with the likes of Jon Landis, Joe Dante (who would go on to recreate the Castle years in his 1993’s film, Matinee), and John Waters, who fondly recall the filmmaker and the aura of anticipation that surrounded his releases. There’s even a segment devoted to Hitchcock, who many suggest “borrowed” from Castle to help hype the release of Psycho. A competitive Castle returned fire with 1961’s Homicidal, a gender-bending terror picture that offered the easily spooked a “Fright Break” near the climax, permitting cowards a chance to get their money back while subjected to a Castle-approved sequence of humiliations.
Spine Tingler! also supplies a moderate discussion of Castle’s off-screen life, with daughter Terry Castle discussing her experience living with such a driven yet loving man. While embracing his place as a ringmaster of schlock, Castle was also fiercely protective of his family, leaning on his loved ones when his box office fortunes began to sour in the late 1960s.
Spine Tingler! is offered in a non-anamorphic presentation (1.85:1 aspect ratio), which is an immediate disappointment in this day and age of HD displays. The feature itself looks in proper shape, with a pleasing read of colors, most of which are artificially boosted to create a graphic look for the film, singling out Castle’s presence in photographs. Interview sequences and period footage is properly blended, with little in the way of digital hiccups, outside of some moderate banding issues and moments of EE.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix is a straightforward read of documentary highlights, keeping a tight hold on interview segments, which sound crisp and clean, with verbal information always easily understood. Scoring cues are fresh, offering a light dimensional experience, though most of the film remains frontal, staying alert but subdued. A 2.0 track is also available.
Subtitles are not offered.
The feature-length audio commentary with Jeffrey Schwarz and Terry Castle (recorded in 2008) creates an intimate feel for the creation of the picture. Schwarz, a DVD production wizard, is well aware of what a strong commentary requires, submitting a chatty effort that playfully bounces off Castle, who provides a more domestic view of the subject, while prodding the filmmaker for anecdotes. The information is served up swiftly, from documentary origins to William Castle history, but the track stays focused and amusing, highlighting two people extremely excited with this commentary opportunity.
A second commentary with Jeffrey Schwarz, editor Philip Harrison, composer Michael Cudahy, and graphic designer Grant Nellesson is provided, with “special guests” Vince Rotolo, Arthur Knight, and William Castle himself. It’s an edited conversation, merging filmmakers and interviewers into a single stream of thought, discussing personal history and technical challenges. It’s a tight track, though perhaps reserved only for die-hard fans of the documentary.
Larger than Life (8:06) returns to Schwarz, who tracks the development and production of the documentary, soon exploring other members of the filmmaking squad.
Interview Outtakes (74:14) elongates every point made in the film, offering further insight and anecdotes from the charismatic interviewees. Of special interest is an appearance from producer Joel Silver, who assisted in the remakes of “House on Haunted Hill” and “13 Ghosts.”
Questions and Answers covers interviews at the Alex Theater with Bob Burns (5:04), Darryl Hickman (6:16), and Terry Castle (2:05), and an AFI Fest session with Schwarz and Castle from 2007 (10:04).
From the Vault supplies premiere footage from “The Tingler” (:33), captures Castle at the USA Film Festival (:38), and offers a superb 1975 audio interview (87:45) with the maestro, recorded at a USC cinema class.
Ballyhooing submits Indie Express interviews with Schwarz and Terry Castle (26:19) and red carpet interviews (8:04), a Mountain View interview with Schwarz (9:13), a Doc Talk conversation (5:40), and a Dread Central audio interview (19:35).
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
Though Castle made an indelible mark on Hollywood with the development and production of the blockbuster Rosemary’s Baby, the filmmaker couldn’t build on his fortunes, again returning to gimmicks in the 1970s with features such as Bug. In lesser hands, the inevitable decline of health and success would traditionally be treated with pained expressions of loss. Schwarz instead elects to celebrate Castle for his myriad of accomplishments, using the screen time to help reinforce his lively legacy. Spine Tingler! is a kind picture, but more importantly, it shines needed light on a man in love with cinema, using his dedication to exaggeration to keep audiences screaming for more.