Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (Slamdance

In an age filled with remake after remake, now’s the time to start going back in time and checking out the films that are being ripped off today. If you’ve already seen the Universal classics like FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, or have already gazed your eyes upon the classic NOSFERATU, then maybe it’s time to educate yourself about the legendary William Castle, who took cinema to a whole new level. You might think Walt Disney World was the first place to get interactive with films (HONEY I SHRUNK THE AUDIENCE), but Castle was the originator. In the documentary SPINE TINGLER! THE WILLIAM CASTLE STORY filmmaker (and fan) Jeffrey Schwarz will help transport you to a world where going to the theater more than just an afternoon killer, it was an event.

In short, the film is a chronicle of the last great American showman, filmmaker William Castle, a master of ballyhoo who became a brand name in movie horror with his outrageous audience participation gimmicks.

Most documentaries are either created just for the money (like Starz’s BLOODSUCKING CINEMA) or by people who get lost on what point they’re trying to get across. Schwarz’s SPINE TINGLER! Is extremely focused and fabulously entertaining. He begins his tale by giving us a brief history of William Castle and where he comes from, which eventually translates into WHY he clings so desperately to the gimmicks in his films. This is an important arch that carries over and ties everything together.

The main focus on the doc is when Castle breaks into Hollywood with his first hit MACABRE, where a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London was given to each customer in case he/she should die of fright during the film. In addition, showings also had ushers dressed in surgical garb with ambulances outside theater (source: wikipedia). The story then follows Castle through the success of his other gimmicks for the films 13 GHOSTS, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, THE TINGLER and HOMICIDAL, and how he successfully branded his name. When you saw William Castle on the movie poster or in the trailer you knew exactly what you were going to get.

This is where most filmmakers would have ended the story; only Schwarz is just getting started. He dives into how big time directors like Alfred Hitchcock were inspired by Castle’s success. He spends a short portion of the film talking about Hitchcock’s PSYCHO and Castle’s (rip-off or homage?) HOMICIDAL. He takes some time to really focus on Castle’s emotions and where he was at this point in his career, was he jealous of the success of PSYCHO?

Even further he gets into how Castle signed a picture deal with Paramount Pictures and eventually spawned ROSEMARY’S BABY, which he desperately wanted to direct. When the film was a success it killed him that he didn’t get credit he wanted.

What’s so sad – and yet uplifting – about SPINE TINGLER! is where Castle ends up after the success of ROSEMARY’S BABY. He goes back to his roots and eventually fades out. It almost makes you cry to see the devastating finale to his successful career. But before the movie ends Schwarz reminds us about how much of an impact Castle has had on Hollywood and how his films still play to audiences in special screenings. It’s uplifting, warm and leaves you with a smile.

Schwarz also limits the use of ‘talking heads’ and really gives us a visual representation of what the theatergoers got to see back in the ’50 and ‘60s. The doc is loaded with photos from William Castle’s life and plenty of stories that give charm to not only Castle himself, but also the film. SPINE TINGLER! is the definitive William Castle story that will never be topped, I’m proud to put my stamp of approval on this classic doc.

Note: The film won the audience award for documentary at AFI Fest 2007, and will be screening at the Slamdance Film Festival this January

Official Score