The St. Louis Globe-Democrat is a monthly newspaper run by Steve DeBellis, a well know St. Louis historian, and it’s the largest one-man newspaper in the world. The concept of The Globe is that there is an old historic headline, then all the articles in that issue are written as though it’s the year that the headline is from. It’s an unusual concept but the paper is now in its 27th successful year! Steve and I collaborated in 2011 on an all-Vincent Price issue of The Globe and he has asked me to write a regular monthly movie-related column. Since there is no on-line version of The Globe, I will be posting all of my articles here at We Are Movie Geeks. Since this month’s St. Louis Globe-Democrat is written as if it’s 1959, I decided to write about two of my favoririte films from that year: HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL and THE TINGLER, both starring Vincent Price and directed by William Castle.
Like a carny working his tent at the county fair, movie director William Castle is back to hustle movie audiences with his unique brand of parlor tricks. In February, audiences were terrified by Castle’s HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL which featured ‘Emergo’, a hokey gimmick where a life-sized plastic skeleton sailed over the audience’s heads. That film was a huge success and now Castle, along with his HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL star Vincent Price, have brought their bag of tricks back for THE TINGLER, another funhouse horror ride. THE TINGLER follows pathologist Warren Chapin (Price) as he searches for the cause of a series of suspicious deaths and discovers that the victims have a large insect-like creature growing on their spinal cords. Chapin’s theory is that the creature, known as a ‘Tingler’, is suppressed by one’s ability to scream when fear strikes. He gets a chance to test his theories when he meets Ollie and Martha Higgins, who own and operate a movie theater. Martha is deaf and mute and if she is unable to scream, extreme fear should make the creature come to life and grow. To help with his experiments, Chapin uses a hallucinogenic drug known as LSD to induce nightmares and tempt the Tingler.
THE TINGLER opens with shrieking disembodied heads soaring toward the camera as if to announce the film’s goal: to make the audience scream their heads off! William Castle, with his trademark cigar and wry smile, shows up in prologue, warning the audience that they will be terrified watching his film and advising that what they’re about to see can kill them. The only defense is to scream, instructs Castle, who encouraged audiences to react by creating a climax that takes place in a darkened theater and using a single sequence of blood-curdling color for maximum effect. All of this is a set up for the filmmaker’s latest gimmick, one he’s coined ‘Percepto’. A small motorized buzzer is fitted to selected seats to give viewers a mild jolt and likely make them cry out, thus prompting the rest of the audience to do the same (Castle bought thousands of the tiny motors from a military surplus supplier. They were originally designed to prevent ice formation on the wings of jet planes). Percepto is carefully timed to a key scene where the Tingler crawls across the projector lens just before the screen goes black and the distinct voice of Vincent Price warns audiences not to panic “Scream – Scream for your lives!”
William Castle has been toiling around Hollywood for close to twenty years but concocted his winning gimmick formula last year with the 40th film he directed, the horror hit MACABRE. For that film, Castle issued an insurance policy backed by Lloyds of London covering audience members in case of “death by fright”. No one actually died, of course, but it made for great publicity and the film, thanks in part to its offbeat ballyhoo, was a box-office smash. He convinced Vincent Price to star in his follow-up, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. Price is from St. Louis, the son of Vincent Leonard Price, Sr., president of the now-defunct National Candy Company on Gravois. Price grew up on Forsyth and attended Country Day prep school here. He’s been making a name for himself as of late in these horror roles, beginning in 1953 with HOUSE OF WAX and having followed that up with THE MAD MAGICIAN (1953) and THE FLY (1958).
In HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL Vincent Price played Frederick Loren, an eccentric millionaire who offers a $10,000 reward to anyone who can survive one night in a tomblike mansion that was once the site of several murders. The greedy guests are soon subjected to skeletal apparitions, blood dripping from the ceiling, a severed head, and a vat of acid in the cellar. HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL was filmed mostly at Allied Artists studios though some of the exteriors were shot at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis Brown House on Los Feliz, built in 1924 during the architect’s Egyptian period.
HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL captivates and terrifies the viewer from the very beginning with eerie introductions from protagonists Frederick Loren and the nervous Watson Pritchard (Elisha Cook). The original music, including a Haunted Hill theme by Richard Kayne and Richard Loring, contributes to the atmosphere but there’s no doubt Castle’s gimmick ‘Emergo’ helped the film make its 4 million dollars (on a mere two hundred thousand dollar budget). When a skeleton rose from an acid vat in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, a lighted plastic skeleton on a wire appeared from a black box next to the screen to swoop over the heads of the audience. The skeleton would then be pulled back into the box as the skeleton in the film is “reeled in”. Many theaters soon stopped using this prop because when local boys heard about it, they brought slingshots to the theater. When the skeleton started its descent, they would whip out their slingshots and pelt it with rocks and marbles. Now with THE TINGLER and ‘Percepto’, William Castle has to be crowned the P. T. Barnum of Hollywood schlock and it should be interesting to see what gimmick he has up his sleeve for his next film.
While there is no doubt that he could helm an effective B-movie thriller, William Castle was ultimately more famous as a huckster than an artist. Discussion of his work usually begins and ends with references to the gimmicks that he used to promote his films and Castle would indeed go on to launch a new gimmick with most of his succeeding horror movies. 13 GHOSTS (1960) introduced “Illusion-O” where audience members were given the “Ghost Viewer” (a blue and red cellophane viewing frame). Looking through the red filter let you see the ghosts and the blue filter removed them from the screen. Castle’s gender-bending slasher film HOMICIDAL (1961) featured “The Fright Break!” with a timer overlaid on the film’s climax that gave audiences the chance to leave and receive a full refund if they couldn’t handle the horror. But first they had to follow the glow-in-the-dark footprints on the floor and walk over to the “Coward’s Corner” to be awarded the “Coward’s Certificate”.
The “Punishment Poll” gave the audience of MR. SARDONICUS (1961) the opportunity to decide the fate of the film’s titular villain. It was a glow-in –the- dark card with a thumb printed on it. Thumbs up meant the ending would be a happy one for the evil Mr. Sardonicus. Thumbs down would lead to his ultimate demise though apparently the “mercy” ending was never filmed. For ZOTZ (1962) plastic coins like the magic one in the film, were given to ticket buyers and audience members of STRAIGHT-JACKET (1964) were given plastic bloody axes similar to the one wielded by Joan Crawford. In I SAW WHAT YOU DID (1965) “Shock Sections” were installed in theaters with seat belts to keep patrons from being jolted from their chairs in fright. Castle was a showman’s showman and took to personally promoting and introducing his films, just like Hitchcock was doing on television at the time. He was known to plant audience members who would run screaming in terror from the theater during his film. He would park hearses in front of cinemas and put fake nurses in the lobby to treat anyone whose heart was strained from all of the horror. After a long career, Castle, whose 1976 autobiography was titled ‘Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants off America’ died of a heart attack on May 31, 1977 in Los Angeles, California.