I’d like to tell you about the movies of a man that you probably haven’t heard about, movies you’ll probably never watch. Before giving him any actual introduction I think it’s best to start by showing you the picture from the top of his Wikipedia page.
This is William Castle, born William Schloss Jr. He was born in 1914 in New York City and died in 1977 in Los Angeles. By the end of his life, he was married to Ellen Falck and had two children, one of which, Terry Castle, is a filmmaker in her own right who is still working today. The reason I wanted to get the Wikipedia information out of the way is so we can focus on the things that William Castle probably would have wanted us to focus on in this picture; the giant fake cockroach on his arm and the smile on his face. Castle was, by all accounts, a very nice man. His children loved him, friends spoke highly of him, and he was apparently a fun guy to hang out with. He led an interesting life filled with hair-brained schemes and a goofy sense of adventure.
We’re not going to talk about any of that, not because it’s not important, but because that’s what everyone always talks about when it comes to William Castle. I don’t blame them, he was a really interesting guy. The man frequently overshadows the movies, which is a shame, because those movies are endlessly fascinating and entertaining.
Castle directed 56 feature films in his life, many quick and cheap noir and western films. In 1958 he struck out on his own and produced his first independent feature, Macabre, and so began a string of horror films that ranged all over in style, subject matter, and level of taste. Not to discredit his earlier works, but I would argue that the period from 1958 to 1965 was Castle’s golden years, where he had complete creative control and unique filmic visions he wanted to bring about.
I’m going to use Macabre as, essentially, an example, because it really does show off what Castle cared about and did best in his films. To start though, we have to talk about why Castle was famous in the first place and why I felt like writing about him to begin with.
Every person who went and saw Macabre was given a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy with the British insurance market Lloyd’s of London (that’s a little over $10,000 in today’s money). The policy was real, but since nobody died of fright during the movie Castle never had to pay. Castle also hired actors dressed as nurses to stand in theater lobbies and paid for hearses to be parked nearby showings. At the film’s premiere, he even had himself wheeled inside a coffin in front of the audience. These marketing gimmicks are what made Castle famous and are probably what made his films successful. They are also, as big fans of Castle’s movies, extremely frustrated, because they’re all anyone ever talks about.
Castle has been described by writers more talented and knowledgeable than me as a showman first and a filmmaker second, which may be true, but having watched a large body of his work I think it does him a discredit to dismiss the artistry of his films and base his success solely on the gimmicks.
Macabre is, for example, a good thriller. It has genuinely fun twists and turns, it’s got a nice spooky atmosphere, and at 72 minutes it gets in and gets out before there’s time to get bored. It’s clearly Castle’s first independent film and he doesn’t have the mastery of character and camp he soon achieved, but like all the rest of his golden years work it’s the perfect kind of spooky film to watch on a dark night during a rainstorm. It’s not going to leave you shaking after you finish watching it, but it’s not trying to. It’s mostly just a fun, goofy time.
Because Castle knew what he was doing. He was an artist, not just a showman. The man deserves to have his work watched with the kind of respect that any other film would get, not as a vehicle for a gimmick, but as a story that was told with intention.
I led this by saying that you would probably never watch one of Castle’s films. That’s no discredit to you, old movies are hard to watch sometimes. They seem ridiculous, like they’re trying to achieve something that modern movies have achieved, but that they didn’t know how to yet. I ask you now, please, to give Macabre a try. It’s easy to find online, it’s short, if you want to rent it legally it’s very cheap. Give it a try and watch it knowing that a man didn’t fail at making something scary, but that he succeeded at making something fun. Because that’s all William Castle really ever wanted to do.