Thursday, September 8, 2011

A William Castle Double Feature: The Tingler and Mr. Sardonicus- An Undertaker Is Standing By In Case You Die Of Fright!

William Castle and his signature stogie!
How can you not love this face?  William Castle, director extraordinaire -- not that his movies are masterpieces for the ages, but that they are just so much fun!  He has been responsible for some of the best movie nights of my young life.  Actually, to this day, if I see that 13 Ghosts or House on Haunted Hill are to be shown on Channel 4 Friday Macabre Theatre, I instantly start rearranging my social schedule so that I will be in front of the screen precisely at the stroke of the hour.  I always wish I had a pair of the special glasses handed out in theatres for 13 Ghosts so I could see the ghosts clearly, and certainly wish a skeleton would whoosh over my head as Castle rigged up for certain theatres showings of House on Haunted Hill.

That was Castle, guru of gimmicks, who could make even bad movies fun with his shenanigans.  Most of his low-budget horror movies were pretty darn good, though, in my eyes.  Two of my special favorites, besides the ones I already mentioned, are the double feature I have created for myself, and will enjoy at home with my own DVDs this weekend.  The movies:  Mr. Sardonicus and The Tingler.

The Tingler (1959) starred my favorite scary movie master, Vincent Price.  Price plays Dr. Warren Chapin, a pathologist who is convinced that people can die of fright because of an actual creature that forms in their body when they are terrified.  I don't know how he got that idea, but it makes for a great movie.  The Tingler has the honor to be the first movie in which a character uses LSD (still legal in 1959) to try to induce hallucinations.  Price was joined in the movie by Judith Evelyn, playing an easily-frightened deaf-mute (you may remember her as Miss Lonelyhearts in Hitchcock's Rear Window); Patricia Cutts as Isabel, Price's lovely and unfaithful wife; Phillip Coolidge as Ollie, the deaf-mute woman's suspect husband; and Darryl Hickman, who received almost no pay because Castle convinced him that being in the movie at all would enhance Hickman's career.  (Castle was obviously a man of many talents -- one can see him standing at the back of a covered wagon selling Dr. Castle's Miracle Elixir.)

Vincent!  LSD?  Wow, the colors!
The gimmick for The Tingler was called Percepto, by which some members of the audience would feel tingling when the Tingler was near.  Most fans think that Castle had certain theatre seats wired for low-level electricity, but that was not the case.  Selected seats had World War II surplus vibrating buzzers placed under them, and at certain times during the movie, the projectionist would set them off.  Castle also would plant fake audience members to start the screaming when appropriate.  One really fascinating part of the movie is the famous bloody red bathtub scene.  The movie is black and white, and in order to create the scene of red blood in a bathtub, Castle used color film, then had the set painted in white, black and grey, and had actress Judith Evelyn wear grey makeup.  It is a startling effect.

Like Hitchcock, Castle liked to appear in his own movies, and his scenes are the ones I look forward to the most.  Because only Castle can really showcase Castle, I'm providing here the funny prologue Castle filmed of himself explaining what might happen to certain audience members during the showing of The Tingler:

The second film of my double feature is just about my favorite -- Mr. Sardonicus (1961).  A very strange, Gothic tale of horror, it stars Guy Rolfe as the main character; Oskar Homolka as his manservant Krull (Krull? What kind of name is that for an Eastern European butler?); Ronald Lewis as Dr. Robert Cargrave; Audrey Dalton as Mr. Sardonicus' unfortunate wife Maude; and various lusty, busty maidens.  Who is that mysterious masked man?  Why is his wife so afraid of him?  What does he do with the bevy of village maidens invited to the lower level of his skull-shaped castle by the one-eyed Krull?  We do know that Mr. Sardonicus has hired Dr. Cargrave to help him with a facial problem.  I can say no more except to tell you that finding out Mr. Sardonicus' secret is the best part of the movie!  And the moral of the movie is -- don't play the lottery!

Mr. Sardonicus wearing his special mask
Castle's special gimmick for this one was the Punishment Poll.  Audience members were handed glow-in-the-dark cards as they entered the theatre.  Each card could be turned to show a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.  Just before the last scene of the movie, Castle comes on-screen and explains that it is completely up to the audience to decide the ultimate fate of Mr. Sardonicus by holding up their cards while he counts them.  The truth is that Castle only filmed one ending, punishment of course, but it was a great idea!  As before, the best way to experience this Castle gimmick is to view Castle's scene:

Castle loved to engender fear.  Besides the audience shills who would scream on cue, Castle would also hire professional fainters, who would be carried out of the theatre on stretchers by fake nurses.  He once offered a $10,000 insurance policy to any audience member who might die of fright.  Castle said of himself:  "We all have a common interest, bigger and more horrible monsters - and I'm just the monster to bring them to you."  I doubt if this fun and creative father of 3 was a monster, but boy did he know how to make memorable movie experiences and scare everybody while they had the time of their lives!


  1. Great write-up on William Castle, Becky. He'll always be remembered for his gimmicks to get people into the theatres, but, as you said, Castle also churned out some good movies. I like both films of the double feature, but I really enjoy MR. SARDONICUS, where the titular character, to hide his creepy face, wears an even creepier mask! Of course, some of Castle's gimmicks weren't able to transfer to VHS/DVD, but my favorite of his movies is HOMICIDAL. It's predictable, but I love watching it, and I think it's appropriately eerie. Plus, its gimmick is still fun: the Fright Break, where the pansies were allowed to leave the theatre (and, I guess, the pansies watching at home have time to turn the channel or shut off the DVD player). Superb job, Becky!

  2. Thank you, Sark. Good to hear from you. Mr. Sardonicus is my definite Castle favorite, but there are few of his films I don't enjoy. Fright Break - I forgot about that one!

  3. Can't add much to this but to say these are my two of my three favorite William Castle movies as well. The third is "House on Haunted Hill." It's not Halloween without putting one of these on.

    Did you ever see the movie "Matinee"? John Goodman plays a movie director who is obviously inspired by William Castle. A wonderful film.

  4. Becky, a great and enjoyable post, and William Castle deserves reams of 'em! I LOVE The Tingler, which I think is one of the funniest movies about how we love to be scared at the movies. I've been in a theatre when the seats were 'buzzed' for the Percepto effect, and the audiences loved it. I'm with Sarkoffagus, I think Homicidal is just about Castle's best (always enjoy the Fright Break!); it's also a witty hommage to Psycho. Plus the gender-bending in the film is mind-boggling!

  5. "Scream! Scream for your lives!" What a fun post, Becky! The guy with a thousand gimmicks must have been a marketer's dream. That is a great photo of William Castle you found, too. Loved this blog!

  6. Very entertaining post, Becky. I enjoy many of Castle's films, with my favorite being THE TINGLER (though HOMICIDAL, already mentioned by Sark, and 13 GHOSTS are a close second). The premise of THE TINGLER is just brilliant and I love the scene in the movie theatre. In the original version, wasn't there also one scene filmed in color where red blood flows out of a faucet? Castle knew how to make fun movies and market them brilliantly. About the only one I don't particularly care for is MACABRE...though the insurance policy was a marvelous gimmick.

  7. KEVIN: I did see Matinee -- Goodman was so much fun playing that character. And you are so right, Halloween without House on Haunted Hill, and actually most of the, would not be the same!
    GOM: Scream for your lives! The Tingler would have been a lot of fun to see in a theatre and be lucky enough to have a rigged seat.Homicidal is one of the weirder Castles, but really good.
    TOTO: I borrowed your phrase for my answer to GOM. Great, isn't it? I just loved that pic of Castle, and thanks so much for your compliment. I'm glad you liked my post.
    RICK: Although Sardonicus is #1 for me (I love the Gothics), Tingler is a VERY close second (I also love Price!). I don't know about the oriignal with red blood and a faucet. I remember the hand coming out of the tub (brrr, chilled my blood. I'm going to re-watch Tingler tonight, and I'll watch for the blood out of the faucet. I'm with you - Macabre was not a favorite, but the insurance was! I'm glad you found my post entertaining. It's not hard when you get to talk about Castle!

  8. Becky, I loved your William Castle post! I wonder if Pee-Wee Herman’s bit where he encourages everyone to “scream real loud” at the secret word was inspired by Pee-Wee watching Castle’s movies as a kid? :-)
    It cracks me up that Castle had the cheerful chutzpah to hire professional fainters carried away on stretchers by fake nurses! They don't make showmen like Castle anymore -- which is why the affectionate Castle salute MATINEE is another Team Bartilucci favorite! Great job, my friend!

  9. Thanks so much,Dorian -- Showman is the word for Castle alright! He was right up there with P.T. Barnum. Professional fainters, screamers, fake nurses - he knew how to do it! Kevin and I agree with you about Matinee -- wouldn't Castle have loved being given tribute by a movie! BTW, you remember Pee-Wee VERY well -- I'm not sure what to say about that -- LOL!

  10. Thank you so much for this lovely article. I am honored and hope to be able to put a smile on your face now that I am back "From the Grave!"

    Really, being remembered so fondly gives me goosebumps and you know how much I love goosebumps.

    Stay tuned because I will soon have some exciting House on Haunted Hill news to share with you.

    Until then...

  11. Why Mr. Castle, you surprised me with your ghostly visit! I shouldn't be surprised, though. You are the consummate showman, and would never let a chance go by for some good publicity! LOL! I'm glad you liked my little tribute, and I am sure interested in the "exciting House on Haunted Hill" news you mention!