When famed producer/ director William Castle died in 1977, many newspaper obituaries dismissed his body of work, labeling him, "master showman," or "shlockmeister". While it is true his films were not artistic masterpieces, and he was a marketing wizard, a self described "PT Barnum," Castle was much more than a savvy salesman, and a purveyor of cheapies. In his show-business career of 40+ years, Castle wore a variety of hats, including editor, writer, actor, producer, director in theater, motion pictures, radio, and television, while exhibiting a wide range of significant abilities supplemented by an uncommon respect and affection for his audience, and an earnest dedication to entertaining them. During his long tenure as a low-budget film director at Columbia Pictures at the outset of his career, he demonstrated great skill, manipulating every possible aspect of his cut-rate productions to set them apart from typical B product. In the late 1950s he utilized his of wealth experience to make his own films; achieving fame and notoriety by producing and directing a collection of highly successful horror shockers which he promoted with entertaining and inventive gimmicks.
Born William Schloss Jr. on April 24, 1914, in New York City, Castle grew up and was educated in the "Big Apple." A tall, awkward, withdrawn boy, he was not a good student and exhibited no particular talents. According to his autobiography, he was mercilessly teased about his name and lack of coordination; so much so his family sent him to camp hoping he might acquire poise and people skills. Young Bill hated the idea, but the experience worked out well. Although he couldn't play sports, his ability to contort his body (putting his legs around his neck) apparently won him respect, acceptance, and some much needed confidence. His first experience with the horror genre came at age eight when his father took him to see Wilton Luckaye's stage performance of The Monster. According to Castle, "I clutched my father's hand in abject terror, finally embarrassing the hell out of him by wetting myself."
As a child Bill suffered successive tragedies when his mother died of pneumonia in 1924 and his father succumbed to a heart attack one year later. Sent to live with his older sister and her husband, the youngster's grief and self loathing manifested itself in bizarre behavior and several "death defying stunts" like jumping into the Hudson River. At a low point in 1927, Bill got his first real taste of show business when he attended the Broadway production of Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. Young Schloss was so mesmerized he attended the show again and again, eventually working up the courage to go backstage to meet its star. Lugosi apparently liked the boy enough to allow him to view the production from backstage and to recommend him for a position as an assistant stage manager in the road company version two years later. The experience would have a profound effect. Bill had found his calling in the nick of time.
After the tour ended, the newly named William Castle (Schloss is German for Castle) managed to find work as an actor. Extremely ambitious and always willing to exaggerate or fabricate to achieve a goal, Castle claimed to be the nephew of Samuel Goldwyn to secure a role on Broadway in the revival of An American Tragedy. Later he became the show's stage manager, then played three other Broadway roles in the mid 1930s in Ebb Tide, No Small Frontier, and Oliver Twist. In between acting assignments, he worked in various menial jobs and did impressions of Hollywood stars in small nightclubs.
By 1937 the desire to become part of the motion picture industry became a driving force in Castle's life. After an unsuccessful attempt to find employment in Hollywood, he returned to New York, where a fortuitous encounter with Orson Welles in 1939 indirectly helped make Castle's moviemaking dream a reality. Having inherited $25,000 from his father's estate, the persuasive Bill convinced the actor/director to allow him to acquire the rights to his Stoney Creek Theater in Connecticut where Welles' Mercury Players tested plays before Broadway. Castle's initial production, Not For Children (which he also penned) caught the attention of Samuel Marks of Columbia Pictures. Apparently Marks saw something special in the audacious young man, and convinced Harry Cohn to sign Castle to a "seven-way contract" at $50 a week.
The pact allowed the studio to assess Castle's abilities while giving him the chance to learn the movie business from several perspectives. After two years experience in a variety of capacities; as an actor: He Stayed for Breakfast (1940), The Lady in Question (1940); dialog director: Music in My Heart (1940); scriptwriter: North to the Klondike (on loan to Universal - 1942); short subject director: Mr. Smug (1943), Columbia gave Castle the chance to direct his first feature length picture, the Boston Blackie series entry, Chance of a Lifetime (1943). Realizing it might be his first and only opportunity to prove himself, Castle gave it his all, but the script was deficient and the film unpopular. Castle expected Cohn to fire him after critics savaged it.
Instead King Harry rewarded him with another opportunity to direct a crime drama based on a popular radio series. Bill was thrilled and inspired by Eric Taylor's suspenseful screenplay for The Whistler, and determined to make it a success. Innovative, imaginative, fast paced, The Whistler (1944) was a hit with critics and the public. The surprisingly positive reception it received not only redeemed Castle with influential reviewers, but won him the respect of his boss who gave him more B films to direct.
One of these films was a loan to the King brothers at Monogram for an intriguing thriller which would turn out to be another of Castle's most fondly remembered B films, When Strangers Marry a.k.a. Betrayed (1944), an early noir about a young waitress who marries a mysterious man who might be a killer. Both The Whistler and When Strangers Marry showcased Castle's flair for manipulating mood. He seemed to have a knack for creating and sustaining suspense through the innovative use of sets, lighting, unusual camera angles, and a plethora of contrivances. Just as important was his ability to elicit strong performances from large casts.
The years 1943-48 would find Castle guiding a dozen entertaining Columbia B films, mostly series thrillers including four Crime Doctors, three more Whistlers, and an entry in the Rusty dog series. In between Columbia assignments Castle directed an unsuccessful Broadway whodunit, Meet a Body (1944), and worked as an associate producer and second unit director on friend Orson Welles' classic noir, The Lady from Shanghai (Columbia, 1947).
He also married Ellen Falk on March 21, 1948. By all accounts the marriage was a happy one, lasting until Castle's death. Bill and Ellen had two daughters, Georgianna in 1954, and Terry in 1958.
In 1949 William Goetz and Leo Spitz of Universal International Pictures acquired Castle's Columbia contract. At first the director was enthusiastic. He liked Goetz and the laid back atmosphere of the studio; and was certain the company intended to promote him to bigger budget features. His optimism was unfounded. During the director's two year stint at UI (1949-51), he was assigned six more programmers, all mediocre, save one. The standout was Johnny Stool Pigeon (1949), a nifty noir with a good cast and an above average script chronicling attempts to crack an international drug ring.
In 1953 Bill Castle returned to Columbia at the behest of Cohn and B impresario Sam Katzman, but his fortunes did not improve. In the next three years he directed a mind numbing 18 low- to mid-budget pictures, most of which could have benefited from stronger screenplays. Among these were some beautifully photographed Technicolor costume adventures like Serpent of the Nile (1953), Charge of the Lancers (1954), Drums of Tahiti (1954), or westerns such as Fort Ti (1953, filmed in 3-D), and Masterson of Kansas (1954). Castle's best film of his Columbia II period was the action-packed crime drama, The Houston Story (1956), a minor gem about a morally challenged oil driller who gets mixed up with mobsters.
When his contract expired in 1956, Castle turned his attention to television. In 1956-58 he directed episodes of various TV series, including ten well received entries of Men of Annapolis, a collection of dramas depicting the adventures of American soldiers, sailors, and airmen during World War II. Bill enjoyed working in TV, but by the late 1950s was anxious to return to feature films, and wanted to produce his own motion pictures. According to his autobiography, a visit to a movie theater one stormy night to see Henri-Georges Clouzot's psychological classic, Diabolique (1955) was the catalyst which initiated the second major phase of his career. After viewing the throngs of people standing in the rain to see the picture, and then witnessing their reaction to it, Castle reportedly told his wife. "I want to scare the pants off America. When that audience gave that final collective scream, I knew that's where I wanted to take them-only I want louder screams, more horror, more excitement."
After months searching for the right story from which to produce his first motion picture, Castle settled on the horror novel, "The Marble Forest", the tale of a doctor's frantic search for his missing daughter believed buried alive. In order to purchase the film rights and have $90,000 to make the picture, he mortgaged his home and enlisted the aid of his friend, writer Robb White who anteed up part of the cash and wrote the adaptation. Filmed in nine days by a largely unknown cast, the minor chiller, Macabre, was released by Allied Artists. In the first of many gimmicks Castle concocted to promote his movies, the producer/ director insured each ticket buyer with a $1000 life insurance policy from Lloyds of London in case they died of fright during the picture. Although the New York Times derided Macabre as, "a somber tepid shocker", box office receipts totaled $5 million.
The cigar chomping Castle achieved his greatest fame during the period 1959-65 producing and directing eleven features, mostly thrillers. Many starred obscure film and television actors and were aimed at the teen and young adult audience. All were lifted by the experienced director who manipulated all aspects of his productions to create and maximize a mood of terror. There were no deep meanings in Castle's films. They were made to entertain not to inspire or educate. Although there were a few common themes, such as inheritances, old houses, locked rooms, handicapped adults, dark humor, there were no essential threads running between them except Castle's expertise, his brief appearances in them (a la Hitchcock), and of course his trademark gimmicks.
Bill followed Macabre with the extremely popular House on Haunted Hill (Allied Artists, 1959), featuring Vincent Price as a millionaire who volunteers to pay selected guests $10,000 to survive one night in a haunted house. Castle sold the tense, atmospheric thriller with a gimmick he called "Emergo": twelve foot skeletons placed in boxes next to theater screens which emerged on wires to fly over moviegoers. Castle's next film, The Tingler (Columbia, 1959) also starred Price. The story of a doctor who believes fear generates a living creature in the body deemed powerless when a person screams, it was a box office sensation which literally electrified its audiences. Castle's gimmick, "Percepto" consisted of wires hooked up to certain rows of theater seats which gave filmgoers a small electrical shock at opportune moments.
More hit horrors and inventive Castle gimmicks followed in quick succession. The "spirited" 13 Ghosts (Columbia, 1960) featured "Illusion-O", 3-D type glasses; the creepy Psycho-esque Homicidal (Columbia, 1961), a "fright break"; and the gothic thriller Mr. Sardonicus (Columbia, 1961) a "Punishment poll". Critics scoffed at Castle's pictures, but he would have the last laugh-all the way to the bank.
A desire to expand his repertoire inspired the 48-year-old director to hire television comedian Tom Poston, some expert supporting casts, and talented writers to produce two projects, the comedy fantasy Zotz (Columbia, 1962), and a humorous remake of The Old Dark House (Columbia, 1963). Sandwiched in between the Poston comedies was the international intrigue adventure 13 Frightened Girls (Columbia, 1963). All were unsuccessful.
In 1964 Castle returned to the horror genre. His vehicle was Straight-Jacket (Universal International), a frightening Robert Bloch-penned tale of a former ax murderess who, after years in a mental hospital, returns home to more bloodletting and mayhem. Castle had always dismissed the notion of hiring big name movie actors to appear in his productions, but after three successive failures, decided his new project needed extra oomph. Trading gimmicks for star power he inked a contract with veteran actress Joan Blondell to play the unfortunate heroine, Lucy Harbin. When Blondell bowed out due to "injury," Castle replaced her with the legendary Joan Crawford.
Despite initial demands, Castle found working with Crawford a pleasurable experience. The filming went so well Joan agreed to headline a tour of major cities to promote it. Critics were not impressed with the finished product but the tour was well attended, and the film was a box office hit, the last of Castle's directorial career. Unfortunately his two star-studded follow-ups: The Night Walker (Universal International, 1964) with Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor, and the frightening I Saw What You Did (Universal International, 1965) also starring Crawford were box office losers.
Convinced filmgoers were finally tiring of the horror genre, Castle made four more unproductive attempts to branch out into comedy and adventure films. He won surprisingly positive reviews for the suspenseful Let's Kill Uncle (1966), the ghostly comedy, The Spirit Is Willing (1967), the all-star gangster spoof, The Busy Body (1967), and the sci fi thriller, Project X (1968), but the films were major flops which left the normally irrepressible director contemplating the end of his career. In his memoirs he recalled this difficult period: "My small empire was beginning to collapse and by 1967, I was ready to throw in the towel . . . Desperately I started to search for the miracle that would save my career. I had to find something, anything-or I'd be out of the business. Then from heaven, the miracle appeared. Or was it from hell?"
The miracle was Ira Levin's horrific best seller, "Rosemary's Baby", about an unsuspecting young wife whose pregnancy becomes a cause for alarm when her husband gets involved with witches. After reading the galley proofs from Random House, Castle immediately purchased the film rights, and approached Paramount Pictures. A deal was struck which gave him $250,000, 50% of the profits, and the opportunity to produce and direct with one caveat, he meet with Polish director Roman Polanski (Repulsion, Knife in the Water) whom both Paramount and novelist Levin preferred to helm the picture. Initially unimpressed with Polanski, Castle eventually handed the directorial duties over to the 35-year-old who also penned the screenplay.
Castle assembled a 24-carat cast headed by Mia Farrow to enact the intensely macabre story of Rosemary's Baby (1968). His patience and high regard for Polanski were sorely tested during the filming. A stubborn perfectionist who possessed a specific vision of how he wanted the film made, Polanski had running battles with many involved parties; but the result was a masterful suspense film aided by a superb script, great performances, and attention to detail. Critics and audiences hailed the picture as one of the best horror films of all time. Produced for $2.3 million, box-office receipts totaled more than $30 million. After a lifetime of trying to make a great film, Bill Castle had at last produced a movie which was both a critical AND a box office smash.
His triumph was short-lived. After being forced by illness to bow out as director of the Neil Simon-penned comedy, The Out of Towners, Castle's career quickly declined. Some of his latter projects had merit, like the prison break drama, Riot (1969), and the well-produced TV anthology series, Ghost Story (1972-73), but none approached the quality of Rosemary's Baby.
An exuberant, good humored man who loved his work, and never took himself too seriously, Castle pressed ahead. The last three years of his life (1974-77) would be among his most productive. In 1974 he produced, directed and acted in, Shanks, an unusual tale of a deaf mute (mime Marcel Marceau) who brings dead people back to life to fight a malevolent motorcycle gang; then one year later, he produced and appeared in the disaster film, Bug (1975) about deadly cockroaches. When he wasn't busy behind the camera, hyperactive Castle was appearing in front of it: as a movie executive in the TV drama, The Sex Symbol (1974), a film director in John Schlesinger's Day of the Locust (1975), and a producer in Hal Ashby's acclaimed satirical comedy, Shampoo (1975). In 1976 Castle published his memoirs, aptly titled, "Step Right Up, I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America". In later years he found time to buy homes in the L.A. area, rehab them, then sell them at a tidy profit.
Castle was developing another suspense thriller, 2000 Lakeview Drive for MGM in December, 1976 when he collapsed. Paramedics were called, but when they failed to revive him sufficiently, transported him to Culver City Hospital where he remained in intensive care for two days. After a short recuperation, he returned to work. He described the incident as "congestion", but it apparently was some form of heart attack. Six months later, on May 31, 1977, after dining at his Beverly Hills home, 63-year-old William Castle suffered a second attack and died a short time later at the U.C.L.A. Medical Center. He was survived by his wife Ellen and two daughters. Memorial services were held in Los Angeles on June 3, and interment was in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
Although he never achieved the success and critical acceptance he hoped for, William Castle's talent and influence as a producer, director, and businessman are not to be scoffed at. While no one equates his legacy with masters like Hitch, Ford, Wyler, etc., he was more than just a purveyor of cheap schlock. His films, including many of his early Columbia B's, are well crafted and exceedingly entertaining. Because of his years of experience and knowledge of all aspects of the process, he was able to elevate them.
Castle's reputation, both inside and outside the film industry, has steadily increased over the decades since his death. In recent years many film enthusiasts from across the country have gathered to celebrate his legacy in film festivals which include screenings and discussions. Such noted filmmakers as John Waters, Joe Dante, and Robert Zemeckis have also cited Castle as a major influence. Dante's Matinee (Universal, 1993), a delightful comedy/drama about a bigger than life, cigar chewing B filmmaker, was a valentine to Castle, as were many of Waters' films like Polyester (New Line Cinema, 1982) promoted with the help of "Odorama."
In 1999 director Zemeckis, along with producer Joel Silver formed Dark Castle Entertainment to make pictures which celebrate the spirit of William Castle. Their first production was a remake of House on Haunted Hill with Castle's daughter, Terry as co-producer. In 2007 a documentary about the producer/director, Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story helmed by Jeffrey Schwartz, was premiered at the American Film Institute Fest and won the Audience Award for Best Documentary. The self-described P.T. Barnum would no doubt be pleased he's still packing 'em in, and putting on a good show.
Editor's Note: The preceding was excerpted from The Whistler: Stepping Into the Shadows by Dan Van Neste (BearManor Media, 2011). The story of the famed Columbia suspense series (1944-48), this book traces its history and radio origins, chronicles the B moviemaking process at Columbia, and features 50 rare profiles of Whistler filmmakers including William Castle. Actor, author, Robert Dix wrote the Foreword and provided illuminating memories of his famous father for the book's lengthy Dix biography.