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DVD review: ‘Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story’

Dennis King Published: June 24, 2011

Director, producer, writer and sometime actor William Castle has often been labeled a “schlockmeister” for the renegade, low-budget quality of his pictures. But to a generation of horror fans and restless teens who embraced his movies and turned them into cult hits, he was undoubtedly a showman extraordinaire.

The hustling, cigar-chomping Castle was never satisfied to merely present a scary movie. His fondest and most outrageous movies had to come with an interactive gimmick. In 1958’s “Macabre,” he issued each ticket-holder a $1,000 Lloyd’s of London life insurance policy in case a death should occur from fright; for 1959’s “House on Haunted Hill,” inflatable, iridescent skeletons would sometimes float through the audience, and, most famously, for 1959’s “The Tingler,” moviegoers felt a tingly jolt at intense moments in the story from electric joy buzzers planted in random theater seats.

All this might sound quaint in this age of endless CGI effects, overdone 3D and saturation movie marketing, but in his day Castle, with his carnival-barker’s zest, was on par with such larger-than-life showmen as P.T. Barnum, and the reasons are made clear in director Jeffrey Schwarz’s fine and affectionate documentary “Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story.”

Packed with loads of personal photos, production stills and posters from his movies, nifty film clips and talking-head interviews with Castle devotees ranging from Roger Corman to Joe Dante and from John Waters to John Landis, this tight little biography film packs a lot of living and era-defining moviemaking into its 82 minutes.

In standard but succinct documentary form, Schwarz constructs quick, concise pictures of Castle’s unhappy childhood, his cheeky early successes, his sputtering failures, his pinnacle moment in 1968 (as producer of mega-hit “Rosemary’s Baby”) and his late-career return to his schlocky roots (which resulted in such delirious oddities as 1966’s “Let’s Kill Uncle, Before Uncle Kills Us” and his final film, 1974’s sadly dreadful “Shanks”).

The arc of the story for the man both derisively and affectionately dubbed a “B-movie Hitchcock” is inevitably predictable and poignant. Laboring in the seedy confines of low-budget horror until the end, Castle nonetheless left his mark on Hollywood. As much as any multi-millionaire mogul, William Castle forged a singular brand for himself and his pictures and forever influenced the way movies are made, marketed and molded into the very fabric of American popular culture.

- Dennis King