Review: Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story

JasonReviewsSpine Tingler! The William Castle Story – 2007 – Sony Pictures Home Entertainment as part of the William Castle Film Collection box set

This fantastic documentary traces the accomplishments of the P.T. Barnum of box-office ballyhoo, William Castle, one of the most fondly remembered Hollywood personalities we have ever been blessed with. Castle was a consummate showman whose lack of artistic perspective was more than compensated for by his insight into culture and his intuition of human nature. His career was highlighted by some of the most fun-filled film escapades ever produced, with titles like The House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, 13 Ghosts and Homicidal promising (and delivering) highly entertaining and utterly unpretentious romps through the dark side of the human psyche punctuated with enough tongue-in-cheek hilarity to delight their true target audience, children in the 8-14 age group. Savaged by critics throughout his career, but adored by his legions of fans, Castle was like a larger than life cigar-chomping teddy bear, the center of attention around the campfire who could always be counted on to entertain us with his delightfully creepy tales. The man was (and is) absolutely and unequivocally unforgettable.

This doc successfully illustrated that the fascinating director/writer/producer known as Bill Castle was a thoroughly self-made man. He sold himself entirely based on the inner confidence he projected to others, cutting an overwhelmingly charming figure to quarry and colleague alike and managing to present himself as a success who harbored ever loftier ambitions (though, in reality, his true talent was as one of the world’s foremost bullshit artists!). This measured maneuver instilled others with an assured faith in his potential and granted him access to opportunities lesser men could only dream of. Castle seized life, love and success by the throat, managing to squeeze the most potential out of every opportunity he was given. The man simply knew which buttons to push and never failed to push them at exactly the right time.

Spine Tingler! takes us from his meager beginnings as a young orphan through to his storied ascension as one of the top producers in the business. This film has the feel of a reverent homage, spending an abundance of time on the witty and educational anecdotes of his colleagues, co-workers, family, friends, and fans painting a darling portrait of a man who was driven by the fear of failure and the loss of his beloved family. Ample coverage is given to his treasure trove of inspired gimmicks and ploys (like Emergo and the Ghost Viewers) and the esteemed John Waters grants us an ardent fan’s perspective with his reminiscence of being 10 years old and in utter awe of the man and his output. Perhaps because of their great admiration, the filmmakers do tend to gloss over some of the failures and near misses Castle experienced in the middle of his career (such as The Night Walker or Zotz!), but it is more than made up for by an interview with the great Marcel Marceau recalling their work together on Shanks, Castle’s biggest failure (monetarily speaking) and the last picture he made before his untimely demise.

I was never fortunate enough to experience any of Castle’s films as a child, but as an adult I love their spirited innocence and the fact that they require such a degree of active audience participation in order to be properly enjoyed. This film left me rueing the fact that the younger audiences of today would likely not be able to appreciate their gleeful simplicity because they have been cinematically screamed at their whole lives (and therefore desensitized) by blaring audio cues, ostentatious effects work and quick editing cuts. With all of the vulgarity flashing on the TV and in the movie houses these days, kids simply don’t have time to think and, hence, to become a part of the story themselves. Today’s audiences simply have never had to develop the most sublime ingredient in the cinematic cocktail: active involvement and interaction with what is occurring on that glorious silver screen. My lesson of the day would be thus — do your children (and yourselves) a favor and shield them from the pejorative desensitization of the idiot box (television) and let them experience the magical potential of film from years past. But enough of that already…

This documentary is far and away the finest example of the form I have ever had the fortune to see. Whether you are a fan of the man’s films or not, Castle’s life story is bursting at the seams with valuable life lessons and insights into human nature and should be studied by anyone with an interest in personal power, human potential and joie de vivre. Do yourself a favor and get a copy today!

Jason’s Grade: A+

P.S. Anyone looking for more info on the great William Castle should check out his wonderful autobiography, Step Right Up! I’m Going to Scare the Pants Off America, and the informative book, Beyond Ballyhoo: Motion Picture Promotion and Gimmicks, by Mark Thomas McGee.


3 comments so far

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  1. A few things…

    Funny (or predictably) enough, I put this movie in my Netflix queue a few days ago, not knowing that Jason was also watching and then reviewing it. Great minds, and all of that.

    If there’s still time (or you have to go the back issue route), the November 2009 issue of Rue Morgue has a nice big piece on Castle. It’s the issue with the Left 4 Dead cover story. Personally, I think Castle is more important than a video game, but maybe that’s just me being a grumpy old man.

    And, of course, the Terror Transmission tie-in: Castle was the producer on Rosemary’s Baby (listen to episodes 1 and 2 of our show for details) and he makes a rather Hitchcockian cameo in said film, too.

  2. Jason,

    Glad you finally got to see it!

  3. Just finished it this weekend. A highly worthwhile documentary on the man, and a solid introduction to his work, just in case there are a few of you out there who’ve actually not seen a Castle film. Fun, immersive, and respectful.

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