By • Sep 7th, 2010 •

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It was like stepping into a time machine…only better.

The Film Forum on Houston Street in Manhattan was presenting a William Castle retrospective from August 27th through September 6th. All of the showman’s famous gimmick films were in the lineup, as well as some of his earlier, noirish work and 3D films.

I started off by catching two of his three “Whistler” films from the mid 40s. All three starred Richard Dix, however in different roles. The ‘Whistler’ of the title was not Dix, but a shadowy figure that set us up for the ill-fated stories to come, appearing again midway through the film to keep us on track. This unidentified phantom got his moniker by whistling some melody that was too abstract ever to have become popular with viewers.

Even with the Whistler’s dire warnings about the forlorn trajectories of the films’ protagonists, I wasn’t prepared for how downbeat MYSTERIOUS INTRUDER would end up. Pretty wild. To quote the Forum catalogue “Crooked private eye Richard Dix, hired to find the mysterious ‘Elora’ to receive a mysterious bequest, hires a fake one to grab it for himself and then the double crosses and murders start coming.” That barely hints at the darkly nuanced touches, but it was mostly the ‘B’s in those days that were allowed to get away with such unrepentantly villainous protagonists, as well as the sort of bleak finale the film delivers.

MACABRE was a motion picture I had missed in 1958. The first of Castle’s ‘gimmick’ films, patrons were refused entrée to the theater unless they filled out an insurance policy with Lloyds of London for ten grand in case they croaked of heart failure during the screening. Sure enough, the policy was still in force at the Forum, fifty-two years later, only the payoff had been updated to a million dollars for this playdate. The print was splicey, making the convoluted narrative even more difficult to follow, but it was a deliciously noir-ish little exercise nonetheless. Very satisfying for me, after all these years, to finally catch up with it.

13 GHOSTS (1960), in Illusion-O, beckoned you to put on the red-blue 3D glasses when a title appeared on the bottom of the screen, and if you weren’t up to witnessing the dreaded thirteen spectres, you could look through the left lens and see nothing but the set. However, using the right (red) eye filter, you were privy to a lion chewing on the neck of a tamer who’d lost his head in the cat’s jaws long ago, an ax-wielder striking anew, etc. The effect was cheesy in the extreme, but the Forum audience was primed for it. They laughed and had a great time. The lead actor, Donald Woods – a cross between Dana Andrews and Hugh Marlowe – was just the right milquetoast casting choice for the father who endures the manifestations in bewilderment. And it was wonderful to see Margaret Hamilton in the ‘in’ role of the witchy housekeeper who the hapless family inherits along with the haunted mansion. I particularly liked the Ouija Board sequence, when the clueless family members keep ratcheting the stakes higher with each absurd question (“Will one of us be killed?”). The print was excellent, and the glasses were dutifully passed out to each and every patron – unlike in the DVD collection release where, if you start having heart palpitations, you don’t have a choice concerning the ghosts.

HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959) came with ‘Emergo’ – the living manifestation of a skeleton floating over the heads of the delighted audience. Vincent Price is the master of ceremonies in this Ten Little Indians tale, nicely shot, with a solid scare or two.

MR. SARDONICUS (1961), my favorite Castle film, found the ushers handing out ‘Punishment Poll’ cards, to be held up near the film’s conclusion, either with the imprinted thumb up, or down. Castle then appears on screen and counts the votes from his vantage point, and of course Sardonicus is to be punished for all the atrocities he’s committed. According to Castle, at the studio’s insistence, a happy ending was filmed, just in case, but never used. However, scavenger hunts in the Columbia vaults have produced no trace of the alternate ending.

Which brings us to THE TINGLER (1959). Back then, fourteen years old and very into horror films, only I – in the rural town of Harrison, NY – knew about the two rows of seats that had been wired to deliver electric shocks at the critical moment when the Tingler would escape from the screen into the audience. I had a crush on a local girl named Linda Elin, and I brought her to the theater, keeping her in the dark about what was to come. Nothing like a good electric shock, I figured, to have her jump into my lap.

An ancient ticket-taker was standing at the entrance to the lobby as we arrived, and I surreptitiously whispered to him, “Where are the ‘tingle’ seats?” He looked confused. “Where are the tingle seats” I repeated. Then he seemed to understand, and led us…to the bathrooms! How mortifying.

I never did get anywhere with Linda.

The Film Forum did not wire up the theater seats for the show I attended, yet they managed to out-do Castle nonetheless. When Vincent Price drops acid – a hilarious scene all on its own – suddenly a swirling, hallucinatory color mélange was superimposed on Price’s terrified face. When he stared in horror at the skeleton in his office, the HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL skeleton was yanked out over the audience for an unexpected encore. And when the Tingler escaped into the theater…suddenly a man stood up three rows in front of me, grasping a Tingler to his throat, choking and screaming, while ushers shined a flashlight on him and carried him up the aisle. During each of these delightful intrusions into our placid theater-going experience, the packed house roared with laughter and screamed their heads off. It was like ROCKY HORROR SHOW for adults. I’ve had my occasional problem with Film Forum audiences not being generous with older films, laughing too easily and breaking the spell. But we were all in synch that night. With me was Mark Talling, FIR reviewer, and he had a terrific time. A few days later, FIR’s webmaster Oren Shai caught the flick, and this time there were scattered electroshocks going off under select seats.

Credit for the series, and for the lengths to which the staff went to give us an ultimate viewing experience, goes to Film Forum Programmer Bruce Goldstein. I can’t say enough about how much fun, and what an event, the Castle retrospective was for everyone, and for me. My two favorite movie-going memories this year took place at the Film Forum. This was one, and the other was their screening of NO ORCHIDS FOR MISS BLANDISH, with Producer Richard Gordon and actor Richard Nielson in attendance.

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