Cult Movie: William Castle, a master of low budget fright fests such as The Tingler

Vincent Price in William Castle's The Tingler (1959)
Ralph McLean

WILLIAM Castle was a proper Hollywood huckster, famous for the inventive ways he marketed his movies rather than for the quality of them.

An all-American cigar-chomping movie mogul and maker of low-rent, high-thrill exploitation fare, he would stop at nothing to flog his films.

Take Homicidal, for example. Castle enhances that thinly veiled Psycho rip-off with a “fright break” that allowed cinemagoers to leave their seats if the scares were getting too much. There's “the punishment poll” in Mr Sardonicus which allowed punters to pick the movie's ending depending on how they felt.

That Castle never even bothered to film an alternative ending hardly matters as audiences always chose the same one anyway. Then there's the small matter of how the director wired up cinema seats during screenings of The Tingler to administer a small electric shock when the said B-movie beast showed up on screen.

Such marketing magic shouldn't mask the fact that many of those cheap and cheerful B-movie beauties were wonderful examples of the low-budget film-maker's art at its very best.

All of the above films and more are featured in a spiffing new box set from Powerhouse/Indicator DVD that celebrates the director's most productive period in the late 50s and early 60s.

William Castle At Columbus Volume 1 boasts The Tingler (1959), Homicidal (61), Mr Sardonicus (61) and 13 Ghosts (60) and a host of impressive extras, from full-blown documentaries to audio commentaries and interviews, that make the best case yet for the director as a genuine master of his craft.

13 Ghosts is probably the least impressive of the bunch but it still offers plenty of memorable moments and there's a lot of fun to be had with Castle's take on a creaky old ghost story set in an old haunted house. There are echoes of the director's earlier and better House Of Haunted Hill but it still feels fresh all the same.

Mr Sardonicus is a more Gothic tale of a baron whose face is frozen into a horrific rictus grin when he robs his father's grave to nab a winning lottery ticket. It's atmospheric and well acted, even if it fails to thrill to any great degree.

Homicidal is, as noted, a blatant Psycho steal but it's good fun, with all its murderous moments and moody old house footage. You'll guess the twist ending in seconds but there's always that “fright break” to savour.

Best of the bunch though is undoubtedly The Tingler. A wild, slightly unhinged epic, it stars Vincent Price as a coroner who discovers that fear actually manifests itself as a slug-like creature that forms on the victim's spine when terror grabs hold.

There's an outrageous LSD trip for Vincent, a blood-red colour sequence in a black and white film and a mad meta moment where the Tingler “escapes” from the screen into the cinema. In short it's a masterpiece of low-rent, big-fun film-making.

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