Anniversary Post: William Castle

William Castle

On this day, 14 April, in 1914, one of the icons of psychotronic film, William Castle, was born.

He was a prolific director in the studio system — directing dozens of films for Universal and later Columbia. Although he doesn’t have the reputation, he was a lot like Roger Corman: a man who could create competent films on a small budget.

He’s remembered for his later films, after he’d left Columbia and started his own production company. At first, he used Allied Artists to distribute his films — which he had worked for early in his career. But after his initial successes, Columbia took over that job for most of his films.

The Gimmicks

He’s best known for his marketing gimmicks (something he had done since his theater days in the early 1940s). In Macabre, he hired a hearse to park outside the theater, had “nurses” on duty, and gave out $1,000 life insurance policies.

Most famously, he allowed the audience to vote on how Mr Sardonicus ended. According to him there were two versions of the film, but I certainly don’t believe him. The mechanics of projection are complicated. It’s simply not possible to switch reels without a long delay. Anyway, I prefer to think of William Castle as a bit of a conman.

But it’s unfortunate that people remember him because of the gimmicks. It’s not at all true that his success was based on this. I’ve heard anecdotally that audiences at the time found most of them to be silly. But they liked the films!

Castle acquired the rights to Rosemary’s Baby and was planning to direct it. In the end, he produced it with Roman Polanski directing. I love the film but I think it is wrong when people suggest the film wouldn’t have been as good with Castle directing. I think it might have been incredible. One thing Castle was really good at was setting a mood. And that is all the film is.

I’ll put Castle up against just about any filmmaker. Given the resources he had, it’s amazing he made so many entertaining films.

Image cropped from William Castle by Crowell-Collier Publishing Company. Photograph by Ralph Crane. Self scan from The American Magazine for May 1946 (page 135). In the Public Domain.

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