A man’s Castle is his home

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I’m not going to waste space telling you once again how much I revere the films of Cold War kitsch kingpin William Castle; I’ve already spent so much time raving about him on this blog that hyperlinks aren’t even necessary.

So you can imagine the kind of B-picture hog heaven I was in all week during the “Return of William Castle” film festival at New York’s Film Forum. Here at last were Castle’s films the way they were meant to be seen – on the big screen, replete with all the stunts and gimmicks that made him a showman on par with P.T. Barnum, or even Lady Gaga.

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You haven’t lived until you’ve seen the original House on Haunted Hill (1959) in a theater setting, enhanced by the wondrous technology of Emergo – basically, a plastic skeleton that flies out over the audience on a zip wire in time for the climax of the movie.  When a curtain parted at the side of the Film Forum screen, revealing Emergo in all its cadaverous glory, it was as if a bomb had been set off in that theater. It was a moment of shared rapture for folks old enough to remember the gag from the first time around, younger ones who had heard it spoken of in hushed, awed tones, and – the luckiest of all – still others who had no idea what was coming.

Although I have to say that the moment was fraught with seeming peril: Emergo spent so much time dangling maniacally over the audience that I began to wonder if the theater staff was unable to reel it back in. And simultaneously, some scary white flashes appeared over my left shoulder. A man of my age and piss-poor sightedness has been taught to immediately recognize such a symptom for what it is – glaucoma! – but it was actually just some overenthusiastic sucker determined to capture Emergo on camera. (Can you imagine being thought of so poorly by your peer group that you need to produce evidence you saw a plastic skeleton?)

House on Haunted Hill was on a double bill with Mr. Sardonicus (1961). That’s the one where the audience gets to vote in a “punishment poll” that determines whether the titular villain will suffer additional humiliation in the last scenes of the film. Castle once claimed that both a “yes” and “no” ending had been filmed, but that the latter was rarely asked for; meanwhile, rumor had it he had only shot the “more punishment” postscript, knowing none of his audiences would be interested in mercy.

Well. Having now seen this bit of cinematic democracy in action, I wonder how anybody ever fell for the idea that two endings existed. There’s simply no break in the film between the point at which Castle himself conducts the “poll” and the rendering of the supposed verdict. Ushers with penlights note the position of the “thumbs up/thumbs down” cards the audience is holding aloft; then, Castle announces we’ve voted for more punishment, and we’re off to the film’s nasty postscript. It all takes place in the course of a continuous head shot of the director, with no space for a projectionist to change reels based on anything the patrons might actually have requested. (Before the movie, I was imploring theatergoers to vote “thumbs up” – i.e., no more punishment – just to see what would happen.)

Ah, it makes you pine for the days when people were that endearingly naïve about voting. (Like, um, November 2000.)

Midweek brought a rare showing of The Night Walker (1964), a seriously surreal psychodrama with a script by Robert Bloch but no gimmicks to speak of (unless you count the sight of a horribly disfigured Hayden Rorke – yep, Dr. Bellows from I Dream of Jeannie). And let’s not discount the haunting music by Vic (Addams Family) Mizzy and an unsettling opening narration by Disney’s “Ghost Host,” Paul Frees. This movie’s creative team was like a Super Friends of crap horror.

Closing weekend brought the feature everybody had been waiting for: 1959’s infamous The Tingler. In line with the movie’s original promotional campaign, the theater had promised that “the Tingler will break loose at Film Forum” -- which seemed to mean that certain seats would be wired to dispense mild electric shocks, Castle’s immortal joy buzzer of a punchline.

Were they or weren’t they? Well, I certainly heard some loud buzzing – but I’m hoping the “victim” who tossed her popcorn in the air and ran out the fire exits was a ringer procured from one of the city’s many improv troupes. Score another point for the Barnum aesthetic.

At this point, you’re probably saying to yourself, “Thanks for telling us about your wonderful life in NYC, asshole. What good does any of this do us?”

More than you’d guess. Maitland’s own Enzian theater has announced a showing of The Tingler for Oct. 26, which struck me as oddly coincidental when I first heard about it. So I fired off an email to the theater’s PR people, to see if this theater, too, would be availing itself of the relevant “technology.”

The answer I got was worthy of Castle in its cagey carny-barking: “[We] definitely want to do something special during this iconic film screening,” along with a mention that the Enzian’s creative team was hashing out an “audience surprise.”

I’ll let you know exactly what that means when I find out myself. In the meantime – I wonder if anybody from SAK knows how to fake a good electrocution?

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