Thursday, 13 October 2011

Jeffery Shwarz's 'Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story', 2007...

Fig. 1 Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story poster.

Spine Tingler! was a wonderful insight into the world of showmanship and the difference a little interaction with the audience can make.
Fig. William Castle, showman.
The film itself is a documentary about the horror genre's "King of Gimmicks", director and producer, William Castle.  He has become somewhat of a cult icon for the genre, not because he made films as chilling as Alfred Hitchcock, but because his films were always about harmless entertainment and the enjoyment of his audience. Ernest Mathijs and Jamie Sexton explain that "areas of cult cinema - in particular exploitation cinema - have been linked to commercial practices for sometime. This was sometimes foregrounded through the role of the entrepreneur, who could actually gain a devoted following through creatively engaging in commercial salesmanship." (Mathijs, Sexton, 2011:73) It was his 'commercial salesmanship' that lead him to become a very unique film producer, one that would take it into his own hands to market his films successfully. He used his knowledge of what would be considered controversial and used this to grab the press' attention and duly publicise his current film. William Castle's ability to manipulate the press and his audience was much like the showman P.T. Barnum and Castle in fact likened himself to them man. Robert Lawrence Heath expressed that "Barnum was a master of press agentry. for instance, he wrote letters both praising and criticising his circus show to newspapers under an assumed name." (Heath, 2005:286) Castle did something similar himself when he held a large press junket with swastikas all over the theatre walls in which he told the world he had received a letter from Hitler asking for one of his actresses and he said no way. This is just one of many fantastic ways he managed to manipulate the press, but it was his audience that he really wanted to pull in. He would do this by creating a series of  fun horror films, centrally for children, that he would then use to get his audience hooked.  Deborah Cartmell believes that "it was in these successful but exploitative chillers that he formed a personal bond with his audience through a wide series of ingenious, carnival-style gimmicks and hokum gimcracks." (Cartmell, 1997:103) It was the use of these 'carnival-style' gimmicks that he really got his audience to keep coming back to him.

Fig. William Castle's first gimmick.

William Castle believed that every film, no matter how popular he was and no matter how likely it was to sell out, should have a gimmick of some kind, something to reward his audience with. Peter Hutchings said that "He was the master of gimmicks during a period when cinema attendance was in decline and showmanship of his kind was required to entice potential customers into film theatres." (Hutchings, 2008:57) His first film was Macabre (1958), a chilling but still family friendly, horror movie and it was released during a time when audiences were still settling in from their difficulties of the forties and paying to get into the cinema to see a B-movie was not their priority.  Castle knew this, he knew he had to think of something great to draw them in and he did.  He decided that to really draw them in he would use an incentive, a cash incentive to be precise. As seen in Fig. 3, he publicised on TV and to newspapers that anyone that was brave enough to see Macabre would have their life insured for $1000 in case they died from fright. for the time this was something quite unbelievable, and he was there handing out these insurance slips to the audience members as they walked into the theatre.  Of course no one actually died of fright, the films were merely entertaining, but his marketing grew and grew because he knew it would keep brining in the viewers. Every film drew in big money at the box office and despite the films being a little far from scary, the gimmicks would make the crowds roar with enjoyment.  Hutchings then went on to explain that "William Castle often seemed more interested in the effects his horror films would have on audiences than he was in the content of the films themselves.(Hutchings, 2008:57) Despite the film quality of what was on screen the audience still loved it and always came back for more. Devin Watson continues the point that "we may look back at his films and call them schlock or any other thing we want, but the truth is, he understood and knew his audience."(Watson, 2009:9) which is more than a lot of producers and directors can achieve presently.  He just wanted to bring his films and his entertainment to the masses, he wanted it so much that he went out himself and brought his work to the different theatres. He had a fan club just because he was so beloved by everyone for his personal touch and obvious love for what he does. Watson went on to say that "Castle was not only a brilliant filmmaker and television producer, but he was one of the most brilliant marketers who ever worked in the business." (Watson, 2009:9).  There are few producers now that would travel around with their work to make sure the audiences enjoyed it.  Marketing is key to getting an audience to watch your film and when you get it wrong then no matter how good the film is it will never sell at the box office.  It was William Castle's personal touch that made him so popular and his publicity so wonderfully effective. It was a shame that he never got to direct his A-movie, but it is due to his showmanship that his B-movies are never going to be forgotten.

List of Illustrations.

Figure 1. Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (2007) Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story poster. At: (Accessed on: 13/10/11)

Figure 2. Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (2007) William Castle, showman. At: (Accessed on: 13/10/11)

Figure 3. William Castle's first gimmick. At: (Accessed on: 13/10/11)


Cartmell, Deborah (1997) Trash aesthetics: popular culture and its audience. London: Pluto Press

Heath, Robert Lawrence (2005) Encyclopedia of public relations, Volume 1. USA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Hutchings, Peter (2008) The A to Z of Horror Cinema. USA: Scarecrow Press.

Mathijs,  Ernest, Sexton, Jamie (2011) Cult Cinema. Wiley-Blackwell

Watson, Devin (2009) Horror Screenwriting: The Nature of Fear. USA: Michael Wiese Productions.


  1. What no stars? :(

    Nice review though Molly

  2. Sorry Alan! I completely forgot! It'll be up there today! :D