Jewish Journal

William Castle makes spine-tingling return in Jeffrey Schwarz docupic

by Jay Firestone

Posted on Jan. 10, 2008 at 7:00 pm

Castle serves man

Castle serves man

Aside from overrated CGI explosions, deafening sound systems and validated parking, the movie-going experience isn't exactly as thrilling as it once was. That's why director Jeffrey Schwarz wants to remind audiences of cinema's earlier pleasures with the documentary "Spine Tingler," which highlights the career of horror director and crazed '50s and '60s film marketer William Castle.

"[Castle] was as famous as Alfred Hitchcock...for a few years" Schwarz said.

Scheduled for a screening at the SlamDance Film Festival on Jan. 22 in Park City, Utah, "Spine Tingler" won the Audience Award for Best Documentary during the 2007 AFI Film Festival.

Many recognize William Castle (ne William Schloss) as one of the last great American showmen for the publicity stunts that accompanied his horror genre B-movies.

For "Macabre," a $1,000 insurance policy was handed to each audience member in case he or she died of fright while watching the film. His "Percepto!" gimmick for 1959's "The Tingler" had electric buzzers going off under the seats during the scariest part of the film. Other stunts included a skeleton flying overhead during "House on Haunted Hill," a money-back "fright break" for "Homicidal," if you were too scared to stay until the end of the film, and special ghost-vision glasses for "13 Ghosts."

Schwarz said it became clear that people were coming to Castle's films more for the gimmicks than the movie itself, as portrayed in the John Goodman film, "Matinee." But that didn't bother Castle, who just wanted reassurance that the seats would be filled, he added.

Castle died in 1977 without much praise, but "Spine Tingler" heaps it on with commentary from fans, including Joe Dante, Leonard Maltin, Stuart Gordon, Jon Landis and John Waters.

"When he passed away, he thought he was a failure," Schwarz said. "Yet in revivals of his films, people are still receiving joy."
Jay Firestone -- off-mic and off-screen -- interviews director Schwarz in this clip from the Jewish TV Network

The idea that Castle never felt complete success was extremely heartening to Schwarz, who said that he tends to look for stories "too good for fiction ... like William Castle's." And like Castle, Schwarz grew up in New York with a passion for horror and worked on low-budget B-movies.

Schwarz started making documentaries in film school at State University New York Purchase. His first documentary, "Al Lewis in the Flesh," featured the actor best known for his role as Grandpa in "The Munsters, who opened a restaurant in New York after retiring from acting. Intrigued by the opportunity to shake the hand of a TV icon, Schwarz said he "began making more films about pop culture and the celebrity adulation."

When he's not directing, Schwarz is president and founder of Automat, a production company specializing in film and television promotion, including behind-the-scenes documentaries.

While Schwarz spends much of his time working with his company, he said he is always looking for an excuse to make a film. He hopes "Spine Tingler" will "remind people of the experience in going to movies" and solidify Castle as a horror icon today.

Beyond being an icon, however, Schwarz said that the only other word that could possibly describe a man like Castle is "chutzpa," adding, "It perfectly sums up his life ... gall, presumption, arrogance and nerve."




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