Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Boston Underground Film Festival 2008: Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story

I have to admit, I'm not a big fan of Castle's movies - I came upon him too late, if this movie's point of view that his audience was kids is correct. Still, you've got to respect a guy who was this willing to show his audience a good time like he did.

I've talked about the difference between good camp and bad camp a few times - good camp is the result of someone making the best movie possible based on limited resources and talent; bad camp is making a crap movie when you're able to do better. I think Castle tends to fit in between, to a certain extent: He did do the best he could with limited resources, making fairly entertaining movies on minuscule budgets... But he did limit those budgets himself, sometimes out of realism, sometimes out of fear. He's an earlier Roger Corman, a guy who has a fair amount of talent, but was too worried about losing money to ever fully unleash it.

Spine Tingler!: The William Castle Story

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 March 2008 at the Brattle Theater (BUFF X)

There hasn't been anyone in the film business like William Castle since his last films in the mid-1970s. Theater owners owners probably wish that there was; his gimmicks put butts in seats and created a generation of loyal fans. Indeed, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone in Spine Tingler! who doesn't love Castle.

Castle's story is an interesting one. Born William Schloss in 1914, he was orphaned at an early age and got into show business as a teenager, doing a lot of behind-the-scenes work on the New York stage as well as appearing in small parts. He met Orson Welles and was soon running his own theater, where he showed an early knack for establishing himself as a brand name and doing everything he can to promote his shows. Soon, he made his way to California, got a job with Columbia, moving up to directing B pictures before forming his own production company, where his famous gimmicks would come into play.

There's a lot of nifty stories told here. Filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz is able to bookend the film with stories of the ones that got away. Early in his career, he came to Columbia with an idea for a film that he wanted to make with Orson Welles; the studio eventually decided to have Welles direct; the result was The Lady from Shanghai. Much better known is how he would later purchase the rights to Rosemary's Baby with the hopes that this would be the film that changed how people remembered him as a director. Instead, Robert Evans cajoled him into selling Paramount the rights and working as a producer for Roman Polanski. Schwarz spends a fair amount of time on these stories, which have big names and big personalities, but also illustrate something about Castle's character that stayed constant throughout his life and career - that he did want to entertain moviegoers more than anything, and that despite his showmanship, he was one to put others before himself.

We're told as much by the people who knew him, primarily his daughter Terry Castle and niece Marcia Scully Little; he seemed to have a genuine fear of leaving his family to fend for themselves the way he had had to. As much as showmanship, that was the reasoning behind his use of gimmicks - he felt the need to ensure success, even when he had a good movie. Friends, family, and colleagues all speak highly of him, and when we get to hear his own voice (taken from a television appearance and a college lecture late in his career), he's laughing and high-spirited.

Schwarz gets a number of filmmakers and fans to comment on Castle, mostly the people you'd expect: Joe Dante, John Waters, Leonard Maltin, John Landis, etc.; people who clearly loved and were inspired by Castle and have worn that on their sleeves for their entire careers. Although Schwarz wasn't able to interview some of the big names - Roman Polanski and Mia Farrow are notably absent - he does get good stories from people who worked for him, notably The Tingler co-star Darryl Hickman and Straight-Jacket co-star Diane Baker, describing the surprisingly easy camaraderie between Castle and urbane Vincent Price and how working with a demanding star like Joan Crawford was a difficult experience. Marcel Marceau is also a great interview; he seems to retain great fondness for the director of his oddball feature Shanks.

There's not much behind-the-scenes footage to be had; Castle was a guy who worked fast and cheap and wasn't one to spend film on anything but the feature. Schwarz makes up the difference with film clips and black-and-white stills with Castle's face the sole color element. It's a bit reminiscent of The Kid Stays in the Picture, actually, or one of the DVD features that comprise the bulk of the output of Schwarz and his company.

That will likely be this film's ultimate destination, disc n+1 in an n-movie Castle box set. It's a pleasant overview of Castle's career, likely not revealing anything new to his die-hard fans, but a fun look at a certain corner of movie history.

Also at HBS.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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