William Castle was a genius. While some might be contemptuous of his gimmicks, I find them prophetic of today’s immersive and interactive theatre as well as live shows during film screenings, like “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and live scoring in repertory screenings.
Miguel Rodriguez, the founder of Horrible Imaginings, really has an understanding of what compelled Castle to stunt so proficiently and has some of the cinematic showman’s aesthetic himself. He did have the Frida’s theatre seats rigged for Percepto, the original gimmick that Castle used for THE TINGLER’s original theatrical run, after all. Rodriguez introduced the screening with a joy that showed that he really looked forward to what was about to happen and he noted that it was obvious from Castle’s onscreen intro of the film that Castle loved his work.
The plot of THE TINGLER is this: a pathologist, Dr. Warren Chapin (Vincent Price) who is obsessed with the study of fear and its effect on human bodies, suddenly has a breakthrough while studying a corpse. He notices that the spinal column has been crushed and surmises that some unknown beastie must be causing this damage. He returns home and meets with his kindly sister in law, Lucy Stevens, who is dating his assistant, Dave Morris, and who have been left waiting once again for the other obsessed man to come to pick her up for dinner. The sister in law and Chapin ominously speak about her sister, Isabel, who is married to Chapin, but since he pays little attention to her has taken to going around town with other men. (I really need to look into Castle’s tendency to have the lead male character have an unfaithful or difficult wife, it seems like an ongoing theme). Chapin also met a local theatre owner, Ollie Higgins, who has a deaf-mute wife, Martha Higgins, and has an idea about how to find the monster of fear in our bodies. The theatre owner’s wife’s bizarre death leads to the capture of THE TINGLER and then things are truly off to the races. At some point, Price’s character takes LSD. No, really, I am serious. This movie has it all. Castle’s creativity was bursting out all over, all for your entertainment. William Castle had a lot more going on in his head than many filmmakers of his time.
The reason that I say that Castle’s stunts are progenitors to today’s interactive theatre is that Castle isn’t afraid to break the fourth wall and does it frequently. In the films where he does use these gimmicks, he made many films without them, he not only invites audience participation, he demands it. He does it from the very start of THE TINGLER with his announcement and proceeds to involve the entire audience with both the Percepto buzzers and the command for the audience to scream to save themselves. This is the very same ethos that immersive theatre and interactive theatre are based on. The performers can touch you and demand that you react. The audience is no longer passively watching a film or live show, but they become part of it.
I have to say that while I was not lucky enough to be sitting in a seat rigged for Percepto, DAMMIT!, many people around me were. When Vincent Price, a wonderfully talented, intelligent and droll actor, intones the words, “Scream for your lives!”, the audience at the Frida responded wonderfully and at that moment, a spell was cast. THE TINGLER became more than the sum of its parts and ascended to a level of cinema magic.
After the screening, Miguel Rodriguez was elated. He jumped up and down for joy and thanked William Castle himself and his daughter, Terry Castle. He related that he had wanted to do this since he was seven years old and it felt like a special and never to be repeated or forgotten event. It was an amazing moment and if you weren’t there, you missed out. I don’t think that I truly understood the oeuvre of William Castle until that hour. Just so you know, William Castle is Robert Zemeckis’ favorite filmmaker and he founded Dark Castle Entertainment to remake Castle’s films, as he and Terry Castle did with The House On Haunted Hill and Thirteen Ghosts. Another rabid fan is John Waters who calls Castle his idol. Even Alfred Hitchcock was influenced by Castle and Roger Corman. Their successful films encouraged him to make the classic Psycho.
My father was a film nut and I’ll take a moment to tell the same story that I told Miguel Rodriguez that night. One of my dad’s favorite films was William Castle’s Thirteen Ghosts. He is not alone in that sentiment; no less a horror authority than Stephen King calls the film beautiful and almost arty. Miguel responded that he was thinking of screening Thirteen Ghosts too, but he would have to work out how to do the ghost viewer since the film is in Illusion-O, which isn’t quite 3-D but works along with a similar principle. So, be warned, Miguel Rodriguez may be bringing another William Castle classic to Horrible Imaginings at some point and I would advise you not to miss your opportunity to experience a William Castle film like THE TINGLER in the form that the master intended it to be shown. It really does make a difference.