William Castle, Auteur.

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Cult Cinema: Volume 3

In the 1950s, a group of French writers revolutionized film criticism with the magazine Cahiers du cinéma. By re-evaluating the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and John Hughes, among others, the critics gave birth to a grand unified ‘auteur theory,’ which positions the director as the ultimate creative force behind a film. This, contrary to all evidence suggesting that films of the 50s were ‘directed’ by turning on the camera and waiting for Elvis to slur something about ‘sweethearts’ and shake his dick at the camera.

Since then, the auteur theory’s focus on thematically linking a director’s oeuvre has allowed every dipshit film buff to trumpet their obscure filmmaker of choice as a forgotten genius. Everyone from Ed Wood to Rob Zombie has been advanced as an auteur, simply because their movies are consistently moronic, as if directed by one of those autistic kids who compulsively rock back and forth and mutter the same math equation over and over.

A director frequently mentioned in this context is William Castle, who has been undergoing somewhat of a critical re-evaluation since the release of the fawning documentary Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (2007). In the 1950s and 60s, Castle directed or produced a series of low-budget B-movie knock-offs of popular films, many featuring bizarre gimmicks like buzzers attached to theatre seats. Essentially, his films are what results when you let advertising executives make movies: everything becomes a theme park ride with action figure tie-ins and some asshole in a No Fear shirt drinking Mountain Dew, a decade after pre-teens thought that was cool.

The Cult: William Castle
The Flock: Video store clerks with Tarantino fetishes, guys who program retro movie nights
Basic Tenets: Inside every audience member is an young child full of wonder and awe, who happens to have been raised in a fucking box and is impressed by glow-in-the-dark skeletons.
Key Example: Homicidal (1961) – Directed by William Castle. Written by Robb White.

homicidalCastle’s most famous film is probably the Vincent Price ‘chiller’ The House on Haunted Hill (1959). But his best film, no doubt, is 1961 Psycho rip-off Homicidal. This is because, as with all ad execs/money grubbing film producers, William Castle had no soul.

He has a sense of humour, to be sure, and an eye for marketing. But this film is shameless, particularly in its transformation of Norman Bates’ Freudian murderer into a trans-gendered psychopath. I’m no fan of political correctness, but even I see the problem with having a post-op RuPaul decapitate old women for 90 minutes in the 1960s. And I have a subscription to the New Frontiersman.

Unfortunately for anyone on a moral high horse, Homicidal is actually an above average film, buoyed by decent performances by Glenn Corbett and Patricia Breslin. For the time period, the level of violence and twisted sexuality makes the film surprisingly subversive, though in the way that leads to hate crimes rather than velvet revolutions.

As for the gimmick, in this case it’s a ‘Fright Break’ that occurs during the climax, when the film stops and theatre patrons were allowed to request a refund if they felt overly terrified. I’m not sure if I’d have taken my money back or not, though I probably could have used the extra cash for an issue of Cahiers du cinéma. Or the New Frontiersman.

Al Kratina

4 Comments
  1. Floyd says

    What remains endearing about William Castle was his complete lack of pretense and humor in providing pure entertainment for fans of the genre. He had a better feel for his audience than most of the Hollywood producers of his time. Self-inflating gasbags like Kratina remind me of the King of Gasbags, Bosley Crowther, who inflicted NY Times readers with flatulent opinions in the name of “high art,” while panning films from Val Lewton to “Bonnie & Clyde.”

  2. James says

    Shouldn’t you have ended your comment by saying I thought so and not I didn’t think so. Or maybe your comment is actually fitting considering you didn’t quite think this through.

  3. Bones says

    Right. So, unless someone has made a film on a particular day, they are not entitled to an opinion? Well thought out. Though unless you happened to have written a film column today, you probably shouldn’t be commenting.

  4. Paul says

    Oh, you patronising jerk. William Castle directed an enormous number of films, some atrocious, some intermittently brilliant. I still recall seeing his early Robert Mitchum vehicle on tv – called Strangers When We Marry, it was creaky and B-movie to its core but managed two sequences of absolute cinematic genius amongst the exposition. He also produced The Lady From Shanghai and Rosemary’s Baby. What did you do today? Yeah? I didn’t think so.

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