Movies & TV
Film Reviews: William Castle
These are William Castle film reviews, but I also have done academic and found footage work with Castle.
The Chance of a Lifetime
"Your logic is simply hypnotic" says a 'dumb copper' to Boston Blackie in The Chance of a Lifetime. I can't help but feel the logic of William Castle's directing follows in turn. Castle certainly developed his stylistic system and method of directing across his career, but this early entry characterizes his lack more than anything else (a lack he wold make up for in time). Diegetic space is constructed through cut-in shots in an otherwise static cinematographic setup. Later, Castle would develop his system with more mobile framing and angular contrapuntal direction (Ohmart in the Emergo scene in Haunted Hill is captured through multiple angular shots). In The Chance, the camera is positioned with frontality as the dominant stylistic scheme. When groups of characters are framed, they huddle staged symmetrically in front of the camera lens creating balanced tableaux shots. The staging and blocking does not have the oblique quality prominent in later Castle films. The story itself involves Blackie's proposed plan to the state's Governor to parole ex-cons in order to aid in munitions manufacturing for the war. Recidivism and risk assessment are the name of the game as Blackie gets tangled up in the loose ends of an old crime of one of the paroled cons. There is good suspense and characterization but at times the acting is stilted while the dialogue is a little on-the-nose. Characteristic of Castle's B-status films, plot contrivances abound. While I cannot agree, an earlier reviewer on imdb.com noted that the contrivances are an asset or perhaps aid for progressing the plot. The 'cigarette gag' and 'secret panel' gag have the lameness that makes narrative progress move forward with an awkward gait. The buffoonery of the police was an issue with the critics upon release of the film. The portrayal of the police as stooges gets tired and leads to the story dragging somewhat. The ending involves confessions under extreme duress and although neat, are also an element of convenience at service of the producers and not the audience. The flaws in directing would be repeated several times by Castle as he worked slowly to develop a more sound stylistic system.
When Strangers Marry
Only one year after The Chance, William Castle was developing his stylistic system with leaps and bounds. The opening scene of When Strangers Marry demonstrates creative blocking and staging. The mysterious big man at the bar has his back squared-up to the camera but you will notice his shoulder slightly blocks out the front of the bartender's face. This is a nice touch in the directing to emphasize the physical size and thus ominous presence of the mystery man. This kind of technique greatly supports plot progression in focusing the line of questioning of the spectator immediately onto the identity of the unknown figure. Castle also explores the abilities and utility of mobile framing. The effect is not only solid construction of space but also formation of an energy and dynamism in directing that translates to the mise-en-scene and diegetic world. Castle also defies other crutches of B-status films through adhering to elements of continuity. Certain scenes involve hi-key lighting setups framing characters in closeup while in these shots Castle is consistent in providing diegetic light sources that match up to lighting effects. A nice touch. Another nice touch is something out of the Jean Renoir book (high praise for Castle) when the depth of field and deep staging of certain scenes allows characters seen in the distance through apartment windows to contribute to the progression of the plot in a casual and realistic manner. Some Castle tropes get an early treatment in this film. The "Silk Stocking Murder" begs many questions, not the least being one about why the audiences were not provided with a gimmicky pair of stockings on their way into the theatre. Castle frames a clock which is a popular trope of his. He also makes an appearance in the film (through a framed photo). The prop becomes an integral part of the plot as opposed to holding mere decorative function. Castle's photo might be considered one of his early gimmicks and is certainly connected to my own thesis about his impresario directing playing on the enframing and 4th Wall violations of screen-spectator identification. This interplay of interiority and exteriority runs throughout the film from the sequence at Coney Island with the carny barker (great montage sequence) and when the couple "takes in a movie". More Castle developments can be mentioned... the floating heads made a regular appearance in his famous gimmick horror films as well as the oblique framing of shadows. It is difficult to understand how Castle became stymied with primitive stylistic systems while he so crisply demonstrated a full understanding of who he was to become as a director in When Strangers Marry. And the film received high critical praise. This confounds me. The one Castle prerequisite element that I could do without however is the plot contrivances. Strangers has its fair share of contrivance from convenient gaps in the blasting of street music (just close the window!) to a missing persons report being filled with a homicide detective. The ending has a twist but is contrived and a little too cute. All in all, one of the superior directing efforts by Castle and an engaging film overall.
Texas, Brooklyn & Heaven
Through fits and starts is no way to engage a film spectator. Undivided attention is volunteered and not guaranteed. Clearly with Texas-Brooklyn, Castle and the producers forgot these tenets of spectatorship. The long talks in the car had me paying attention to the rear projection in hopes of a bit of action. Although dry at first, these talks later became more interesting through developing the characters. That being said, characterization was overall ambiguous. I feel that many reviewers of this film will be more forgiving than myself because of how "gosh-darn" cute the couple was. Diana Lynn did play her character very well. If the film story has relevance it is mostly anachronistic in nature. There are plot digressions and long drawn-out scenes that do little for forwarding the story. Some mobile framing creeps in, but for the most part Castle is doing nothing special stylistically in order to foster spectator engagement. Coney Island makes an appearance again, but unlike in When Strangers Marry there is no creative montage sequence to accompany the fun fair. Margaret Hamilton also makes an appearance but is effectively side-lined rendering her casting value next to nil. Castle would not make the same mistake when directing Hamilton in 13 Ghosts, many years later. If you have other things to do, you can either not watch this film, or simply keep it running in the background while doing something more important.
The Fat Man
I might get into some hot water here because film adaptations of popular radio serials are held in high regard for many. I am admittedly not familiar with the radio show to which this Castle film was based. In all honesty, I am quite convinced that it played better without the visual component. There are too many flashbacks that slog down plot progression. The effect is an instability of mood throughout the film. Castle's direction is plodding and does little to compensate. There are some good moments of mobile framing and blocking/staging, however, most often Castle relies on simple short pan re-framing and frontality in his staging. Not only does this strategy limit the impact of the director's authorial voice, but also prevents provocative psychological portrayals of the characters. The Fat Man is literally and figuratively carried on the weight of the reputation of its titular character. The 'fat man' has his moments - corny, quaint and digressive. That being said, his dancing number should become a contemporary viral meme - hashmark Twinkle Toes. Clown of renown, Emmett Kelly makes an appearance and the climax of the film is set around the circus grounds. You might think fun times but don't forget that impressionable Kelly hobo long face.
Conquest of Cochise
I remain staggered when contemplating the inconsistency of directing in William Castle's oeuvre. My being boggled is seemingly rooted in Castle's implementation of two stylistic systems. The less compelling system pervades Conquest, featuring passive direction characterized by tableau frontality in the staging/blocking and camera positioning that succumbs to the idea that action should pass through it or track it in the most linear manner imaginable. Recalling the Boston Blackie films, Conquest groups characters in symmetrical staging creating an evenness like a Moe Howard bowl cut. There is nothing spontaneous in the mise-en-scene. Hackneyed quips and stilted performances abound. I believe the AFI archival notes on the film remark that the uniforms didn't fit historically. The stereotyping throughout Conquest of Cochise would fit adequately if you upped the action sequences in quantity and quality. The stereotyping could thus be rendered parody and cartoonish (or to a comic-strip homage in the least). The authorial voice of Castle is mute in this film and sequences are connected with sterile methodical execution. As such, the 4th Wall remains intact and the story is required to tell itself. The story itself is poorly developed and the characterization does nothing to create spectator engagement. Too much melodrama and not enough action renders a comic strip story into a tepid soap opera. Romantic subplots are developed as filler and not as focused torrid affairs. The 'talkiness' is dominant begging questions as to whether this churned out "B" historical Western was not produced solely to serve necking teens who required a dark anonymous escape for a couple of hours. The ethnography of this film is bunk for a contemporary audience and perhaps outdated even at the time of its release. Were these Katzman-Castle history-drama productions simply gimmicks in service of a romantic subculture among teen audiences? I will admit that it would be easy to pay full attention to my lover's lips and blouse buttons with Conquest of Cochise playing - there would be no chance of a distraction.
Slaves of Babylon
Like many of the Katzman-Castle films of this era, Slaves of Babylon renders the color process a gimmick by purveying it through a hollow vehicle. This film is the hole in the biblical doughnut. The acting is poor (comical, in fact) and the dialogue is wasteful in service of irritating 'bible-speak' quips. I won't split hairs on the use of Stars of David embroidery for all Jewish characters, but will mention that the historical accuracy is off by over a thousand years. As for Castle's direction, there are some moments of mobile framing and oblique staging, but they seem to remain in service of promoting the color process itself (Nahum at the river). Dramatic scenes are continuously cut short or dealt with indifferently from the point of direction. The most absurd example of this indifferent direction is when future King Cyrus is told by his father that his mother was raped to conceive him... we don't even get a front view of Cyrus at any point during this reveal! Continuous high and low angle framing never clarifies its purpose as being that of a transcendental historical subject or a diegetically-based critic of the relationship of servant and master. Needless to say, this film is the epitome of anti-dramatic and is conflated with inconsistency in tone, pace and sense of itself as a text. The mise-en-scene is too tableau to be considered painterly. The painted backdrops are positioned to announce themselves confidently as fake. There is a theme of tapestry in this film and that is perhaps the only interesting element weaving through the storyline. With no depth perceivable, I would have to remark the only single vanishing point as being the interest of the audience member.
The Saracen Blade
Like other films in this era of Katzman-Castle production, The Saracen Blade puts an emphasis on tableau (symmetrical composition of mise-en-scene within the framing of a static camera positioned with frontality as the dominant). Castle outdoes himself this time as he adds a new element to his beleaguered stylistic system - suture! The shot-reverse-shot editing system is not only naively constructed and overt, but poorly employed with relation to the plot progression. As a result, there is a stagnant pace. I pity that a talented director such as William Castle found himself compulsively alternating between two stylistic systems for different films. The Saracen Blade is a 1954 release - and one of eight Castle films released that year! If the authorial voice seems mute perhaps it was a result of the man being overworked. The script doesn't help as the narrative is relayed with tweenish 'dear-diary' precision and crossing-guard intuition. If only this film wore a bright reflective 'X' it might become self-aware and develop a set of compensatory unique qualities. As it stands, the film hunches and then limps. Despite each sequence taken individually having the flavor of a bad porno, there is no passion infused into character relationships. All the characters seem sickeningly smug about the conflicts that befall them. But fear not, for Castle would soon break free from a bunk system of mechanical and mass reproduction in the guise of historical action-drama storytelling in order to forge the better parts of a stylistic system that he had been struggling to express for most of his career (When Stranger Marry had established most of the elements).
This is a much better Technicolor production than many of the other Castle films of the era. Castle brings back his oblique staging/blocking from When Strangers Marry and adds some well-implemented low and high angle shots (which had been poorly employed in preceding Castle films) in order to develop a clear psychological motivation for the titular character. The shot-reverse-shot editing system is constructed with greater subtlety than previous Technicolor Castle films, making the suture smoother and thus more endearing and engaging for the spectator. Great depth of field creeps back into Castle's stylistic system in this film, aided by picturesque natural exteriors. Castle plays around with montage sequences, employed purposefully as ellipses and appropriately progressing the plot. I am reserved in labeling certain elements of the production as 'budget' due to the possibility of a poor transfer for the copy I viewed (in particular I am referring to the cross-cut shots of wild animals). The script is more natural and well-put together than other Castle films of the era and a nice fit for the milieu of The Americano. The story focuses on real people talking honestly to each other. Pace slows and shot-reverse-shot construction gets sloppy half way through the film but is compensated for by some frantic action sequences that distinguish a morality for Ford's character that drives the rest of the narrative forward. There is a fun musical number, triadic in function - it serves as entr'acte for the story, a prompt for budding romantic subplots and an homage to the chanchadas of Brazil (ironic, given that after all the Columbia Pictures distribution of Castle's films that The Americano was released through RKO). It was at this time that Columbia Pictures's exploitation of the Brazilian film market was reaching critical mass and spurring the development of the Cinema Novo counter-cinema movement. The Americano climaxes in dramatic confessions provided under extreme duress which perfectly mirror Castle's The Chance of a Lifetime (1943) and teases-out a neat closure to a film that operated with few plot contrivances.
A ticking clock visually accompanies a prologue for Macabre with voice-over narrator warning of the possibility of fright that could lead to injury for the film spectators. The clock will reappear at intervals throughout the film and is an object from the diegesis of the film (it hangs over the funeral parlor like a theatre marquee). The clock was perhaps Castle's most popular motif throughout his career. Macabre is Castle's first gimmick horror film and his first teaming with screenwriter Robb White. They formed an excellent partnership and brought their A-game to B-films. There is creative framing, good blocking/staging of the characters as well as novel lighting setups which help to create an eerie mood and sense of uncanny. Some reviewers have criticized the extended use of flashback sequences and at first I was inclined to agree about their superfluousness. I reversed myself when I discovered that Christine White's performance was the bulk of what I remembered from the film. She makes an impression as does her dynamic character, caught between childish innocence and vamp seduction. What her character is truly blind to is conscious self-reflection and introspection and this provides a cue for the audience to begin evaluating information differently while experiencing the film. I believe that White and Castle hoped to elicit a sense of suspicion and paranoia for the audience through these plotting techniques. The flashbacks are not convoluted but do certainly contribute to an over-arching contrivance in the plot of the story as it pertains to trysts and family relationships. Other contrivances are just silly - a dying old man wields a devastating cane in a manner that would require the lats of Atlas himself. The contrivances hold up though as does the gimmick Castle employed to generate hype about the film. The beneficiary agreement that patrons signed when attending Macabre is not hokey in the slightest as it connects up perfectly with the story and main plot point of the film itself. "How do I know there was a phone call" is an important line in the film that marks a further progression in the fostering of suspicion and paranoia for spectators. These single-minded goals to solve mysteries keep Macabre true to its genre and the mood it seeks to create. The second flashback sequence may seem too obvious but it aptly supports the paranoid, suspicious mood Castle hopes to propagate through the characters and surely within the audience as well. The main spook of the film is a blink-and-miss-it kind of ordeal and is more relevant as a diversion for closure than as a genuine creator of shock or terror. The final shot of the film is abrupt - curt and discourteous - and is likely the worst shot in the film as a result. It is followed by the most ham-handed part of the film where the voice over narration starts up again, this time reminding - or warning - the audiences to keep their lips sealed about the ending of the film once leaving the theatre. I cannot understand this warning because it seems to presume that young people are sufficiently immature to thrill in schadenfreude spoilers while neglecting the recognition that said young people would also necessarily be the types to do the opposite of whatever an adult tells them. Ironically moronic if you ask me. Excellent animation is provided for the end credit crawl and many felt that it was the highlight of an otherwise lack-luster film. I would tend to disagree with that opinion. Macabre is a fun, well-paced, well-directed, well-scripted, well-acted suspense thriller horror film that marks a special time in film history as the B movie attempted to grow some legs at the box office and some independent wings in the creativity department. After watching the dreary Katzman-Castle historical dramas, Macabre is a sight for sore eyes.
House on Haunted Hill
Send in the floating heads! Castle gets to employ one of his popular horror motifs in the opening sequence as a superfluous prologue from two of the film's main characters (Pritchard and Loren) provide some unnecessary details on the adventure to come. What do we know? There will be wretched screams and menacing moans, also that we are dealing with a haunted house, and that the characters have all been invited to this house by an elusively-motivated millionaire host. That is to say, we already know too much. This direct address prologue is on-the-nose and should have been out the window. Speaking of windows, what's up with that rope? Subjective paranoia and supernatural spooks start to blend well in this film but rely a little to heavily on contrivance and diversion. Haunted Hill is a very self-reflexive film text with only one elegant and genial introspective moment (Price's Loren character coyly glances at the camera as he passes by it just after the first real spook moment from within the house). Is Loren the mastermind of terror or hapless victim of forces beyond his control? The question was played out soundly in this original and the Malone remake. Although the story of Haunted Hill does not thrill, the directing is quite proficient. If I remain true to my own thesis (Castle directed well only the good scripts he worked with) then surely I am not valuing this story as I should. Castle compensates for my criticism through good staging/blocking (old lady spook well foregrounded in the frame) and strong use of the long take and mobile framing (creating a sense of psychological presence for the spectator). This film is more genuinely amusing than Macabre but is rife with silly contrivance which tends to disrupt the pace and tone. The highlight of the film (nope, not Emergo) is the Ohmart-Price banter (significantly better than Rush and Janssen in the remake). The Loren marriage relationship drives the narrative as it should. There are some clever moments in the story that spark questions about the nature of spook contrivance, namely that perhaps the story is told from the warped psychology of one of the characters (maybe even emanating from the 'injured head' of the seemingly most stable character). Price's own character unveils his 'Emergo' contraption near the end, which of course was accompanied by Castle's Emergo "live" version put right into the theatres at the time. The gimmick is far-fetched and digressive from the story itself, but I imagine it was a lot of fun for audiences at the time. Castle was now beginning to get himself a reputation as a producer-director worth supporting. He was also finding success at the box office which would bode well for the production value of later films.
The prologue for The Tingler is more genial and relevant than Castle's previous two horror films. Castle appears on-screen and provides an 'hors-d'oeuvre' (in the Cahillian sense) to the story and urges the audience to scream if they find themselves feeling threatened. The floating heads return as a motif, wailing and shrieking over the fading image of Castle. The story of The Tingler tarries with the experience of fear, positing a connection between dying in fear and dying of fear. It is claimed that the titular creature is a manifestation of fear, fully forming only through solemn acts of repression. Castle and White add some clever touches to their layered characters (Price's doctor character ODs on LSD, a lip-reading deaf woman uses shadows to communicate). The film gets a little talky and perhaps Castle didn't know where to edit due to his past (working with stage productions, then radio show film adaptations, then Katzman budget 'epic' melodramas). The talkiness doesn't bog down the spectator experience thanks to the vital performances of Hickman, Cutts and Price (and Judith Evelyn of course). Castle directs effectively, substituting cuts and short shots for his traditional "good" directing techniques of the long take and mobile framing. There are some cute self-reflexive moments (tingle the Projectionist, and the use of Pathe colour process). Castle also employs a cleverly self-reflexive lighting set-up he would go back to in other films where the obscuring to characters by shadow and light are created evenly across a single straight line (usually a horizontal one cutting the body in half effectively and providing a sense of the uncanny). The specular elements of the script play well with the gimmick Castle employed - Percepto! The film left me with some important questions, particularly regarding Castle's gimmicks. The limitations of special effects in horror and science fiction movies were pretty clear in the 1950s. In fact, almost all high quality special effects required a high production budget to pull off. The Tingler has some pathetic moments where wires show and where Price is too self-conscious about his animation of the Tingler monster. Perhaps, the gimmicks were a solid alternative to spending money on high quality special effects. I suppose the only way to know for sure would be to examine how Castle budgeted for his gimmicks. It has been noted that Castle's initial order of Percepto units was small and only upon success of sneak preview screenings did he begin to splurge his funds on more units of the gimmick. Also John Waters mentions in his book, Crackpot, that at the theatre he visited for a screening of The Tingler, only about 10 seats were wired with a Percepto unit. Nevertheless, The Tingler is a great example of a film with artistic merit in form and artisan merit in its business model.
The opening shots of 13 Ghosts are accompanied by screams and shrieks as the frame is filled with a sequence of stills of ghost drawings. At the heart of this story is something familiar - a child's wish. Despite a theme of transparency, unfortunately, the story gets convoluted and hazy with the wishes and desires of numerous other characters. The strongest element of the story is thus diluted much like the images of the ghosts themselves. The direction of Castle is nothing too spectacular either. The juxtaposition of daytime 3-pt lighting set-ups with the shadowy noir lighting setups in the haunted house are rendered disjointed through rushed ellipses in the script. The framing and staging/blocking is too tableau and renders the performances seemingly stilted. Some of the tricks are a little too cute (a fly is zapped by Zorba's "ghost viewers" - why?!). Castle gets some inspiration from Margaret Hamilton who he was able to cast much better this time (Texas, Brooklyn and Heaven was wasteful) and he frames her well with low angle shots and obscure lighting in the backgrounds of her shots. There are plot contrivances (as always with Castle) with the most ludicrous being that the family would stay in a house where they had all clearly witnessed a supernatural act (Dad explains that they are all just tired and therefore suggestive - doubtful the audience would relate to this sentiment). The questions raised by the audience regarding subletting are not addressed while White and Castle seem to think it is sufficient to infuse the script with a song-and-dance about potential auctioning of the house if contracts are not followed to the letter. A bunch of naive characters presumes a naive audience (never a good thing) and as mentioned above, the story would have rung truer had it focused on the possibility of a deeper connection between the ghosts and the little boy (maybe even a psychic one). The Dark Castle lot tromps through all the failures of this film to make an even bigger mess in the remake (in the remake, the little boy doesn't even care about the ghosts - not even the one of his own mother!). The effectiveness of the gimmick of Illusion-O is about as thin as their plastic you look through to see the ghosts on screen. That being said, the masses love novel souvenirs and Castle comes through on that end this time.
The premise is tight - a man struggling to keep love from flying out the window happens upon some luck when his dead father is buried with what turns out to be a winning lottery ticket. When the man digs up the body and retrieves the ticket, he is cursed and deformed so that his countenance matches that of the corpse. The man becomes a rich baron with his lottery winnings but can find no happiness given his deformity. A doctor is beckoned to the Baron's castle and that is where things get interesting as the doctor eventually is commissioned under duress to find a cure for the baron's condition. This film opens with a prologue (like many of the Castle horror films) and I would say that this prologue is the best of them all because Castle positions himself into the milieu of the diegetic. That being said, he doesn't mention the gimmick employed for the film (perhaps a wise decision). The direction of Castle is very good with lots of mobile framing, good staging/blocking and adept lighting setups for creating the right mood. My favorite part of this film is the dialogue, especially the witty banter of Baron Sardonicus. The narrative is compelling and much of the direction aids in building a psychological identification for the spectator (echoes while dreaming and daydreaming, pov shots, and some cleverly distorted floating heads!). There is also a creative and dramatic use of depth of field. As engaging as the film is, there are still some elements to the directing and script that I found wanting. Things start to get a little too talky and I couldn't help but feel Castle was compelled to make a few poor choices due to his long career in directing terrible historical melodramas with Sam Katzman. However, this doesn't excuse the weakness of the gimmick (the Punishment Poll). Ironically, for all the plot contrivances in Castle films this time it is his gimmick that is most contrived... and totally unnecessary. In a Stuart Gordon interview it would become apparent that there were not two endings, but John Waters seems to believe that there would have been (the jury is out I guess). Despite the gimmick for Sardonicus being a failure, the spooks in the film are genuinely creepy and the film is a strong addition to Castle's horror for its self-reflexive themes (with irony built in - think about the use of mirrors). Two other strengths of this film (and I am guilty of not often highlighting such elements in my reviews) are the adept use of sound which heightens the creepy mood and also the casting of Ronald Lewis as Sir Robert. If you watch Keanu Reeves in Dracula and then Lewis in this film, you will quickly question what was wrong with the British film industry in the 50s and 60s that an actor like Lewis with his Hasselhof/Reeves looks and straight-man demeanor would end up falling so hard, so fast (he eventually committed suicide in 1982). Sardonicus is one of the better Castle films, yet with one of the worst gimmicks.
First of all, if one adamantly holds that Homicidal is a Psycho knockoff and Castle is a Hitchcock wannabe, then take a fright break and do your historical research because neither holds up against the facts. That being said, Castle is no Hitchcock, but personally I believe Homicidal is a better film than Psycho (it is my least favorite Hitchcock I might add, and I've seen only about a dozen). Homicidal is fresh in its sexual politics, whereas Psycho is traditional (one could say the former adds to post-structuralist discourse while the latter adds to structuralist discourse). Homicidal introduces the transvestite as a conscious chooser, as opposed to Bates who is wracked with psychological strife. Bates cannot express his intentions honestly even when being upfront, whereas the Emily character of Homicidal appears to have plans for everyone. I couldn't help but feel this character was so well developed that they might have a sexual political manifesto tucked away in their study, just waiting for the twenty-teens when it could be published and hailed as a Constitution of Rights and Freedoms for the hard-done-by and misunderstood. The story does not get by on a self-piteous treatment, but that sentiment is at the core of all its characters. Psycho, thematically, is a mere anachronistic blip in comparison. In fact, the rhetoric of Psycho has DSM written all over it (hopefully one day we just throw that thing out and start again). Did the PCA get in Hitchcock's way? Not at least in the expression of currency of sexual politics as the PCA's greatest problems were with a "torrid" love-making scene in the opening sequence and with references in the dialogue to incestuous relations of Bates and his mother. This is old hat. Homicidal provokes a hetero-normative anxiety that Psycho never could - the anxiety regarding the formation and presence of self-sufficient and full independent non-hetero-normative persons. Herein lies the terror of this film because if you don't like Bates running around stabbing people, you just lock him up and throw away the key, but Emily in the same situation would find a way to persuade a new key to be made. She shows rational agency and cunning resourcefulness. Norman's secrets scream out at the audience "I like panties and I don't know why!", but Emily has a very different motivation and it is clearer (to her at least). To the hetero-normative audience this clarity of motivation is insidious and sinister. Castle and White are clearly attuned to a more developed understanding of "fringe" sexuality and radical sexual politics. I digress and my reviews rarely end up so tangential and polemical. As for the independent analysis of Homicidal, the opening sequence tells a lot. Castle provides another prologue, this time hailing his own previous films and thus interpellating his audience into the Castle 'brand'. The milieu is urban, the time of day is high noon... not characteristic of Castle branded horror. As the characters drive out to the suburbs at night things are getting more familiar. The wedding scene is bizarre, unpredictable and establishes an erratic pace that will be forgiving to the plot points as they come up. There is good characterization and performance as we land back in a small shadowy town. The voice-dubbing is good, but not uncanny. That being said, the odd synchronicity works well on the denial of a culture only just becoming aware of the new voices to be represented in its society. There are some amusing allusions when the knife sharpener shows up. The final sequence is accompanied by a 'fright break'. There is a clock superimposed onto the frozen frame on the screen. A heart is heard beating. A voice-over announcer directly addresses the audience regarding the opportunity to leave the theatre for fear of fright. This gimmick appears to be well connected to Psycho and Hitchcock's own gimmick for the exhibition of his film (he wouldn't let anyone come into the theatre after it started playing). For Castle, the one-upmanship was a disaster waiting to happen. Ironically, his own ego could not support the idea of not only competing to create a great gimmick related to his film but to have it as an apt counterpoint to another film/gimmick combination. He was suffering from his own genius imagination and the nature of the industry at the time and all in the worst possible way. Coward's corner was the resultant gimmick for releasing the pressure and sadly it was a place for Castle more than anyone else. I think he would soon realize that. That being said, the final shot of the film provides great insight and a moral lesson (seldom part of Castle films). A well directed effort by Castle and a brave, powerful film that will inevitably withstand the test of time (but not the scorn of Hitchcockites).
The Old Dark House
Zotz!.. another William Castle and Tom Poston lighthearted dark adventure for all ages. Amusing quips and snappy banter abound. There are some plot contrivances (typically par for the Castle course). The Old Dark House would surely have been better suited for black and white film stock as the milieu is inherently sinister. That being said the full color palette does tend to heighten the humor elements of the story as Poston's pink puppy dog cheeks remind us of how sweet and naive a witless hero can be. However, the chromatic compromise confounds establishment of mood and thus character motivation. A third of the duration of the film passes prior to the formation of a real clue about the plot (which according to other reviewers holds little sway in the realm of fidelity to the original Priestly story or Whale film from the thirties). The staging/blocking and mobile framing are not constructed with any technical finesse or creative flair. I tend to find that Castle's best directing efforts are inspired by higher quality scripts he works with. For Castle, when the storytelling stammers his direction staggers and his authorial voice goes mute. There are shades of this crutch in The Old Dark House. Similar to Zotz!, Poston plays a character that reminds one of Leonid Gaidai's Shurik character - fumbling and bumbling through the simplest of tasks, getting himself into trouble way over his head, and gallantly dodging sexy, seductive women who throw themselves at him bosom-to-face. If you wanted to probe and plumb this film for some deeper value, try a psychoanalytic approach a la Freud or Lacan. Personally, I wouldn't bother... but you never know, it might yield some good things. As it stands, this is an amusing film that is best watched while doing something more important.
Unobtrusive mobile framing and creative use of depth of field have Strait-Jacket starting out on the right footing. The use of music sets up a humorous tone that will permeate the film experience, while the voice-over narration creates a pseudo-documentary mood (and all the better for close psychological examination by the audience). Castle employs a lot of useful techniques in his direction in order to emphasize the psychological. The first murder sequence uses great alternating shot scale, effective montage and superimposition of frames. This sequence is a clever and thoughtful bridge for the story ellipsis and then opening credits. This opening sequence is also a perfect conduit for properly establishing the psychological relationship of the mother (Crawford) and daughter (Baker). Castle was living his dream with this film as he was able to 'partner' with Crawford and 'poach' Bloch (writer of Hitchcock's Psycho). The script flows evenly and every scene progresses the dramatic value of the story. Bloch includes lots of cute theme-related puns. The haunting children's rhymes remind one of Craven's Elm Street. Amazing tension is created throughout and advanced especially through the use of sound. The cigarette lighting moment becomes a film classic (in this reviewer's opinion). The butcher scene with George Kennedy is a close second on the visual front at least. The studio distributors had advised Castle to turn away from using gimmicks and although he cheated somewhat, I believe that the film is much better for his decision to secure Crawford in the role and please the distributors. One final note would be to relate Strait-Jacket's moral to that of Renoir's adaptation of Zola's La Bete Humaine in 1938. It may be considered a stretch by some, but the concept of 'hereditary insanity' is a provocative link between the works.
The Night Walker
Castle follows the Strait-Jacket formula in The Night Walker by casting a couple of former heavyweight champs (Stanwyck and Taylor) and retaining Bloch for another script. Castle's direction is less inspired than Strait-Jacket although the mise-en-scene and depth of field become compelling for creating an ironic sense of claustrophobia and solitude. The opening sequence is bereft of a Castle prologue, but Bloch has written in a poetic voice-over address accompanied by a surreal and technically proficient montage sequence. The shot-reverse-shot editing is sloppy and overt at times and fails to use alternating sound design. There is little alternating shot scale within a scene and few closeups during intense moments. All these elements combined make close psychological identification with characters difficult. Castle keeps the mood eerie through good noir lighting setups, dense smokescreens and mysterious explosions. I wouldn't say that the film follows a dream logic but it shows a significant repression in such a regard and is at least conscious of doing so. This self-reflexive aspect of the film text provokes questions from the spectator which likely aids in retaining engagement given that the pace of the story can lag. The special effects are pretty crumby and the film had no gimmick support. The twists at the end can only be supported through the most convoluted of contrivance, making this film's resolution rather dreary.
I Saw What You Did
I Saw What You Did opens with an eye-hole 'peep' matte shot (keyhole effect in full play) which also links the two main characters (teenage girls) as they get into a phone conversation preparing for a sleepover. This opening shot is both specular and cleverly ironic, which would bode well for this Castle film. Another element playing in Castle's favor is the casting of Joan Crawford. Castle's direction is compellingly and compulsively off and with no perceivable explanation as the script is fresh enough and the characters are fun and dynamic. The shot-reverse-shot editing and tableau framing creates a sense of camp. There is a splattering of oblique framing aptly creating an unobtrusive camera, however other elements such as the heavy shadows of a uninspired noir lighting setup do not fit with the theme and therefore no stable mood is created and the pace of narrative progression staggers. There is good humor with the crank-calling and the shower scene is dramatic and well choreographed. Castle is again ahead of his time (or of the A-picture studio system at least) as he plays around with a psychologically-attractive theme that would be replayed in the genre through films such as When a Stranger Calls (1979) and of course Wes Craven's Scream. The film's story is psychologically-based and has a thematic appealing to youth and adding to popular challenges on the construction of traditional conceptions of the young female. There is an idea purveyed that a young woman can take care of herself and stay safe just by talking her way through potential trouble. Castle proved long ago that he has a touch for evoking self-reflexivity within the film text and with the spectator - he was a true impresario of the medium. A good use of a mirror in this film underscores these points. There is an incredibly provocative shot constructed with intuition and style where the child and killer are framed in deep staging (so why the cheesy jewelbox cover?). My primary complaint about this film is that Crawford's character needed more involvement in the script and more screen time. I Saw What You Did is a fun film worth watching, but many oversights through scripting, direction and production keep it from being a great film.
Let's Kill Uncle
Great energy created through well-constructed juxtaposition gets this film revved up from the get-go. A car crash is followed by children nearly fist-fighting... then cross-cutting to sharks feeding. Castle uses some good depth of field on the ship creating a sense of mobility (restlessness is a key theme in the film). The staging/blocking is sound creating a sense for the relationships of the characters and their motivation. The direction is attuned for spectator identification and Castle's spooks have heightened effectiveness as a result. The dialogue has an honesty and naturalism reminiscent of Castle's The Americano. Then the titular uncle arrives and good acting all around keeps the film engaging and entertaining. The plot contrivances have to be overlooked simply for the fact that Let's Kill Uncle is a William Castle film! This is one of his better "screwball horror" films which followed his gimmick horror films.
Shanks opens with a bizarre sequence where Marceau's character is performing a puppet show for a small audience of children. There are certain avant-garde editing techniques used which set the mood for the film and are reminiscent of the intro sequence to The Night Walker. Castle decides to employ intertitle cards, however, they function as a self-reflexive prompt for the audience in lieu of a surrogate for vocal expressions by the lead character (a mute character throughout the film although Marceau plays a second role with spoken lines). The directing has little finesse in its execution. The shot-reverse-shot editing seeks to suture spectator identification, but is too clumsy and overt (needs alternating use of sound). Staging/blocking uses frontality as dominant and much of the interesting mise-en-scene is wasted for observation when redundant and sterile cut-ins continuously disrupt the mood while providing no extra insight to character psychology. The two roles played by Marceau are quite genius and provide great uplift for an otherwise pedestrian production effort. The dual roles play into Castle's own authorial voice quite well and it is very surprising that he didn't direct this film better (keep in mind that it was his last). The two roles played by Marceau and the theme of the film itself play with concepts of interiority, exteriority, surrogacy and symbiosis (it is my thesis that Castle's gimmicks operated along these lines as well). There are some other provocative ideas at play within this script and its presentation by Castle (for the psychoanalysis enthusiasts). There is a critical commentary about the corruption of sexual desire, death of sex drives and the animation/re-animation of youth in old bodies. There are criminological science ideas at play (issues of mens rea, Manson cultism, issues of culpability, etc.) rendering the film text richer and more relevant to its genre. Castle adds in some more self-reflexive touches, including his bit role as shop owner, a horror film playing on a TV set, and a well-shot and choreographed rooster attack with the latter borrowing significance from Strait-Jacket. The narrative frame keeps the fiction fenced-in and given Castle's oeuvre he could discard it pretty quickly in favor of a more open and interactive ending. The film is interesting and moderately entertaining but gets too cute pretending to be a fly caught in a spider's web when it should have been stampeding as an elephant until running into a frightened mouse. After a long a prosperous filmmaking career, Castle may have been running out of steam.