AFI Fest Report: SPINE TINGLER! THE WILLIAM CASTLE STORY Review

, Managing Editor

AFI Fest will present the World Premiere of Spine Tingler! tonight, Thursday, November 8; the film will also screen on Saturday, November 10. For ticket information, visit the AFI Fest web site.

Spine Tingler! is a warm, funny and affectionate portrait of a man who genuinely loved what he did, but it's not for everybody -- only for those who love movies.

Jeff Schwartz's film rarely relates the life of William Castle to the larger world around him. In my mind, that's a plus, because it assumes that the viewer has a basic knowledge of history and the movies. In other words, it treats the viewer with respect.

And it rises far above the level of the average DVD "extra" because Castle's bright personality is reflected in the people who talk about him on camera. It's hard to believe the man is not alive. There's no false modesty or misplaced hero worship -- the filmmakers, fans, and family members who speak so warmly about Castle do so while recognizing that his films are not lost masterpieces.

Rather, Castle was an efficient filmmaker who longed to make higher-quality pictures but was stymied by a studio system that marginalized his talents. He made the most of less-than-ideal situations by maximizing the entertainment value of his films -- even if that meant resorting to gimmicks that had their roots in the early days of cinema.

Ultimately, Spine Tingler! is an inspiring story of an independent-minded producer and director who knew that, above all, he had to please his audience or he might never be able to make another picture. As his daughter Terry Castle says, he may have been "driven by fear," but the result was that he became the toast of the American movie-going public and influenced scores of future filmmakers.

I found Spine Tingler! to be an education in telling the story of a pioneering independent producer. I knew Castle's name only by reputation -- the only film of his that I've seen is Rosemary's Baby, which he produced but did not direct -- and thought of him as "that crazy gimmick guy."

One of the surprises of the documentary is the detailing of Castle's early life and history. Orphaned at an early age, he had a difficult childhood, but discovered early on that he loved applause and attention. He had the temerity to introduce himself to Bela Lugosi, ring up Orson Welles on the telephone, and offer to assist director George Stevens, resulting in, respectively, an opportunity to learn about the theater, a chance to run his own theater, and a job on a film set.

Still a young man, he became a reliable director of B-pictures at Columbia Studios, churning out programmers of every genre, often completing his projects in just seven days. Eventually, he realized that he would need to make and finance his own projects to set himself apart from other B-movie directors, and so he mortgaged his house to make a little movie called Macabre. His daughter says that he was "driven by fear" that no one would come see the picture, so he dreamed up a gimmick. He took out an insurance policy with Lloyd's of London and passed out certificates to moviegoers: they could name a beneficiary and if they died while watching the movie, their beneficiary would receive $1,000.00 COD ("Collect On Death," the trailer gleefully proclaimed). The gimmick worked, and the film, which cost $100,000 to produce, earned $2,000,000 at the box office.

That led to The House on Haunted Hill with Vincent Price and another gimmick, which was just as successful, and then an invitation to return to Columbia. His first studio picture under his new contract was The Tingler, which had another great gimmick -- and I've already given away too much, but that's how the movie makes you feel -- like you want to share it with other people, simply because there are so many good stories.

Decades later, people like John Waters, Joe Dante, John Landis, Fred Olen Ray, John Badham, Budd Boetticher, Roger Corman, and Leonard Maltin sound positively giddy when talking about Castle's movies and his gimmicks, and that enthusiasm carries over to the viewer.

Castle's daughter Terry speaks proudly about her pappa while acknowledging that he was a "horror-meister." As I said, there are no illusions that Castle was a suppressed auteur, but there is a degree of wistfulness that he never really got to make the type of pictures that he wanted to make. He brushed greatness with Rosemary's Baby but ... well, you need to see this movie to hear the whole story.

The greatest praise I can pay to Spine Tingler! is that it made me wish I could have seen one of William Castle's movies along with a full house of unsuspecting viewers, just waiting to be entertained.

Director Jeff Schwarz is quoted in the press notes as saying: "Today's movie going is becoming increasingly solitary, and I hope this film reminds people of the joy of a shared experience, and how movies can encourage community and connectedness." Schwarz has succeeded admirably; Spine Tingler! optimally should be seen with a group of friends and strangers in the biggest theater possible.

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