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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

William Castle Tribute V: Audience Participatory Supplements (Part One)


In 1958, the world was introduced to William Castle's movie, "Macabre," and the first of many "gimmicks" that he would use to promote his movies.

The "gimmick" for "Macabre" was pretty simple compared to some of the later ones.  To market his movie, a certificate for a $1,000.00 life insurance policy- issued by Lloyd's of London was handed out to movie goers.  These certificates would only be redeemed if the movie goer died of fright during the movie.  To add to the flavor of this promotion, hearses were parked outside the theaters showing the movie, and nurses were placed in the lobbies... just in case.

William Castle followed up the life insurance certificate with the introduction of "Emergo"- a new technology that helped to bring the audience closer to the action on the screen.  It was in fact, more 3D than 3D!  During the climatic scene of "House on Haunted Hill", this technology was used to add to the intensity of the scene.  As the skeleton arose from a vat of acid on the screen, a glow-in-the-dark skeleton, attached to wires above the audience, would fly out and across the theater.  The skeleton sometimes became a target for popcorn, soda cups, and other items.

1959, also saw William Castle ultilizing the ground breaking techniques of "Percepto".  "The Tingler" used this promotional device to good effect in many theaters.  In the movie, a creature that attaches to your spinal cord can only be killed by screaming.  One of these creatures escapes and manages to find its way into a theatre.  Vincent Price would inform the audience that they needed to "Scream- scream for your lives".  At that moment, various seats in the theater would buzz and vibrate- simulating the creature attacking them... startling the movie goers and getting bigger screams.  Many reports say that the patrons received electric jolts, but they didn't.  The joy buzzer like devices were built using surplus air-plane de-icers- which had vibrating motors.

The release of "13 Ghosts" brought the world, "Illusion-O".  Special glasses were handed out to the movie goers that consisted of a strip of red cellophane and a strip of blue cellophane- similar to early 3D glasses.  Looking through one of the lenses allowed the viewer to see the ghosts on the screen, while looking through the other lens removed the ghost.

William Castle went to great lengths with the promotional devices used for his 1961 film, "Homicidal".  The in-movie device was a "Fright Break" timer on the screen that gave patrons a chance to leave and get a refund.  In order to prevent people watching the movie twice, and claiming the refund during the second viewing, Castle had different coloured tickets issued for each show.  Explaining the use of the "Coward's Certificate" at the beginning of the movie, Castle would warn you that if you  revealed the ending to their friend, "they will kill you.  And if they didn't," he would.  Due to people still asking for a refund, Castle though up the ultimate deterrent: "Coward's Corner".  John Water's book described it this way:

"He came up with 'Coward's Corner', a yellow cardboard booth, manned by a bewildered theater employee in the lobby.  When the Fright Break was announced, and you found that you couldn't take it anymore, you had to leave your seat and, in front of the entire audience, follow yellow footsteps up the aisle, bathed in a yellow light.  Before you reached 'Coward's Corner', you crossed yellow lines with the stenciled messaged: 'Cowards Keep Walking.'  You passed a nurse (in a yellow uniform?... I wonder), who would offer a blood pressure test.  All the while a recording was blaring, 'Watch the chicken!  Watch him shiver in 'Coward's Corner'!'  As the audience howled, you had to go through one final indignity- at 'Coward's Corner' you were forced to sign a yellow card stating, 'I am a bona fide coward.'  Very, very few were masochistic enough to endure this."
When DC Comics held a vote to see whether or not Robin would die in the 1980's they were hailed as being innovative by involving the fans in such a way.  Looking at William Castle's career, he beat them by at least two decades when he released, "Mr. Sardonicus" in 1961.  People watching the movie were handed cards with a glow-in-the-dark thumb printed on them.  During the film, they were given a chance to vote whether or not Mr. Sardonicus would be cursed or die at the end of the film.  From all reports, no audience showed him any mercy... so the alternate ending (if indeed there was one) was never seen.

By the time "Strait-Jacket" was released in 1964, his financial backers told him to eliminate the "gimmicks"  To promote this movie, he hired Joan Crawford to do a promotional tour of theaters that would be showing the movie.  He seemed to be following his backers' dictates... until at the last minute, William Castle had cardboard axes made and given out to movie goers.

"I Saw What You Did" in 1965 saw one of Castle's promotions backfire on him.  Originally, giant plastic telephones were used to promote the film.  Unfortunately, due to a upswing in prank calls and the complaints that followed them, Castle was refused permission to use them... to to even mention telephones.  To compensate, the back row of theaters were converted in what were called, "Shock Sections", which had seat belts attached so that patrons didn't fall out of their seats from fright.

William Castle gave the world one last big promotional "gimmick" in 1975 with his last film- "Bug".  For this film, Castle advertised that he'd taken a one million-dollar life insurance policy out on the star of the film... "Hercules" the cockroach.  It was fitting that since  William Castle introduced an era of showmanship by offering life insurance to patrons, that he would end that era with another life insurance promotion.

Please join me in a couple of days for the second part of this particular William Castle Tribute when I discuss the impact on a movie goer's experience at the movies... and how it compares to a modern movie experience.

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