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Blu-Ray Review - William Castle At Columbia: Volume 1

William Castle At Columbia: Volume 1 review
Boxset of four features from the king of schlock, William Castle.


Review by Jason Abbey

Directed by: William Castle

Starring: Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn, Charles Herbert, Jo Morrow, Jean Arless, Glenn Corbett, Oskar Homolka, Ronald Lewis

William Castle At Columbia: Volume 1


The Tingler
the tingler review

Perhaps the most fondly remembered of the William Castle gimmick pictures, mainly due to ‘Percepto,’ the mildly vibrating device (appropriate as 'The Tingler' sounds like a device you could pick up from a love honey catalogue). Never one of the more stylish horror auteurs, this showcases Castle's carny hucksterism, anything goes storytelling and a grasp of scientific concepts one stage above a flat-earther.

Where else do you get to see Vincent Price tripping balls on acid as Dr Warren Chaplin, menaced by a deadly cross between a draft excluder and a vengeful lobster thermidor? It may anticipate the body horror of David Cronenberg's early work but without any of the orifice invading perversion that would shock a 1950s drive-in audience.

The Tingler is a parasite that attaches to the human spine, that strange frisson on the back of the neck that occurs in conditions of extreme fear, which are apparently paralysed by the scream of its host. Price seems to mention this about six times during the film as he gives a lecture to the audience that feels more like a public information film.

Truth be told, the titular monster doesn’t actually do much other than interrupt a silent cinema showing of Tol’able David, extensive excerpts of which are shown either to encourage fans of the pre talkies or to pad out the run time. What keeps the interest is the plotting, which by turns has Price as avuncular man of medicine or sinister mad scientist (the film throws out more red herrings than a soviet fishmonger). During the course of the film he has threatened his wife with a gun, potentially murdered a deaf mute with the aid of some weapons grade LSD and performed impromptu autopsies in his home laboratory. Price is always compelling and manages to sell this enjoyable nonsense as if he was performing Shakespeare.

Throw in silent cinema owner Oliver (Philip Coolidge), who turns up to watch Warren perform an autopsy on his serial killer brother in law for no particular reason; a really quite effective scene as Oliver’s mute wife is scared to death by some trippy hallucinations; and Price's under-reaction to an act of murder perpetrated by a friend - he has the wearied disappointment of someone who has realised his nephew has nicked the last cookie from the jar; and you have something of a camp nostalgia classic. By any measure not a great piece of cinema, but as a bonkers piece of horror hokum it is difficult to beat.



13 Ghosts
13 ghosts review

From the sublime hokum to the ridiculous with 13 Ghosts, a gimmick looking for a film with Illusion-O the 'ghost viewer', a chintzy blue or red filter that allows you to see or not see ghosts at pivotal moments in the film. I’m assuming the film makes little sense if you choose the ghost free option, but who in their right mind would do that?

The plotting this time is strictly Scooby Doo territory with penniless museum worker Cyrus (Donald Woods) inheriting a mansion from his deceased occultist uncle, Dr Plato Zorba, with a few caveats and unwanted guests. We know he is penniless because all his belongings are being taken away at the start of the film (does he have a predilection for the ponies, opium or hookers? Who knows? The film doesn’t care and neither do his wife and children).

This is the type of film that sticks a precocious horror loving child into a film who somehow doesn’t know what a séance is. It also has spectres that make Caspar look like the ultimate in terror. A film so benign that even the attempted murder of a child seems like a jolly jape. Remade as a woeful horror in 2001, it would seem more fitting as an Amblin style spook fest.

There is some winking at the audience with housekeeper Elaine (Margaret Hamilton) being referred to as a witch throughout, referencing Hamilton's signature role in The Wizard of Oz, but that’s about as knowing as Castle gets throughout the film. Set pieces are promised but you only really get three (well four if you count the lion) defined ghosts.

Castle works best when he conjures up the absurd and tries to rationalise it in a way that only increases the insanity. Working with a by the numbers haunted house programmer just sees the old rogue sticking to his cinematic gimmicks to try and paper over the uninspired and unoriginal.



Homicidal
homicidal review

A title that pretty much guarantees a riff on Psycho and a patented Castle gimmick - the "fright break" - that this time does more harm than good, as unlike the previous two films it attempts an atmosphere that if not exactly realistic, is still compelling. Like Psycho it also has a non sequitur opening in which a mysterious woman manages to convince a gullible hotel employee to marry her for two grand as long as the marriage is annulled immediately after.

Not quite a shotgun marriage then (a very different weapon is involved) but one under an assumed name that sparks an investigation into flower shop owner Miriam Webster (Patricia Breslin), whose name has been used in the marriage ceremony. The mysterious woman turns out to be an acquaintance of Miriam and her curiously priggish brother.

The fact that this hues so closely to the template of Hitchcock’s classic somewhat hurts the film, making the shock revelation somewhat guessable from the start. Castle directs in his usual 'put the actors in front of the camera' style but plays this one straight-faced. The plot is somewhat lumpen, more of a murderous melodrama than a slickly tooled thriller.

Where Castle shoots himself in the foot is the fright break. To reveal the climax to those fresh to Homicidal would be unkind, but it has a last minute revelation that you may have already guessed but is hampered by the audience being given one minute to leave the auditorium, or in this release's case, put the kettle on. Any atmosphere generated is immediately defenestrated by this hokey device.

Homicidal is the most gore-inflected of Castle’s work, with a fairly graphic for the era stabbing sequence and some paper mache decapitations. It's a grimy film, and all the better for it, with a standout performance from Joan Marshall (credited as 'Jean Arless'), which if slightly awkward in places, befits the tone of this half shocker/half convoluted whodunit.



Mr. Sardonicus
mr sardonicus review

One of the great B-movie titles, this time with a "punishment poll," which sounds more like a de rigueur accoutrement for any discerning BDSM dungeon. The prosaic answer is that this time the audience gets to vote for "mercy" or "no mercy." Predicating that his audience would only choose "no mercy," only one ending was shot, thereby initiating the laziest gimmick to hit the cinema screen.

Once again Castle’s impulses get the better of him, forcing his patented cinematic hucksterism on a relatively restrained piece of gothic horror, mixing the structure of a Dracula film onto the obsessive morbidity of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe adaptations.

Sir Robert Cargrave (Ronald Lewis, previously seen on the Powerhouse presentation of The Full Treatment) is called to the strange and mysterious Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) - nope, no idea why he is a Mr in the movie title either - at the behest of his former lover Maude (Audrey Dalton). Cue the usual assortment of fearful locals and a treacherous fog filled journey to the Baron's castle.

Fearful that Castle may not have thrown enough gothic references into the mix he also gives Sardonicus a one eyed Igo…. Krull (Butler, Factotum, Leech Dispenser!!!). Sardonicus takes to wearing an inexpressive mask and inviting an assortment of Bavarian lovelies over for wine. Off camera screaming implies that it’s not just the Baron's cheeky grin that is causing issues.

A standard gothic then, encompassing greed, the morbidity of the flesh and a side helping of cleavage, nicely acted just the right side of ripe, a Beauty and a Beast who won’t be redeemed if his monstrous visage is restored to normality.

Rolfe struggles to emote much behind the mask, relying on flashbacks to flex his acting chops, and though Mr. Sardonicus flirts with the perverse, at its core is a morality tale about greed and lust. A welcome addition to the canon with enough fire in the belly to see it through the more melodramatic stretches, once more hampered by an epilogue designed to please the drive-in crowd.
Extras:

When the feature documentary Spine-Tingler! The William Castle Story comes with its own making of and a commentary, comprehensive is an understatement. Fans of Castle are definitely not going to feel short changed.

Three commentaries by Jonathan Rigby for The Tingler, Samm Deighan and Kat Ellinger for Mr Sardonicus and Lee Gambin for Homicidal.

Short interviews with Kim Newman, actress Pamela Lincoln and publicist Barry Lorie on The Tingler as well as a short on the electro shock gimmick present for the film’s original release.

13 Ghosts gets the Illusion-O presentation (doesn’t transfer well onto Blu-Ray) and an alternative black and white version. Included is an appreciation of the film by Stephen Laws and a look at the Illusion-O gimmick.

Homicidal has an introduction by Laws, as well as a featurette on the movie and the use of the fear break.

Mr Sardonicus has an appreciation by Rigby and a look at the Punishment Poll.

All come with theatrical trailers with commentary, as well as archive material and posters.

Also included are limited edition booklets featuring writing from Ellinger, Dan Whitehead, Rebecca Nicole Williams and Jo Botting, as well as contemporary reviews and archival interview material.

In short, pretty much all you need to know about Castle and his movies is included in this exhaustive box set. One can only wonder how this highest of watermarks can be maintained for the second volume.

The films themselves may vary in quality, but the quality of the release itself cannot be faulted. Absolutely essential for fans and pretty much essential for everyone else this winter as well.


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