Liberace had a word for it. So did Variety. The word was "showmanship" -- but lately this term seems to have disappeared from movie moguls' vocabulary. After all, with so many bad movies around these days, couldn't the promotional campaigns at least be fun? What's happened to the ludicrous but innovative marketing techniques of yesteryear that used to fool audiences into thinking they were having a good time even if the film stunk? Did the audiences care? Hell, no. They may have hated the picture, but they loved the gimmick, and that's all they ended up remembering anyway.
Who's to follow in the footsteps of the great low-rent Samuel Z. Arkoffs and Joseph E. Levines who used to hype films? Why do today's producers waste untold millions on media junkets, national television spots, and giant print ads when they could come up with something as delightful and effective as handing out vomit bags at horror films? Or how about the high-profile but dirt-cheap antics of the producers of a 1977 redneck oddity entitled The Worm Eaters? Realizing that competition for attention from film buyers at the Cannes Film Festival was fierce that year, these ballyhoo experts blithely ate live worms from a bucket as startled distributors filed into their screening.
We can even go way back in history to Mom and Dad, a boring pseudo sex documentary from the forties brilliantly hyped by the great-great-grandfather of exploitation, Kroger Babb. Since the film contained footage of an actual birth of a baby, Mr. Babb realized this was a chance to legally show full-frontal female nudity. Did he figure the voyeuristic audience would just ignore the baby and focus on the anatomy? Four-walling a theater in each city, Babb picked up some added pocket change by having a phony nurse hawk sex-education pamphlets in the aisles before the feature began. He assured further controversy by sexually segregating the audience -- women only in the afternoon and men only at night. In what has to be the most outlandish publicity stunt in film history, he would start the film and turn off the ventilation. As the audience grew more and more uncomfortable, he would release noxious gas through the air vents and wait for the first person to pass out. Mr. Babb would immediately call an ambulance and the local media at the same time, then rush outside the theater to smugly watch the heavily photographed "rescue of a shocked patron," knowing it would be front-page news the next day.
Without a doubt, the greatest showman of our time was William Castle. King of the Gimmicks, William Castle was my idol. His films made me want to make films. I'm even jealous of his work. In fact, I wish I were William Castle.
What's the matter with film buffs these days? How could they be so slow in elevating this ultimate eccentric director-producer to cult status? Isn't it time for a retrospective? A documentary on his life? Some highfalutin critique in Cahiers du Cinéma? Isn't it time to get his marvelous autobiography, Step Right Up! I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America, back in print? Forget Ed Wood. Forget George Romero. William Castle was the best. William Castle was God.
The picture that first put Mr. Castle on the map was Macabre (1958). Well, not exactly the picture, but the gimmick. Macabre was a rip-off of Diabolique, and was filmed in just nine days at a cost of $90,000. Realizing that the finished product was nothing special, Castle came up with an idea that would succeed beyond his wildest dreams. He took out a policy with Lloyd's of London insuring every ticket buyer for $1,000 in case they died from fright. Mock insurance policies appeared in all the newspaper ads. Giant replicas of the actual policy hung over the marquees. Hearses were parked outside the theaters and fake nurses in uniform were paid to stand around the lobbies.
Audiences fell hook, line, and sinker. Nobody talked about the movie, but everyone was eager to see if some jerk would drop dead and collect. Of course, no one died. But if they had, it would have been even better. A death of any kind inside the theater would only have cost Lloyd's of London a paltry $1,000, and think of the hype that would have generated!
Mr. Castle got so carried away with the promotion that he arrived in a hearse at some of the premieres and made his entrance popping from a coffin. Was this not the ultimate in auteurism? Would Jean-Luc Godard have gone this far? Would he have arrived in a wrecked car to promote Weekend? Would Sergei Eisenstein have arrived in a battleship? I think not. I hate that Sergei Eisenstein.
William Castle was no slacker. Not content to rest on his laurels, he set his feverish little mind to work to come up with what the studios wanted -- more gimmicks and higher grosses. His next project was House on Haunted Hill (1959), a nifty little horror film boasting the director-producer's first real star, Vincent Price. But even Price was upstaged by Castle's new gimmick, "Emergo." Each theater was equipped with a large black box installed next to the screen. At a designated point in the film, the doors to the box would suddenly fly open and a twelve-foot plastic skeleton would light up and zoom over the audience on a wire to the projection booth. Studio executives were initially skeptical when, at the first sneak preview, the equipment failed and the skeleton jumped its wires and sent a truly horrified audience running for cover.
After further testing, Emergo was perfected and installed in theaters all over the country. The kids went wild. They screamed. They hugged their girlfriends. They threw popcorn boxes at the skeleton. Most important, they spent their allowance and made the film a huge hit. Was this not the first film to utilize audience participation to an absurd length? It certainly seemed more fun to me than dressing à la Brad and Janet and throwing rice at the screen during The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Next came The Tingler (1959), arguably William Castle's masterpiece. Another horror film, once again featuring Vincent Price, in a command performance. But this time the script had a twist. A Tingler was an organism that lived in everyone's spinal column. A cross between a lobster and a crab, it came to life only when a person was frightened. The only way to kill this little bugger was to scream. In the film, the Tingler breaks loose in a movie theater and kills the projectionist. In real theaters where the film was playing, the screen would go white at this point and a voice would announce, "Attention! The Tingler is loose in this theater. Please scream for your life." Naturally, the audience responded by shrieking their lungs out, but this wasn't good enough for the Master of Gimmicks. He came up with "Percepto," "the newest and most startling screen gimmick." Similar to a handshake buzzer, Percepto was nothing more than little motors installed under theater seats and activated by the projectionist at the exact moment the audience was in a frenzy. As the patrons got their asses buzzed, the theater would erupt in pandemonium. Castle estimated in his autobiography that he buzzed more than 20 million American asses.
Naturally, there were problems. In Philadelphia one beefy truck driver was so incensed that he ripped his entire seat from the floor and had to be subdued by five ushers. In another city, the management dutifully installed the Percepto equipment the night before the film was scheduled to open. That night the smart-alecky projectionist decided to test the fanny buzzers on a group of older women who were watching The Nun's Story on the last night of its run. I'm sure Audrey Hepburn never got such a vocal reaction before or after this "electrifying" screening.
Looking back, The Tingler is the fondest moviegoing memory of my youth. I went to see it every day. Since, by the time it came to my neighborhood, only about ten random seats were wired, I would run through the theater searching for the magical buzzers. As I sat there experiencing the miracle of Percepto, I realized that there could be such a thing as Art in the cinema.
I didn't have to wait long for a follow-up. 13 Ghosts (1960), his next picture, offered "Illusion-O." Each spectator was given a "ghost-viewer," an obscure twist on 3-D glasses. If you looked through the red plastic part, you could see the ghosts; if you looked through the blue, you couldn't. Audiences seemed bewildered by this imperfect technical breakthrough, but still bought the gimmick.
Recently, the Thalia Theater in New York was brave enough to revive the film -- on a double bill with Arthur Knight's The Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield yet. Imagine my surprise when I entered the theater and was handed a piece of red plastic -- the Thalia's own makeshift version of the long-unavailable Illusion-O glasses. Wild with excitement, I took my seat and trembled at the thought of how creative theater management could be. I noticed a few grumpy film purists refusing the ghost-viewer, but they nonetheless legitimized the film, because without any kind of glasses, 13 Ghosts is still unique -- beautifully surreal, almost arty.
Trying to better Alfred Hitchcock's smash 1960 hit, Psycho, William Castle unleashed his own transvestite-themed shocker, Homicidal (1961). Although some critics howled about cinematic plagiarism, they conveniently overlooked the fact that it was Hitchcock who ripped off Castle first, not vice versa. Forget the shower scene in Psycho. What initially attracted the throngs to this "classic" was the stunt of strictly enforcing the "No one will be admitted to the theater after the feature has begun" gimmick. Castle must have reacted to this competition in panic, because he retaliated with a campaign for Homicidal so ridiculous and bizarre that many in the industry felt he had gone off the deep end.
Homicidal has the dubious distinction of being the first film in cinematic history to utilize the "Fright Break." Two minutes before the picture ended, the screen would once again go blank and the voice of Castle himself would announce, "This is a Fright Break. You hear that sound? The sound of a heartbeat? It will beat for another sixty-five seconds to allow anyone who is too frightened to see the end of the picture to leave the theater. You will get your full admission refunded!" Naturally exhibitors were wary of this campaign because it violated the golden rule of exploitation: Never offer a money-back guarantee.
The first time the Fright Break was tested, the entire audience stampeded to the box office and Mr. Castle nearly collapsed. He soon figured out the problem -- the audience loved the picture, but the gimmick created such word of mouth that they figured out how to get the last laugh. They simply stayed and saw the film a second time and then tried to cash in. Mr. Castle was no dummy. He began issuing different-colored tickets for each show. It worked. Now about one percent asked for a refund. This one percent seemed to be Castle's ultimate challenge: He went to unheard-of lengths to humiliate the adventurous ticket buyer who had the nerve to ask for his money back.
William Castle simply went nuts. 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 message: "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. The one percent refund dribbled away to a zero percent, and I'm sure that in many cities a plant had to be paid to go through this torture. No wonder theater owners balked at booking a William Castle film. It was all just too damn complicated.
Mr. Castle's career as gimmick monger may have reached its zenith at this point, but he kept on going. He used the "Punishment Poll," perhaps his weakest gimmick, to promote his next opus, Mr. Sardonicus (1961). On entering the theater, you were given a day-glow card featuring a thumbs-up, thumbs-down design similar to a playing card. Like spectators at the Roman Coliseum, the audience was allowed to decide the fate of the villain. As a (presumably) humiliated usher conducted the Punishment Poll, spectators held up their Mercy/No Mercy verdict to be counted. Not realizing how bloodthirsty audiences really could be, Castle needlessly supplied every print with two endings, just in case. Unfortunately, not once did an audience grant mercy, so this one particular part of the film has never been seen. Why all this current fuss about the "lost" half hour of A Star Is Born? How about the lost footage from Mr. Sardonicus? Can't the vaults be searched? Isn't Radio City Music Hall available? Can't something be done to preserve this important footnote to film history?
After Mr. Sardonicus, Castle seemed to be suffering from the too-much-of-a-good-thing syndrome. Critics panned his efforts, claiming he was incapable of producing a hit without a gimmick. He tried it again with 13 Frightened Girls (1963), but all he could come up with was a worldwide talent hunt for the prettiest girl in each of thirteen countries who, when cast, would receive $300, hotel accommodations, and a "first-class" new wardrobe.
Audiences, too, were getting weary of his "Gyro Gearloose" approach to filmmaking. And the moneymen were getting stingy. They gave him their final ultimatum: No more gimmicks! But Castle fooled his detractors by apparently acquiescing to their demands with his new film, Straight-Jacket (1964), while at the same time employing the biggest gimmick of them all -- Joan Crawford. Wisely realizing that all movie stars are merely high-priced gimmicks in themselves, he sent Miss Crawford to the theaters for promotion. Joan got so carried away by being a live, in-person gimmick that she once invited the entire audience to join her for hamburgers in the restaurant next door to the theater, ensuring a riot and front-page coverage. But Mr. Castle was showing his insecurities. At the last minute he panicked and ordered thousands of bloody cardboard axes to be distributed free to his fans.
A great career was limping to a close. The day of the gimmick seemed to be over. His final attempt at horror gimmickry was I Saw What You Did (1965), again starring Joan Crawford. (Castle did go on to produce films like Rosemary's Baby and Bug, but they are not relevant to this discussion.) The plot concerns teenage pranksters who call random strangers and pant, "I saw what you did." Accidentally, they reach a real murderer, who tries to track them down. At first, the phone company cooperated with Castle's promotion by allowing him to hang huge plastic phones over the marquee. But when teenagers began imitating the script in real life and the phone company was swamped with complaints, Ma Bell showed her usual humor-impaired company policy by refusing to let Castle even mention phones in the ads. Undaunted, he came up with a hastily hatched gimmick, his last and, touchingly, most pathetic. The back three rows of each theater were turned into a special "Shock Section." Longtime fans were disappointed to find that it was nothing more than seat belts on each chair to prevent you from being jolted out from fear. RIP William Castle. You certainly deserve it.
This magnificent career raises some pertinent questions for today. What has happened to showmanship? Is it completely dead? How can we lure people away from the dreaded VCRs, whose sole reason for popularity is that most of us don't have the nerve to masturbate in movie theaters? Sure, some exhibitors have caused a little excitement, but usually by accident. Think of the drive-ins that routinely cause car crashes by unveiling hard-core porno in full view of speeding, merging traffic. Or grind houses (where waiting in line is always scarier than the film itself), which have given new meaning to the term "horror film" by allowing huge rats to stroll about.
The big studios have certainly been no help. Think of that irritating Dolby Sound, which mistakenly assumes that all moviegoers want to become sound mixers. Or the annoying 3-D, brilliantly revived and exploited by Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey for their Frankenstein, and then bludgeoned into the ground by more serious attempts to "perfect" this tired gimmick. Porno, finally, is the only genre to demand the third dimension. Remember The Stewardesses? Huge breasts spilling out from the screen. Or Heavy Equipment? Gay male porno with, well, life itself gushing into the audience's lap.
The industry as a whole should put on its collective thinking cap and realize that even with today's computer-printout method of filmmaking, there's still room for outlandish showmanship. Stop fooling around and go for broke. The possibilities are endless. Every time an expensive Hollywood bomb opens, theaters could profit by letting the audience in for free and making them pay to get out. Show Inchon over and over and make a fortune. If your highly self-touted international epic turns out to be boring, why not give out copies of the deal memo that got the thing financed? Think of the yawns that could be stifled when the audience figures out how all this cash was wasted in the first place.
Try variations of the movie-star lookalike contests, but instead of intimidating audiences by forcing them to imitate such impossible classics as Marilyn Monroe or James Dean, pick someone as normal-looking as Jill Clayburgh and let everybody win. Go for community support! Let Mothers Against Drunk Drivers sponsor a car-crash festival -- Death Race 2000, Eat My Dust! and so on.
All kinds of films could benefit. The producers of Porky's et al., pretend their films aren't made for dirty, filthy twelve-year-old lechers, but why not be honest and sponsor a circle-jerk for Cub Scout troops with the winner receiving a call girl for the night? If you want to be civic minded and publicize your newly installed handicap ramps, show The Crippled Masters, an honest-to-God karate film with two heroes -- one has no arms, the other no legs. Everybody beats them up until one jumps on the other's shoulders, and together they become a killing machine.
If the Edie Sedgwick biopic, Ciao! Manhattan, opens weakly, have the top fag hag in each community pretend to OD in the theater and afterward local hamburger shops could sponsor rap sessions on the tragedy of the whole situation.
Even highbrow, critically acclaimed Oscar winners could up their grosses. Drag enthusiastic members of the Reds audience before mock Senate hearings in the lobby. Close the concession stand for Gandhi and let the patrons get into the spirit of the thing by starving to death.
What's the matter, Hollywood? Are you going to just sit there with your head in the sand? People are getting bored with the theatergoing experience! Can't you come up with something? Will everyone just sit at home with their video machines? William Castle, where are you when we really need you?
Copyright © 1983, 1985, 1986, 1991, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 by John Waters
Excerpted from Crackpot by John Waters Copyright © 2003 by John Waters. Excerpted by permission.
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