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Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story
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by brianorndorf

"Love the man, fear the cigar"
4 stars

It’s difficult to watch “Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story” without a smile. A documentary traversing the career of a legendary producer and renowned architect of moviegoing gimmicks, the feature takes viewers back to premium era of theatrical exhibition, where a cigar-chomping man could make a splash dreaming up ways to deceive his audience, creating a sensation everywhere he went. Though lacking a truly in-depth analysis of Castle’s private life, the doc achieves a distinct tone of nostalgia, goosed by interviews from an impressive assortment of admirers and employees, generating an affectionate atmosphere befitting a man who loved to entertain.

Born William Schloss in 1914, Castle grew up with a deep desire for attention. Orphaned at a young age, Castle developed an incredible sense of self-reliance, sharpening his gift for theatricality on Broadway and soon Hollywood, educated in the ways of the business under the likes of Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn and fellow director Orson Welles. Developing a knack for quickie productions, Castle turned his focus to promotional gimmicks as a way to lure audiences into theaters and to command the attention of the press. Starting with “Macabre!” in 1958, Castle commenced a run of low-budget hits, using his natural charisma and imagination for shock value to help develop himself into a brand name -- a label that ultimately came to stymie his efforts to achieve industry legitimacy.

Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, “Spine Tingler!” is a giddy collection of memories and footage, centered on the natural appeal of Castle and his efforts to turn that charm into a brand. A born showman with ballyhoo running through his veins, Castle strove to funnel his filmmaking drive into his own industry, creating a series of pictures beloved for their campy appeal and attention-grabbing promotion, making Castle a jovial figure of dime-store magic to a legion of pre-teens who heartily devoured every release.

With terms such as “Emergo,” “Percepto,” and “Illusion-O,” Castle created bedlam wherever his pictures played, deploying seat-buzzers, flying skeletons, and cellophane viewers to keep his audience alert. The gimmicks were the only attraction in some cases, making the experience of watching a William Castle production more entertaining than the film itself. However, a few cult classics were released, including “House on Haunted Hill,” “13 Ghosts,” and “The Tingler,” with Castle developing fruitful relationships with screen legends such as Vincent Price.

Schwarz permits a few moments with each of the famous productions, exploring the imagination and effort that went into the gimmicks, with Castle constantly looking to outdo himself, eventually meeting his match in Joan Crawford, the high-maintenance star of 1964’s “Strait-Jacket.” The movies are the centerpiece of the documentary, offering interviews with the likes of Jon Landis, Joe Dante (who would go on to recreate the Castle years in his 1993’s film, “Matinee”), and John Waters, who fondly recall the filmmaker and the aura of anticipation that surrounded his releases. There’s even a segment devoted to Hitchcock, who many suggest “borrowed” from Castle to help hype the release of “Psycho.” A competitive Castle returned fire with 1961’s “Homicidal,” a gender-bending terror picture that offered the easily spooked a “Fright Break” near the climax, permitting cowards a chance to get their money back while subjected to a Castle-approved sequence of humiliations.

“Spine Tingler!” also supplies a moderate discussion of Castle’s off-screen life, with daughter Terry Castle discussing her experience living with such a driven yet loving man. While embracing his place as a ringmaster of schlock, Castle was also fiercely protective of his family, leaning on his loved ones when his box office fortunes began to sour in the late 1960s.

Though Castle made an indelible mark on Hollywood with the development and production of the blockbuster “Rosemary’s Baby,” the filmmaker couldn’t build on his fortunes, again returning to gimmicks in the 1970s with features such as “Bug.” In lesser hands, the inevitable decline of health and success would traditionally be treated with pained expressions of loss. Schwarz instead elects to celebrate Castle for his myriad of accomplishments, using the screentime to help reinforce his lively legacy. “Spine Tingler!” is a kind picture, but more importantly, it shines needed light on a man in love with cinema, using his dedication to exaggeration to keep audiences screaming for more.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=17252&reviewer=404
originally posted: 09/13/11 08:59:20
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Slamdance Film Festival For more in the 2008 Slamdance Film Festival series, click here.
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Boston Underground Film Festival For more in the 2008 Boston Underground Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Fantasia Film Festiva For more in the 2008 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Fantastic Fest 2008 For more in the Fantastic Fest 2008 series, click here.

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  DVD: 21-Jun-2011

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Directed by
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