Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Lost Art Of The Cinema Gimmick

In the late 1950's, in an any means necessary effort to attract a crowd, filmmaker William Castle brought to light the fine art of the cinema gimmick. What is a cinema gimmick, you ask? Castle would have things handed out to you upon entering the theatre, he would have things going on in the theatre that mimmicked what was going on in his films, he would get you involved in the film and make you a part of the action. If you thought being handed a pair of 3D glasses at the theatre was something exciting, think again. Castle was a master showman who not only put asses in the seats, but entertained those asses in a way that they had never been entertained before. Let's take a look at some of the gimmicks the great William Castle employed for his films.

Macabre (1958)


When cinema-goers bought their tickets for Macabre, they were not only handed a ticket but also a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy in the event that they were to die of fright during the film. Don't mistake this for the similar life insurance policies in the event of your suicide you may have been handed upon entering any of the recent slew of horror films in the past few years. I kid. Some showings even had ushers dressed in surgical scrubs and ambulances waiting outside the theatre. As if this weren't enough excitement, Castle also provided you a pin that stated "I'm no chicken. I saw Macabre."

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Remember that famous scene towards the end of the film where a skeleton emerges from a vat of acid hot on the tail of Vincent Price's wife? Well, if you had seen the film on the big screen back in the 50's, you would've seen what Castle called "Emergo". At the exact moment the skeleton emerged on screen, an inflatable skeleton on a wire was floated over the audience. Allegedly the gimmick didn't only instill fear in cinema goers but it also evoked laughter as some fans threw candy, soda, and other assorted theatre goodies at the obviously fake looking skeleton. Some people just don't know how to have fun...

The Tingler (1959)


The Tingler is about a creature that lives in the spinal cord who is activated by fright and can only be killed by screaming. In the finale of the film, one of such creatures is unleashed into a movie theatre. If you were in a movie theatre watching The Tingler at this very moment, you might have gotten a little buzz in your ass. No worries. That'd be because William Castle employed a technique he called "Percepto". Buzzers were placed under each cinema goers seat which administered a small shock when the monster was let loose. This was designed to get you to scream as loud as possible and thus, destroy The Tingler. Allow Mr. Castle to explain...

13 Ghosts (1960)


13 Ghosts was filmed in "Illusion-O". At the theatre doors, you were handed a ghost viewer/remover with strips of red and blue cellophane to use at certain times in the film. Depending on which side they looked through, the audience was able to either see or not see the ghosts on screen in the event they were too scary to handle. Prompts would come on screen telling you when to use your viewer.


Here's Castle's introduction to the film, explaining Illusion-O in greater depth :

Homicidal (1961)


Near the end of Homicidal, a woman approaches a house which holds a sadistic serial killer. As she inched closer and closer to the doorway, Castle gave you a choice, which he called a "fright break". If you were too scared to watch the conclusion of the film, you were given ample time to exit the theatre and get a full refund. This would prove to be a very humiliating task as you had to follow yellow footsteps up the aisle, bathed in a yellow light, in front of the entire audience, essentially proclaiming to all your movie going friends that you are the ultimate pussy. But it gets worse. Castle had a recording play which blared, "Watch the chicken! Watch him shiver in coward's corner!", thus effectively ensuring you were not getting laid that evening. You were then forced to wear a yellow card that stated, "I'm a bona fide coward." I think it's safe to say if you have one of these yellow cards still in your possession, you have little to no friends to share your theatre going experience with.

Here are the last few moments of the film leading up to the fright break :

Mr. Sardonicus (1961)


The "punishment poll" allowed the audience to decide whether or not, at the end of the film, they wanted Mr. Sardonicus (a man who's face was frozen into a permanent hideous smile after digging up his own father's body to retrieve a lottery ticket) to be cured of his affliction or to die. Each member of the audience was given a card with a glow in the dark thumb they could hold either up or down to decide Sardonicus' fate. Banking on the fact that everyone would want him to die, Castle never even filmed the other ending. Take a look at the punishment poll :

William Castle was not the only one to employ such tactics. 1958's My World Dies Screaming was filmed in Psychorama. This meant that subliminal imagery, such as skulls and devil faces, were flashed quickly on screen which were picked up subconciously by audience goers, scaring them without them even knowing why they were scared. The process was ultimately banned but was seen again in The Exorcist many years later. In 1964's The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed Up Zombies, ushers would run through the cinema wearing masks and scaring planted stooges on the cue that three homicidal patients were loose in the theatre. Before seeing Francis Ford Coppola's 1963 film Dementia 13, you were forced to fill out a questionnaire to determine whether you were mentally fit enough to watch the film or not. It asked such questions as "Have you ever attempted suicide?" and "Are you afraid of death by drowning." Most recently, at Midnight screenings of Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer in Toronto, barf bags were handed out to movie goers, a similar tactic used in the 70's in films like Cannibal Man and Mark of the Devil.


It must have been a real joy to have been a horror fan back in those days. Not only did you see good quality films, you also got the thrills of a lifetime. I think it's safe to say that due to the vast amount of screens movies land on these days and the lack of imagination in filmmakers today, we may never see tactics like these used again. God bless you, William Castle. I just wish I was around to see what you could do to an audience.


trixareforjen said...

A lot of work put into this one, I enjoyed it. mwa

jervaise brooke hamster said...

i`ve seen "house on haunted hill" over 1000 times i never get tired of watching it, william castle really did imbue his films with an incredibly soothing atmosphere that gives them an unbeleivable re-watchability factor.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this wonderul piece. It touches me greatly. Come visit me if you dare.