Sometimes it seems filmmakers forget they are in SHOW business. It is never enough to simply make a film or screen a film, and then hope that they will come. You need to create an event about your work and screen it in a context that makes people want to participate.
James Schamus, my former business partner and now President of Focus Features, has long had a poster on display in his office for William Castle’s The Tingler. He is just one of the many disciples of Castle, an auteur of showmanship if there ever was one. For those of us who missed out being Castle-ized back in the day, we are lucky to have Jeffrey Schwarz new doc on William Castle to feast on. And for you, dear reader, we are truly fortunate to have Jeffrey contextualize with a guest post on why Castle matters to us all.
Growing up in the 1970s, I was too young to have experienced firsthand the joys of William Castle and his gimmicks. I didn’t become fully aware of Castle until I read John Waters’ tribute article “Whatever Happened to Showmanship?” It was a revelation. I was delighted with this director’s bravado and chutzpah. Not one to seek the limelight myself, I was fascinated by how a charismatic and ambitious contract director reinvented himself as a larger than life showman and created a persona known across the globe. Luckily, this burgeoning interest coincided with a revival of Castle’s gimmicks at the Film Forum in New York City in the 1980s. The theater rigged up their own Percepto buzzers and invited an audience of hipsters to enjoy the festivities. When Vincent Price announced that the Tingler was loose in the theater, the buzzers went off and a group of jaded New Yorkers started screaming for their lives. I remembered what John Waters said in his essay. “How could film buffs be so slow in elevating this ultimate eccentric director-producer to cult status? Isn’t it time for a documentary on his life?” I decided to take John’s bait and make this film.
The America that William Castle made his films for was a country that prided itself on its regional differences – a far cry from today’s fast food and big box landscape. Unlike today, when a film will open simultaneously on 3000 screens, Castle’s pictures opened city by city. He traveled from place to place and each campaign was tailored for that particular area. It was as if the circus was coming to town and Castle was the jovial ringleader. I feel this fostered a sense of community and allowed folks to make the experience their own. Today’s movie going is becoming increasingly solitary, and I hope this film reminds people of the joy of a shared experience, and how movies can encourage community and connectedness.
Today, the movie business is run by lawyers and accountants, driven by focus groups, obscenely high budgets, and a global distribution network that simply didn’t exist in Castle’s heyday. Show business today places the emphasis on the business, but oftentimes neglects the show. Castle didn’t need a $50 million dollar marketing budget to get his audience excited about his product. Through pure showmanship and the force of his own personality, he made audiences feel they were part of something truly unique that they would remember for the rest of their lives. As this film can attest, they’re still talking about it today.
William Castle’s life is profoundly American. He was an orphan growing up on the streets of New York City who through fast-talking, bravado, and genuine talent made his way to Hollywood and reinvented himself. He put himself on the line financially and emotionally for his films, and for that reason Spine Tingler! is a tribute to dreamers everywhere.
Jeffrey Schwarz is President & CEO of Automat Pictures, a leading producer of studio EPKs, DVD content, original TV programming, and feature films. He has produced and directed the feature documentaries “Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story,” winner of the AFI 2007 Documentary Audience Award, and “Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon.” He is currently in production on “Activist: The Times of Vito Russo,” an indpendent feature documentary about the beloved author of “The Celluloid Closet” and “I Am Divine,” the story of John Waters’ legendary muse.