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Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story (2007) Review

William Castle wasn’t just a filmmaker, he was a larger than life showman, a carnival pitchman let loose in the studios of Hollywood. Jeffrey Schwarz’s documentary Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story is a look at the man and his time in Hollywood.

Of his life before Hollywood, Spine Tingler! actually has little to say beyond the fact he was orphaned early in life and developed an interest in the theatre. It does however go into detail about his first promotional stunt, allegedly sending a nasty telegram to Hitler. And then defacing his own theatre with swastikas and Nazi graffiti. And his gimmicks and publicity stunts will remain the focus throughout most of the film.

His early days on the West Coast working as an assistant director and then a contract director of “B” movies are similarly given little attention, which I think was a bit of a mistake. Yes, his run of wildly promoted fright films are what he is known for and the most interesting part of his life. But knowing where he came from and how he came to be the man who took those risks and made those films, would have added a lot to Spine Tingler!

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It’s once he decides to go into business for himself and mortgage his house to make Macabre that Schwarz starts to go into some detail on how he approached each film, and probably more importantly, how he devised the gimmicks to go with them. Be it Emergo, the skeleton that zip lined over viewers of The House on Haunted Hill or Percepto, the buzzer under the seats of theaters showing The Tingler, there is an argument to be made that they, and Castle’s presence in the trailers, were the real attraction.

Unfortunately, this means that his non gimmick films such as Let’s Kill Uncle, and even I Saw What You Did, are given brief mentions or totally passed over. It’s a glaring omission and honestly I’d rather hear about them than another rehash of Joan Crawford’s tantrums on the set of Homicidal or how Paramount maneuvered him out of the director’s chair on Rosemary’s Baby in favour of Roman Polanski. Even worse, they rehash the stories of a curse on the film.

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After that Spine Tingler! Burns through Castle’s final films, Project X, Bug, the jaw-droppingly strange Shanks and 2000 Lakeview Drive which he was in pre-production for when he died, in less than ten minutes. They do at least have a brief interview with the star of Shanks, Marcel Marceau.

Of the other talking heads featured in Spine Tingler! there’s a mix of filmmakers ranging from John Waters, Fred Olen Ray and Roger Corman to Stuart Gordon, John Landis, and John Badham. Film historians Forrest J Ackerman and Donald F. Glut show up, as do family members including his daughter Terry Castle.

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Possibly because of Schwarz’s long track record of making promotional documentaries for DVD and Blu-rays, he keeps most of the film very surface level, never getting into the more interesting aspects of Castle’s career. His most famous films and gimmicks, which many viewers will already know all about, are covered. His personal life is never looked at deeper than how much he loved his wife and kids. Yes it’s entertaining but, like Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster, in a slick and superficial way.

Those new to the genre, or at least to its older films, will probably learn a fair amount from Spine Tingler!. But those with a knowledge of the subject will probably find it all very familiar.

BayView Entertainment has released Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story to Digital Platforms.

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