As we all continue to hunker down with our television sets and grapple with a major pandemic and critical election, it might be fun this Halloween season to remember one filmmaker who brought excitement to the very act of visiting a movie theater. William Castle (1914-1977) produced and directed many modestly budgeted films starting in 1939, but it was Macabre in 1958 that set the tone for his fame and fortune.   

For Macabre, Castle took out a policy with Lloyd’s of London insuring all ticket buyers for $1,000 in case they died of fright. He garnished this theme with hearses parked outside the theater and fake nurses stationed in the lobby. The huge success of Macabre set the ball rolling for the kind of subject that would become his specialty.

The film’s impressive box-office performance didn’t escape the notice of Alfred Hitchcock, who was coming off the big-budget production North by Northwest and following it with the modestly budgeted, black-and-white thriller Psycho. Hitchcock devised a Castle-like promotion for Psycho with the advertised rule “No one will be admitted after the start of each performance.” The result was Hitchcock’s most profitable release.

Comparisons between Castle and Hitchcock don’t stop there. At that time, very few film directors could be considered household names, but Hitchcock became one, thanks in large part to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which started broadcasting in 1955 and featured him as the droll onscreen host. This recognition factor prompted Hitchcock to appear in his movies’ trailers (aka the previews of coming attractions). Castle emulated this idea and appeared in his own trailers. If Alfred Hitchcock was the Master of Suspense, William Castle could be the Master of the Macabre.

Castle’s next two features are probably his most famous, and in actor Vincent Price he found a game and spirited collaborator for both. In House on Haunted Hill, Price plays a wealthy man who rents a “haunted” house for his duplicitous wife’s party. (The house’s exteriors represent a fascinating casting choice: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis House.) The 3-D craze of the early 50s was probably still in people’s memory, when Castle promoted the film as being in a new process called Emergo, and for initial theatrical presentations, a plastic skeleton “emerged” and floated over the audience at a particular moment that mirrored the onscreen antics.