Tuesday, October 24, 2023

Johnny California: William Castle Triple Feature

 by JB

Today, we look at the OTHER SIDE of the Hollywood Shock-Master Supreme and his mixed oeuvre.

William Castle’s career is fascinating. If you haven’t seen the documentary Spine Tingler: The William Castle Story, I heartily recommend it. Go watch it now.

(Whistles. Checks lottery numbers. Checks e-mail. Takes a nap. Learns more about car's extended warranty.)

...and we are back. One quibble I have with this documentary is that, although it rightfully celebrates Castle’s mastery of ballyhoo and salesmanship; his treasured quintet of gimmick films: Macabre, House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, 13 Ghosts, and Homicidal; and his prescience to buy the rights to Rosemary’s Baby and produce it himself, Castle’s later career is dismissed in a cursory ten minutes. Three specific films are completely ignored.

Now that I have screened those three films, I UNDERSTAND WHY.

Castle’s third act was marked with disappointment, failure, and illness. I can see why the documentary, co-produced by his daughter, would want to give this material short shrift. I, on the other hand, have provided FULL SHRIFT for you, my esteemed readers.

The Old Dark House (1963) (screenplay by Robert Dillon)
THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Car salesman Tom Penderel (Tom Poston) delivers a spiffy new roadster to college chum Caspar Femm (Peter Bull). He finds Caspar is dead, but that’s okay because he has a twin brother Jasper (Peter Bull) which leaves us wondering why the filmmakers thought the Caspar stuff was necessary at all. Penderel meets the other “zany” members of Femm’s family during an endless night; boredom and listlessness ensue.

An ill-conceived remake of the grandfather of all “I’m sorry, the bridge is out, you’ll have to stay the night” pictures, this movie provides proof positive that Tom Poston was born to be a character actor (See his hilarious turn as the town drunk in Cold Turkey!) and not a leading man. Poston tries manfully, but he’s just not up to the task. At times I thought Castle accidently rolled cameras while they were setting up the lights with Poston’s stand-in—that’s how lifeless and hapless his performance is. In James Whale’s original film, seven strangers wind up at the titular mansion because a storm has driven them to seek shelter. In the Castle remake, Poston delivers a sports car to his old college roommate. You know, because shiny red sportscars are the stuff OF WHICH NIGHTMARES ARE MADE!
NOTE: This film is obviously proud of its surprise ending. Every last one of my readers will have figured out the surprise by the 45-minute mark. So, there’s that.

None of the scary stuff in this Old Dark House is scary at all. (Compare that to the scary stuff in Castle’s earlier The House on Haunted Hill, which is very scary indeed.) The funny stuff here also falls flat. It’s the rare horror comedy... with neither.

Let’s Kill Uncle (1966) (screenplay by Rohan O’Grady and Mark Rohan)
THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Recently orphaned child Barnaby (Pat Cardi) is escorted to the island home of his eccentric uncle where he is to inherit a great deal of money. He meets Chrissie (Mary Badham), a lively teenaged girl up for any adventure. Unfortunately, the “adventures” in this film are unimaginative and by-the-numbers. Barnaby's Uncle Kevin (Nigel Green) immediately sets out to kill him and collect the inheritance. It’s all pretty standard stuff. SPOILER ALERT: The would-be child murderer gets away scot-free. Was Castle planning a sequel? Let’s Kill Uncle Again...For Realsies!

What with its two juvenile leads, this film reminded me of a 1960s-era (era) Walt Disney live action comedy... if Disney Studios ever built a children’s film around multiple homicides. Let’s Kill Uncle fails to find a consistent tone, so we are never sure when to laugh or shiver; usually we just yawn. The characters of the “Caring Young Aunt” and “Caring Young Detective” are cyphers; they are given nothing to do and their supposed romance occurs almost completely offscreen. The film is endlessly padded; an opening shipboard scene serves almost no narrative purpose, except that it's nice to see a cameo from Creature from the Black Lagoon’s Nestor Paiva. How slow is this film? The titular Uncle doesn’t even show up until HALF AN HOUR in. That’s thirty minutes during which the audience is thinking, “Boy, if that uncle would just show up, perhaps something interesting could start happening!”
TRIVIA NOTE: The film’s lead actress is Mary Badham, who played Scout in 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Let’s Kill Uncle gives film lovers a chance to see our beloved Scout as a sassy teen.

TANGENT: At one point, because the uncle character served in WWII, the song “Mademoiselle from Armenti√®res” appears on the soundtrack. This took me back in time: it’s one of the few songs I remember my late father ever singing. Turns out, there are innumerable variations of the original, which became a bawdy wartime standard; my father learned it serving in the Navy in WWII. His version went something like this:

“Four Marines were eating beans and Parlez-vous
Four Marines were eating beans and Parlez-vous
Four Marines were eating beans; they shit all over the submarine.
Inky Dinkey Parlez-vous...”

Hilarious to a ten-year old me. This crazy tangent actually answers the question, “How entertaining is Let’s Kill Uncle?” The answer: “The film itself contains so little entertainment that I was forced down the rabbit hole of memory to entertain myself based on one incidental song from the film’s fucking soundtrack.”

The Spirit is Willing (1967) (screenplay by Ben Starr)
This is one of those innumerable low-budget Hollywood films from 1967 that make one scratch one's head while thinking “THIS was filmed in the Summer of Love?” No evidence here of pop culture upheaval— just business as usual at the William Castle “Movie A Year” Schlock Factory.

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Ben and Kate Powell (Sid Caesar and Vera Miles) rent a cottage on the eastern seaboard where their son, Steve (Barry Gordon), immediately starts to see ghosts. The ghosts are real, though no one believes him. Uncle George (John McGiver) is brought in to counsel the boy, but one of the ghosts falls in love with him! Ho-ho. It is to laugh. Wonderful character actors like Mary Wickes, Jesse White, Doodles Weaver, Jay C. Flippen, Harvey Lembeck, Nestor Paiva, and John Astin have their time and professional talents wasted.

Here is an incomplete list of things that make me wish the title of The Spirit is Willing had been changed pre-release to The Film is Unwatchable:

1. The film features the annoying narrative trope of a character seeing ghosts and no one else in the film believing him. Good God! We are watching the film. We know that within the reality of the film, ghosts are real. The protagonist sees the ghosts; we see the ghosts. Why engage in this annoying cat and mouse game just to pad out the film?
2. The film features one of Sid Caesar's many performances during his struggle with alcoholism, and it shows. I remember reading Caesar’s autobiography Where Have I Been? and being happy that he eventually beat the bottle. I also remember being completely gob-smacked when he revealed that he had no memories whatsoever of filming Grease. From the evidence here, Caesar retained no conscious memory of his performance in The Spirit is Willing. I WISH I COULD SAY THE SAME.

3. Barry Gordon gives an uncomfortable “No Longer A Child Star, But Not Yet a Seasoned Character Actor” performance as Steve Who Sees Ghosts. Gordon was a sensation in A Thousand Clowns in 1965, but this film catches him in his awkward adolescence, a few years before series television guest spots (Love, American Style, Mannix, The Incredible Hulk, Three’s Company, Barney Miller, Archie Bunker’s Place, L.A. Law, Empty Nest, NYPD Blue, ER, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, among many others) and cartoon voices (Jabberjaw, Pac-Man, The Jetsons, The Smurfs, Darkwing Duck, Batman: The Animated Series, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to name a few) provided him with a career that has spanned almost 60 years.

4. For perhaps the first time in his long career, character actor John McGiver turns in a performance that is boring. I am big McGiver fan (Check him out in TCM holiday staple Fitzwilly!) but here it’s as if we are privy to a line rehearsal or some sort of filmed memorization check instead of an actual motion picture performance.

5. I am convinced that no one told co-star Vera Miles that she was starring in a film. Maybe Castle offered her a free vacation to Cape Cod and tricked her into saying her lines. It could happen! Haven’t you ever seen Bowfinger?

Although all three films were soul-crushing, evening-spoiling disappointments, there is a small bright side to this rancid rainbow. Looking back at William Castle’s earlier, better films, I wondered what had gone wrong. Was his “act” getting stale? Were movie audiences changing? Was Castle getting old and content to rest on his laurels?

Yes, yes, and yes.

The conclusion I reached was that, beside the ballyhoo and gimmicks (which were inspired), the success of Castle’s early films was due to one person: screenwriter Robb White. Castle was never the flashiest or best director; it’s the scripts of those early films that deliver. White does not waste our time with nonsense, subplots, or thirty-minute “prefaces.” Macabre (1958), House on Haunted Hill (1959), The Tingler (1959), 13 Ghosts (1960), and Homicidal (1961) are five solid horror films, gimmicked or not, that reliably delivered shivers and shakes to a late-1950s teenaged audience. These five films were all written by White and directed by Castle over a three-year span. It’s an embarrassment of fun and spooky riches.

The stultifying triple feature under review today was made in just four years, but what different years, and what different films. I was left wondering if I could get the taste of The Old Dark House remake, Let’s Kill Uncle, and The Spirit is Willing out of my mouth by licking my official 13 Ghosts ghost viewer.

Turns out, I can.

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