Welcome to summer movie hell—another blockbuster season filled with costly digital effects that disappoint more often than they surprise. During a University of Southern California film symposium in June, two directors guilty of creating this trend, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, predicted the imminent collapse of their mega-budget film industry. In its place, they suggested a future of immersive technologies, where theaters would offer thrills you couldn’t get via Netflix.
“Guaranteed to upset your stomach: No one admitted without a vomit bag.”
In fact, Hollywood tried this more than 50 years ago, when filmmakers like William Castle pushed the boundaries of the movie-going experience to make it more interactive. Equal parts technical innovation and publicity stunt, the gimmick craze of the 1950s put special effects in your face and under your seat, literally: Some audiences got a whiff of the action in scented screenings, while others were jolted out of their seats by electric buzzers.
Richard Peterson, who’s the director of programming for the Smith Rafael Film Center, says that features we take for granted today, like surround sound and widescreen projection, were initially seen as novelties. Even color was originally a gimmick. “In the 1920s,” explains Peterson, “before they had full Technicolor, they had what’s called two-color Technicolor, and films like ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ had these two-color sequences.”
First released as a silent film in 1925, “The Phantom of the Opera” included black-and-white footage that was tinted various shades to influence the mood, such as blue for night shots or yellow for bright exterior scenes, a fairly common technique for silent films. However, a few select sequences were also filmed with Technicolor’s new Process 2 film, which utilized both red and green tones for an eerie, desaturated version of the full color spectrum. Full-color films began appearing in the 1930s, culminating in the ultimate Technicolor trick, the sepia-to-color opening for “The Wizard of Oz” in 1939.
After the Great Depression hit, the slump in theater attendance inspired the film industry to fill seats through marketing gimmicks like price cuts or prize giveaways. No longer could directors rely only on the strength of a film’s plot or celebrity stars; instead they learned to build hype that would spread through word of mouth. But this was only the beginning.
Following World War II, the film industry was dealt two major blows that compelled filmmakers to explore new forms of gimmickry: the rise of home television sets and a court decision dismantling studio monopolies. With the Hollywood antitrust case of 1948, the Supreme Court ruled against Paramount Pictures, forcing studios to divide their production, exhibition, and distribution streams. As a result, all the major studios, including MGM, RKO, 20th Century Fox, and Warner Bros., had to sell their national theater chains and slow production efforts to focus on releases with a legitimate chance of box-office success.
Film buff and ephemera collector John Cozzoli, who runs the blog Zombo’s Closet, explains that the Paramount-case decrees helped level the playing field, giving the five biggest studios some competition. “The shortage of movies from the major studios led to a surge of independent production companies taking up the slack,” says Cozzoli, “and the use of even wilder gimmick campaigns to bring people back to the theater experience.”
For decades, studios had produced marketing packets, known as pressbooks, which were distributed to theaters to help advertise each film, with the ultimate aim of growing box office receipts. But in the 1950s, industry executives became nervous enough to try a bunch of wacky new publicity methods and in-theater gimmicks to help fill seats. Elaborate pressbook sections on showmanship, or “exploitation” as it was commonly known, helped theaters plug their films to the local media and potential audiences. “Pressbooks provided ideas like holding a local contest, or maybe doing an impromptu parade down Main Street with people dressed in monster masks, holding up a sign heralding a double-feature of terror not to be missed,” says Cozzoli.
Such campy tactics worked particularly well for horror and science fiction films, where audiences sought to be thrilled in whatever way possible. Pressbooks included all sorts of homespun suggestions, like placing handmade dioramas in the lobby or giving coloring-book sheets to kids, even for adult-themed films. “The coloring page for ‘The Giant Claw’ shows the monster from the neck down—no head,” says Cozzoli. “Given how goofy the head looks in the movie, I could see why they didn’t want to tip off anyone ahead of time.”
Some of these selling points revolved around new technology, like a wave of three-dimensional films. Though experimentation with 3D started with low-tech short films in the 1890s, a modern version of the process was inaugurated with the 1952 film “Bwana Devil,” the first full-color stereoscopic feature. The 1953 hit “House of Wax” starring Vincent Price added stereo sound to the mix, becoming the first 3D film to make the year’s top-10 list, and cementing Price as horror’s leading man.
Most 3D films of the ’50s didn’t use the clunky red-and-blue filter process we think of today; instead they relied on a double projector system with two separate rolls of film (one for the right eye and one for the left), which was improved with inventions like Edwin Land’s Polaroid filters. However, since the two prints had to be perfectly synced for a clean projection, this often resulted in alignment issues that induced headaches, particularly for audience members not sitting in the center of an auditorium.
Peterson believes the desire to contrast the theater experience with television inspired this drive toward new technologies. “Look at developments like Cinerama, the three-screen panoramic projection that started in 1952, which was very quickly followed by Cinemascope, a cheaper way to do wide screen movies,” suggests Peterson. “Cinerama and Cinemascope were parts of this effort to get people out of the house, to go see a movie, because they were bigger and better than ever.”
However, most gimmicks didn’t involve advanced technology, and instead aimed to encourage audience interaction. Enter William Castle: Beginning with his 1958 film “Macabre,” Castle elevated the shock-factor gimmick to an art form. As a publicity stunt for the release of “Macabre,” Castle secured a life insurance policy from Lloyd’s of London, guaranteeing $1,000 in compensation for any audience member who died of fright while viewing his film.
Cult director John Waters praised Castle’s techniques in his book “Crackpot,” beginning with the “Macabre” setup: “Mock insurance policies appeared in all the newspaper ads. Giant replicas of the actual policy hung over the marquees. Hearses were parked outside the theaters and fake nurses in uniform were paid to stand around the lobbies.
“Audiences fell hook, line, and sinker. Nobody talked about the movie, but everyone was eager to see if some jerk would drop dead and collect. Of course, no one died. But if they had, it would have been even better. A death of any kind inside the theater would only have cost Lloyd’s of London a paltry $1,000, and think of the hype that would have generated!”
William Castle’s daughter, Terry, who also works as a writer and producer, says that her father recognized the value of publicity long before his horror-film career. In 1938, Castle convinced Orson Welles to let him take over Welles’ summer stock theater company in Connecticut. Castle concocted a complicated scheme to work with German actress Ellen Schwannake, claiming he had a part that only she could play.
“But it was really hot that July, and they sold very few tickets,” explains Terry, “so my father decided he had to do something. Schwannake had actually gotten a letter from Hitler requesting her presence at some grand ball back in Germany, so my father, who was Jewish, went to Western Union and sent a telegram in response to say that she was acting in his play, she would never go back to Germany, and ‘No!’ to Hitler.
“He took his telegram to the news media, who picked up on it. And then, in the middle of the night, he went to the theater and painted swastikas up and down the stairs and knocked over the box office. The next morning, he made an announcement saying, ‘The show must go on!’ He had the state police there, and the theater was packed. It sold out every night.”
Translating such unconventional methods to the movie industry wasn’t easy, but Castle quickly recognized an important new target—teenagers. “The new theater audience was made up of older kids and young adults,” says Cozzoli, “and lots of dating young adults. Castle’s gimmicks accomplished two things at once: They told these kids that the movie was not their parent’s kind of movie, and they also let them in on the action. Castle wanted them to experience the movie event—not just watch it—to hoot and howl and go wild when the gimmicks kicked in. Teenagers knew Castle was directing and producing these movies for them, and that’s why they were so successful.”
Many of Castle’s gags were integrated directly into the movie, bringing stories to life by letting the audience interact with the action onscreen. For his 1961 film, “Homicidal,” Castle inserted a “fright break” just before the film’s climax, displaying a ticking stop-watch while giving viewers a chance to leave the theater if they were too afraid. Theaters set up a “Coward’s Corner” in the lobby, with a yellow line leading fearful patrons to the booth where they’d sign a certificate stating “I am a bona-fide coward” before getting their money back.
During a special preview weekend in Youngstown, Ohio, Castle attended the 9 o’clock screening to see if the stunt would work. “There was a whole line of publicity people, and Columbia Pictures had some of their people there,” recalls Terry, “and my dad’s sitting there, sweating, but people seem to be really into it. And then his voice comes on, and says, ‘This is William Castle, if you’re too afraid to stay in the theater, follow the yellow line to get your full money back.’ And the entire theater got up and left.”
“Hearses were parked outside the theaters and fake nurses in uniform were paid to stand around the lobbies.”
The theater manager later pulled Castle aside to explain that the audience had actually come for the 6 o’clock show, and stayed for a second screening to get a free refund. “My father was so mad,” says Terry, “saying that Youngstown, Ohio, was just a bunch of swindlers. They changed the color of the tickets for each show, and it worked beautifully.”
At the time, films didn’t open all across the country on the same day, so Castle could attend many local premieres, adding his celebrity to the event and helping to ensure the gags were executed properly. “He was a genius marketer,” says Terry. “He wanted to get people into theaters, and he figured out a way to do that. He didn’t trust that the films would stand on their own, and he was terribly afraid of failing, so he created these fantastic reasons to come to the movies.”
Audiences couldn’t wait to see what Castle would come up with next. For the film “Thirteen Ghosts,” black-and-white scenes were superimposed with blue- and red-tinted footage, allowing viewers to make the “ghosts” visible or invisible using a pair of “Illusion-O” glasses filled with colored cellophane. For “Mr. Sardonicus,” Castle created a “Punishment Poll,” whereby audience members could vote for the villain to receive extra punishment or mercy. While many skeptics think there weren’t actually two endings, Terry says an alternate version was definitely made, though it wasn’t ever screened.
The effect Cozzoli most regrets not seeing in person is “Emergo,” which sent a fake skeleton flying over the audience during “The House on Haunted Hill.” “I dream of tossing popcorn at it,” says Cozzoli.
Perhaps the crowning achievement of Castle’s gag-filled oeuvre was his 1959 film “The Tingler.” Posters for the film included a guarantee that the monster would break loose during your screening, but that you’d be given instructions on “how to guard yourself against attack.” Castle encouraged audiences to react by creating a climax that takes place in a darkened theater and using a single sequence of blood-curdling color for maximum effect.
On top of all this, Castle also rigged certain theater seats with electric buzzers. “I don’t know how he talked these independent theaters into letting him shock the audience’s butts,” says Terry. “It was a fairly simple device, but he had to work hard to get the studio’s marketing department to buy off on it, and also to persuade the exhibitors to do the gimmick. I can’t imagine that working today.”
Despite his amazing mayhem-inducing record, or perhaps because of it, Castle never felt like he was fully respected by the filmmaking community. In 1967, Castle finally got a potential break from the low budget world of B-movies when he secured the rights to the best-selling novel “Rosemary’s Baby.” Yet Paramount convinced him to let Roman Polanski direct the film, with Castle acting as executive producer. It would be the last movie of his career.
“He didn’t want to be on the fringe,” says Terry. “He wanted to be accepted. It was an industry that he loved so much, and that’s who my father was as a person—he just wanted to be accepted.”
“Castle elevated the gimmick to a national level,” says Cozzoli, “making it an official and integral part of the movie’s advertising campaign. What’s more, he loved doing it and he was a natural sideshow barker, cajoling or daring the audience to watch his movies. His blatant but effective ballyhoo playbook for marketing inexpensive movies to achieve high box-office success even caught Alfred Hitchcock’s attention, helping to propel ‘Psycho’  to success using the same formula.”
Many critics agree that Hitchcock, possibly the world’s most famous suspense director, was influenced by Castle’s techniques. “Castle has been described as a wannabe Hitchcock, but when Hitchcock made ‘Psycho,’ I think he was reacting to William Castle,” says Peterson. In particular, the publicity for “Psycho” included the Castle-esque mandate that “No one will be admitted after the start of the performance.” “Who’d want to walk into a movie midway?” he asks. “I think promoting it that way was borrowing a trick from Castle.”
Castle’s style of viral marketing quickly spread among other studios and directors, who utilized tabloid-style headlines and shocking poster art to sensationalize a film’s potential dangers or its novel special effects. For the 1958 film “The Fly,” 20th Century Fox advertised a $100 dollar prize if you could be the first to disprove the film’s scientific premise. American International created its “D-13 Test” for the 1963 film “Dementia 13,” designed to identify those who might be adversely affected by the movie. Ads for the 1970 film “Mark of the Devil” declared that, due to horrifying violence, no one would be admitted without a vomit bag.
A few even attempted to outdo 3D films with technical tricks, like the split-screen projection used for the 1973 film “Wicked, Wicked.” Shown in “Duo-Vision,” the film incorporated two reels of footage simultaneously, but the doubled imagery was difficult to watch and the effect didn’t get much traction.
The 1970s also saw the arrival of “Sensurround,” an illusion using massive speakers to vibrate the theater at moments of intense action. Sensurround was first released with the 1974 film “Earthquake,” but was plagued by high installation costs and the difficulty of containing the effect to a single auditorium in multiplex theaters.
Possibly the most bizarre film gimmick involved screenings enhanced with specific smells. “AromaRama” made its big-screen debut in 1959 with Carlo Lizzani’s “Behind the Great Wall,” using the theater’s air conditioning system to disperse scents through an auditorium. Only a few weeks later, producer Mike Todd, Jr.’s “Smell-O-Vision” premiered with the film “Scent of Mystery.” Todd’s system relied on a network of pipes connected to vents beneath the seats that would release perfumes at specific points during a screening. Both gimmicks were spectacular critical and popular flops, as audiences found they merely distracted from the viewing experience.
“I’ve never even heard of anyone trying to re-create that,” says Peterson. “The problem is, how do you get the smells out once they’re in the auditorium? I’m sure it just turned into a mess.” John Waters did revive the scented film concept for his 1981 movie “Polyester,” though his “Odorama” gimmick improved the original technique by giving audience members scratch-and-sniff cards numbered by scene.
As viewers grew more sophisticated in the 1970s and ’80s, producers lost interest in over-the-top gimmicks, preferring to spend money for onscreen effects like realistic violence or computer-animated monsters. Yet, as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg indicated recently, there’s an increasing desire for more immersive technology at the movies.
“I think the idea of smells is not completely off-base,” says Peterson, “though it probably won’t come from pumping perfume into an auditorium. There are ways of making things like holograms and immersive environments part of a narrative, which will probably enter into the picture at some point. I guess the one that still has a foot in each era is 3D, and with the new 3D craze, we’re probably looking at it being part of future technological developments in film.”
The primary difference between mid-century and contemporary 3D is that today, the process is much easier for theaters to implement, and comes with a higher ticket price. “It’s probably even keeping people from going to movies they otherwise would see if they could afford it,” says Cozzoli. “It’s a price-increasing gimmick, and one that’s not worth the cost.”
Terry Castle believes there’s still an opportunity for studios to capture audiences with new gimmicks, particularly using the gadgets we already have available at our fingertips. “If you think what my father would do with iPhones and iPads and augmented reality,” Terry muses, “he would be all over that. He would have something where you’d set your phone to do a certain thing, and you felt like cockroaches were running up your leg—it would be brilliant.”
In a move that William Castle would certainly appreciate, Terry has revived his William Castle Productions for a post-mortem series of young adult horror books. She’s also working on the screen adaption of “The Mind Thing” by Frederic Brown, a classic science-fiction novel Castle first optioned years ago. And although Terry recalls a few of her father’s stunts that never made it into theaters, she’s careful not to reveal them. “There are definitely gimmicks he never used, and I sure hope to use them one day,” says Terry.
Regardless of the potential, Cozzoli doesn’t have high hopes for Hollywood today. “I doubt we’ll be seeing any really good gimmicks anytime soon,” he says, “unless we can dig up William Castle, clone him using his DNA, and give his clone a good cigar, and a national campaign.” Though that might be just what Terry has up her sleeve.