William Castle at Columbia, Volume One: Limited Edition (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Tim Salmons
  • Review Date: Nov 07, 2018
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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William Castle at Columbia, Volume One: Limited Edition (Blu-ray Review)

Director

William Castle

Release Date(s)

1959/1960/1961 (October 19, 2018)

Studio(s)

Columbia Pictures (Powerhouse Films/Indicator)
  • Film/Program Grade: See Below
  • Video Grade: See Below
  • Audio Grade: See Below
  • Extras Grade: A
  • Overall Grade: A

William Castle at Columbia, Volume One (Blu-ray Disc)

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Review

[Editor’s Note: this is a Region-Free release]

William Castle’s career as both a filmmaker and a showman, lacking the constraints of studio-dictation, was on the rise in the late 1950s with the success of Macabre and House on Haunted Hill through Allied Artists. His days as a studio-contracted director at Columbia Pictures were now a thing of the past, and it wasn’t long before the same studio came calling again when they saw how successful he was on his own. He soon returned to them, but with much more creative control over his work, producing a slew of mostly successful ventures with the company. Four of those films, The Tingler, 13 Ghosts, Homicidal, and Mr. Sardonicus, are included in Indicator’s newest Blu-ray boxed set offering William Castle at Columbia, Volume One.

Things begin with The Tingler, one of those William Castle films that you have to completely lose yourself in and buy into how ridiculous its premise is, which is that a creature can materialize along the spine of a human being during their greatest moment of terror. Totally illogical, of course, but there’s more to the film than its main plot. What makes it special is the presence of Vincent Price and a couple of show-stopping sequences, which includes an attempt to scare someone to death with things like a bathtub full of blood and a well-thrown hatchet, as well as a panic-stricken theater of people when the titular Tingler is loosed inside. It’s also the film that introduced Percepto, a William Castle gimmick that required randomly fitting theater seats with vibrating mechanisms, giving select audience members an extra jolt for their money. It worked like gangbusters and the film did well upon its initial release. Outside of House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler remains a long-standing favorite that continues to entertain horror aficionados, William Castle admirers, and fans who thrive on the film’s enormous camp value.

Next up on the chopping block is 13 Ghosts, another inherently corny but charming spookfest that ensnares a family of four into a haunted house by a late uncle who had the ability to see the ghosts that inhabited it with special glasses, something that audiences were also given. These Ghost Viewer spectacles gave you the ability to watch the film with or without seeing the ghosts. If you looked through the top half, which was red, you could see the ghost, but if you were too scared and looked through the bottom half, which was blue, you couldn’t see them. It was more gimmicky but effective showmanship on Castle’s part that worked like a charm, particularly on young audiences. As far as story and performances are concerned, they’re on about the same level as previous Castle efforts, which is to say not perfect, but adorably simplistic. Although the film lacks the presence of Vincent Price as the lead (what a much more popular film it would have been), horror fans will definitely recognize the presence of Charles Herbert, who had already appeared in The Fly and received top billing over all of the other cast members.

Castle followed up his film for all audiences with the decidedly disturbing Homicidal, which was one of his most interesting and violent films. This time around, he goes beyond inspiration and lifts wholeheartedly from the work of Alfred Hitchcock, particularly Psycho. However, the story of a murderous woman and the dynamics between her and her family still manages to stand on its own, especially when the revealing twist about two of the film’s main characters occurs. It’s difficult to talk about that plot without spoiling it, so I won’t try. The film’s gimmick is, perhaps, the more attention-grabbing of all the ones that Castle ever pulled off. Besides the film’s Fright Break, which implemented an on-screen clock, giving audiences 45 seconds to leave the theater if they were too frightened to witness the conclusion, there was also the Coward’s Corner. Anybody who left before the film ended had to be put through the ringer in front of other patrons in the theater’s lobby, including, above all things, signing a certificate that would declare them to be cowards. As for the merits of Homicidal, it’s actually one of Castle’s best films overall, exploring subject matter that wasn’t necessarily the norm at the time.

The final film in this set, Mr. Sardonicus, takes us into the world of a Baron whose face has been contorted into a hideous rictus grin, seeking out experimental medical aid in an attempt to mend him. The make-up design of the Baron is both disturbing and laughable, leaving one with a feeling of total unease. What’s also effective about it is the amount of time that goes by before it’s actually revealed. The rest of the time he wears a mask, pointing out that speech lessons that utilize the dormant muscles in his throat allow him to speak clearly. Like Homicidal, the film is also a notch above Castle’s usual work, with far more emphasis on character and shock value. Scenes involving the use of leeches, for instance, disgusted the BBFC so much that they struggled with releasing the film in the U.K. It’s also a gothic horror film in the tradition of Hammer Studios, Amicus Productions, and American International Pictures, which is one of the only times that Castle made a film outside of his normal standards. The attached gimmick was called the Punishment Poll, consisting of cards that were handed out to the audience which allowed them to decide the fate of Mr. Sardonicus at the film’s conclusion. Knowing that they would vote to show him no mercy, Castle shot only one ending. With great performances and a creepy atmosphere, Mr. Sardonicus works well, and is one of William Castle’s more out of the ordinary ventures.

When it comes to Indicator’s Blu-ray presentations of these films, there’s mostly good news. The transfer for The Tingler is a little less organic than I had hoped for, but solid nonetheless. The major upgrade is the sequence in which Mrs. Higgins is frightened to death. That scene has always looked bad due to being taken from a 16mm source and zoomed in to try and match the aspect ratio. It has now been scanned in 4K from a 35mm print of the film preserved in the BFI National Archive. It’s sharper and clearer with blood that doesn’t chroma bleed into the white portions of the sink or the bathtub. It’s not perfect, but it doesn’t stand out so much like a sore thumb. The rest of the presentation lacks a thoroughly even grain structure, but depth and detail are still potent. Delineation is pretty good with fairly deep black levels while the overall image is stable with little leftover in the way of debris or damage. For the audio, three different options are available: the film’s original soundtrack in English mono LPCM, a second option that substitutes the original audio for an English 2.0 LPCM track during the Percepto-driven theater scene, and another English mono LPCM track that features the original Drive-In version of the Percepto scene with William Castle’s dialogue. These three options can be toggled back and forth at any time. Everything is fairly clean and clear on the mono tracks with only the mildest of hiss, but good separation for all of the dialogue, score, and sound effects elements. The stereo portion, however, is hampered by heavy distortion. Optional subtitles are also available in English SDH.

13 Ghosts comes with four different viewing options: the original Illusion-O version, the red-tinted version, the blue-tinted version, or the plain black and white version. Unfortunately, Indicator hasn’t provided a pair of Ghost Viewers, which would have been ideal, but are likely attainable by other means. In actual fact, the ghosts are much more apparent in both the red-tinted and black and white versions. There’s also the ability to toggle back and forth between the original Illusion-O, red-tinted, and blue-tinted versions using the Angle button on your remote control. Truth be told, none of these versions are perfect viewing presentations. While there’s always a mild drop in picture quality during any scenes involving ghosts, everything surrounding them is much better with good detail and delineation, as well as fairly solid, but heavy, grain levels and deep black levels. There are also no major instances of damage or wobble (outside of a slight flutter at the 00:29:58 mark, which seems to be baked in), but some extremely minor speckling can still be observed. The audio, which is presented in English mono DTS-HD with optional subtitles in English SDH, preserves the film’s intended aural presentation. It’s not an altogether narrow track as there’s plenty of room to breathe for all of the separate elements, including the score, sounds of the ghosts, and dialogue. It’s obviously dated, but clean and clear throughout with no heavy distortion or hiss issues.

Homicidal, in terms of quality, is somewhere between The Tingler and 13 Ghosts. It’s not a thoroughly solid presentation, although grain levels are mostly even throughout with excellent detail and depth. It’s also not overtly sharp, but delineation is good, black levels are deep, and contrast is never overblown. Everything appears stable and clean with nothing more than occasional speckling leftover. There’s also some light flutter in the frame in a couple of scenes early on, but it doesn’t last all that long and isn’t all that intrusive. For the audio, another English mono LPCM track is provided with optional subtitles in English SDH. It’s a decent track with good dialogue reproduction and nice separation for the various elements, but perhaps needed a bit of a sonic boost as it plays a little quiet in places. It’s not an overly narrow presentation, but it’s clean and clear with no invasive hiss or distortion issues to speak of.

Mr. Sardonicus is also presented in a solid presentation, but with a slight softness. Grain, though not overly prevalent, is fairly even throughout with good depth and detail. Delineation is good with deep blacks but not lacking when it comes to white levels. Everything appears clean and bright with only the mildest of speckling, but some edge enhancement is definitely noticeable. It’s also a stable presentation with good contrast. The audio is once again presented in English mono LPCM with optional subtitles in English SDH. It’s a nice track without heavy distortion or hiss, sounding clean and clear with good dialogue reproduction and good separation for the various elements. The audio also tends to lean ever so slightly to the left at times, rather than the center.

THE TINGLER (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B+/B/B
13 GHOSTS (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B+/B+/B+
HOMICIDAL (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B+/B+/B-
MR. SARDONICUS (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B+/B-/B-

For the extras selection, this set packs quite a wallop. For The Tingler, there’s a new audio commentary with authors Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby; Imaginary Biology, a new 16-minute overview and critical analysis with film critic Kim Newman; I Survived The Tingler, a 4-minute interview with actress Pamela Lincoln; Unleashing Percepto, a 3-minute interview with Barry Lorie of the Columbia Pictures Publicity Department; Scream for Your Lives!, a 16-minute vintage featurette about the film, featuring actor Darryl Hickman, the great Bob Burns, author Lucy Chase Williams, and film historian David J. Skal; a 3-minute theater lobby audio spot featuring Vincent Price and a promotional song; an isolated music and effects track in mono LPCM; the film’s original theatrical trailer in HD; a Trailers from Hell commentary on the film’s trailer by Joe Dante; a promotional materials gallery with 43 images; the Percepto instruction manual in 31 images; reversible artwork with the press warning booklet image on the opposite side; and a 40-page insert booklet with the essay Domestic Disturbance: Sadism, Violence, and the Family in the Films of William Castle by Kat Ellinger, another essay Loving The Tingler and Saving the Color Sequence by Michael Hyatt, William Castle on The Tingler – a section from Castle’s autobiography Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America, Percepto!: What to Do and How to Do It – the original theater instructions for installing and operating, several critical reactions, the film’s original poster, and presentation details. All that’s missing is the audio commentary by author and film historian Steve Haberman from the Scream Factory Blu-ray release.

For 13 Ghosts, there’s the excellent 92-minute documentary Spine Tingler!: The William Castle Story; an audio commentary on Spine Tingler! with producer/director Jeffrey Schwarz and Terry Castle; the 8-minute Larger Than Life: The Making of Spine Tingler!: The William Castle Story; 13 Ghosts: The Magic of Illusion-O vintage 8-minute featurette with producer Michael Schlesinger, film historian Donald F. Glut, Bob Burns, and filmmaker Fred Olen Ray; a 12-minute introduction to the film by horror novelist Stephen Laws; the original theater lobby audio spot for the film; an isolated music and effects audio track in mono LPCM; the original theatrical trailer in HD; a Trailers from Hell commentary on the film’s trailer by screenwriter Sam Hamm; an image gallery with 66 images; reversible artwork with the free Ghost Viewer advertisement on the opposite side; and a 36-page insert booklet with the essay 13 Ghosts by Dan Whitehead, William Castle on 13 Ghosts – another section from Castle’s autobiography Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America, A Séance with William Castle by Cedric Adams from the 1960 In the Corner column of the Minneapolis Star, several critical reactions, information about Spine Tingler!: The William Castle Story, the film’s original posters, and presentation details.

For Homicidal, there’s another energetic audio commentary featuring film historian and writer Lee Gambin; an 8-minute introduction by horror author Stephen Laws; Psychette: William Castle and Homicidal, a vintage 8-minute featurette with film historian Donald F. Glut, Bob Burns, David Del Valle, and Michael Schlesinger; a 5-minute newsreel from the film’s premiere in Youngstown, Ohio; Ballyhoo!, a 4-minute interview with entertainment journalist Bob Thomas, who reads excerpts from an interview he did with William Castle in 1960; an isolated music and effects audio track in mono LPCM; the original theatrical trailer; an image gallery with 41 images; reversible artwork featuring the film’s alternate black and white poster on the opposite side; and a 36-page insert booklet featuring the essay What Happens in Denmark Stays in Denmark: Down the Warren of William Castle’s Homicidal by Rebecca Nicole Williams, William Castle on Homicidal – another section from Castle’s autobiography Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America, Exploiting Homicidal – a reprinting of the film’s press book, several critical reactions, the film’s original poster, and presentation details. All that’s missing is a short TV spot from the film’s DVD release.

For Mr. Sardonicus, there’s an audio commentary with authors Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan; Gothic Castle, a 28-minute interview with author Jonathan Rigby about the film; The Punishment Poll, a 6-minute interview with Richard Kahn of the Columbia Pictures Publicity Department; Taking the Punishment Poll, an 8-minute vintage featurette with David Del Valle, Michael Schlesinger, Donald F. Glut, Bob Burns, and Fred Olen Ray; an isolated music and effects track in mono LPCM; the original theatrical trailer; a Trailers from Hell commentary on the film’s trailer by Stuart Gordon; an image gallery with 59 images; reversible artwork with an alternate poster for the film on the opposite side; and a 36-page insert booklet with the essay The Fabric of Nightmares: Mr. Sardonicus by Josephine Botting, William Castle on Mr. Sardonicus – another section from Castle’s autobiography Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America, Exploiting Mr. Sardonicus – a reprinting of the film’s press book, Introducing Mr. Sarondicus: Ray Russell by Jeff Billington, several critical reactions, the film’s original poster, and presentation details. The only thing missing is the Ghost Story pilot episode from the DVD release.

Indicator’s William Castle at Columbia, Volume One Blu-ray boxed set is a wonderful addition to any horror fan’s film library. While these films are already fully available on Blu-ray in the U.S. (some given more distinct care than others), this curated collection featuring hours of extras in a beautiful package is well-worth the import. Highly recommended!

– Tim Salmons

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