{Book Review} ReFocus: The Films of William Castle Edited by Murray Leeder

If I have a favorite director, it is probably William Castle – never mind that he is certainly not the best director with which I am familiar, or that my affection for him is rooted almost entirely in less than a dozen films that mostly occupy the “gimmick cycle” that defined his career from 1958 until his death.

“William Castle was my idol,” acclaimed cult filmmaker John Waters wrote. “His films made me want to make films. I’m even jealous of his work. In fact, I wish I were William Castle.”

I can’t say the same, at least, not about Castle’s films making me want to do what I do – I came to them too late for that – but I want to write stories the way Castle made films, and especially his gimmick films. I want to have as much fun as he seemed to – and I want the audience to have as much fun as his audiences most assuredly did.

There’s a phrase that I’ve used more than once over the years, to describe my own writing in comparison to that of some of my peers whose work is, let’s face it, probably better than mine, and certainly headier and more self-serious: “Some of us get to be Alfred Hitchcock, and some of us get to be William Castle.”

(And even that is, in its way, doing a disservice to Hitchcock, who knew how to play with the audience in ways that brought them in on the joke. Just witness his delightfully droll introductions to Alfred Hitchcock Presents.)

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

The essays in ReFocus: The Films of William Castle, billed as the first collection of academic essays devoted to the director, frequently (and sometimes directly) discuss Castle in terms of so-called “auteur theory,” with an oft-quoted line from Waters claiming that, “Mr. Castle got so carried away with the promotion that he arrived in a hearse at some of the premieres and made his entrance popping from a coffin. Was this not the ultimate in auteurism?”

“Castle’s gimmicks were not only to enhance the movie,” A. T. McKenna writes in one of the book’s essays, “but also to be ‘seen through’ (no ghost-viewer pun intended), and provide a brief distraction by drawing attention to artifice. They were also motifs of authorship that positioned the showman as auteur by reminding us that this was not just a movie, but a William Castle experience, in all its unruliness.”

It is that “William Castle experience” and its “unruliness” that makes the best of his gimmick films so beloved, so unforgettable, so immune to criticism. We are in on the joke, and so are they – freeing them up to be what they are. Decades before James Wan, Castle was already the master of the movie-as-dark-ride.

One thing that the essays in ReFocus touch on time and again is Castle’s relationship to early cinema – and to early cinema’s roots in stage magic. Like the stage magician, Castle directly addresses the audience in several of his films. Like the stage magician, he invites the audience to see through the trick, to guess how it has been played on them.

Castle also obviously loved the silent movies that were less distant, chronologically, from his moment than the majority of his films are from us. From the silent film theater in The Tingler to Shanks, Castle’s oddball final feature as director, which seeks to replicate a sort of silent film milieu, his affection for the cinema of the past is stamped everywhere in his gimmick pictures.

And if most of us know Castle’s name at all, it is thanks to those gimmick pictures, and to nods to him in other films ranging from Joe Dante’s Matinee to Mark Herrier and Alan Ormsby’s Popcorn to remakes of Castle’s gimmick films to a recent turn by Waters himself as Castle in the FX series Feud – this despite the fact that Castle almost directed Rosemary’s Baby, and still has a producer credit as well as a cameo in the film.

(Whether Castle graciously stepped aside because he knew that Polanski was the better fit for the material, or had to be pushed aside by the studio depends, as does most everything about Castle, on who you ask.)

Yet Castle directed dozens of other films, most of them from before his gimmick cycle. While ReFocus laments (several times) the fact that more critical and academic attention hasn’t been leveraged on Castle’s non-gimmick pictures – and attempts to rectify this with a couple of its essays, including one on “Gender in William Castle’s Westerns” and one focused entirely on his 1944 film noir When Strangers Marry – the majority of the book’s page count is devoted to Castle’s gimmick films. Which is really fine. They’re what we wanted to read about anyway, right?

Other essays tackle subjects like authorship in Castle’s pictures, Castle’s relationship with the emergence of the psychological horror of the 1960s, “killer queers” in Castle’s Homicidal, and even the connective tissue between Castle and John Waters.

Courtesy Columbia pictures

The problem – to the extent that there is one – is that, for Castle aficionados, much of what is contained in these pages will be retreads of ideas with which you’re already very familiar (even while they float alongside intriguingly novel interpretations) while for those who are new to Castle’s work, the academic bent of the writing may prove uninviting.

For those of us who can’t get enough of the self-styled “Abominable Showman,” however, ReFocus: The Films of William Castle from Edinburgh University Press is a welcome addition to the annals of Castle lore…