The number of famous people who’ve come back from the dead could be counted on the fingers of your hand. In fact, I can think of only one off the top of my head, but I won’t name names, I don’t want to add blasphemy to my many, many sins.
Anyway, that number has a new addition: William Castle. And if you don’t know who William Castle is, you should. Dubbed “The Master of the Macabre” and “The King of the Gimmicks”, legendary film producer and director William Castle (1914-1977) became just as famous, if not more so, for the gimmicks, publicity stunts and ballyhoo (read: bullshit) he dreamt up to promote his movies, the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the days of PT Barnum. Castle had been making movies for a few years with little success, when he hit upon a gimmick to promote his thriller MACABRE (1958): issuing an insurance policy backed by Lloyds of London), to cover all ticket buyers against “death by fright” (the fine print and tepid nature of the actual movie guaranteeing no one would receive a payout), as well as posting “nurses” in theatre lobbies and hearses outside their doors!
It proved a success, the film was a hit, and Castle became one of a few movie makers to become as popular as their product. He would personally promote his films, a la Hitchcock, each gimmick wilder than the first: HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), filmed in “Emergo”, featured a skeleton attached to a wire appearing over the audience at the climax of the movie (and eventually becoming a target for candy boxes and soda cups); HOMICIDAL (1961) offered audience members a Fright Break, with a refund for anyone who thought they couldn’t take the “terrifying” end (but only if they sat in a Coward’s Corner in full view of their friends!); and most famously of all, during showings of THE TINGLER (1959), filmed in “Percepto”, patrons in the right (or wrong) seats could receive strong vibrations at key moments (courtesy of military surplus airplane wing de-icers; contrary to popular belief, seats were never wired to give actual electric shocks). He was also the producer of the classic ROSEMARY’S BABY (1968), and had wanted to direct it as well, but the studio, wanting the work to retain some dignity they felt the “lowbrow” Castle couldn’t provide, hired Roman Polanski instead (nice one guys, choose a Polish paedophile over a nice guy with a genuine love for movies).
Of all of Castle’s movies, my favourite was his last, and maybe least-known: BUG (1975), a film that starts out as a standard insect-invasion piece of schlock but then halfway through becomes a psychological study of the mental breakdown of the scientist (Bradford Dillman) studying the firestarting titular creatures. And just to show that he hadn’t lost his touch, the publicity stunt for this involved taking out a million dollar insurance policy on the film’s star – Hercules the Cockroach!
William Castle died of a heart attack in 1977, but he has since been remembered by family, friends and fans alike. Joe Dante’s 1991 period comedy MATINEE (1993) featured John Goodman as a Castle-like filmmaker and showman during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the 1991 horror film POPCORN gave us vintage movies with Castle-like gimmicks.
But no one knew that, somewhere, the spirit of William Castle himself would return…
And he did, drawn by the ethereal siren call of Social Networking. He has a Twitter and Facebook account, and according to his daughter Terry Castle, who helms William Castle productions, her father has become a genuine ghost writer (come on, you knew I had to use it!), has produced FROM THE GRAVE: THE PRAYER (VOL. 1), a novel for young adults.
In true Castle style, the beginning of the book contains an Audience Participatory Supplement in the form of an agreement the reader must sign, confirming that if they suffer from any nightmares, insomnia or death as a result of reading this “true account”, then they or their next of kin will not sue. Nice touch, Bill.
The story’s main protagonist is Mr Castle himself, who has unexpectedly returned from the Beyond, due to the machinations of a religious shrine in France, a shrine for Saint Sarah, the patron saint of Gypsies. It seems he visited here once and made a wish, and that Sarah doesn’t just act like a call centre operative to God, she makes things happen. And too late, Mr. Castle has remembered the old warning about being careful what you wish for.
But he isn’t going to hang around some French cemetery moping like a sad Jim Morrison fan, oh no. Even as he learns to adjust to his new insubstantial state, he finds he has a date with Destiny. And Destiny turns out to be a total slut and perv, as she also has a date with four teenagers: Aleck, whose parents have died in a car crash and who’s been sent to live with his yuppie aunt and uncle in France; Edgar, whose whole family have also moved to France to take advantage of some ancestral title on their property; and Sarah and her younger brother Luca, lonely Gypsy kids whose father makes them beg and pickpocket. The quartet of kids eventually meet when two of them find a key and map to Castle’s former residence. And with Castle’s help, the four of them eventually get wrapped up Goonies-style in a race through haunted houses and quarries against an evil secret society, encountering ghosts and other dangers as they seek to find an ancient book of dark magic that will unleash ineffable terror into the world. I won’t spoil it for you, but the book’s name rhymes with Recronomicon…
First, the pluses: the story has a simple but elegant flow to its prose, descriptive without being florid. It would make an ideal audio book as well. The story was geared towards younger readers, but then so were the Harry Potter books, and I’ve seen plenty of adults reading them. The pace is mostly quick, taking the protagonists Dan Brown style across France, from Provence to the rich red quarries of Rousillon, all the way to the Gothic catacombs of Paris. There are also meta references to Castle’s previously, particularly ROSEMARY’S BABY, and even his own death figures into the overall plot. As well, there are references to movies which have used the Necronomicon as a plot device, such as THE EVIL DEAD. I liked the background details; it reminded me of the histories you’d get for the monsters Carl Kolchak encountered in THE NIGHT STALKER.
But it’s not perfect. It is geared for young adults, as I said, but for this forty-something guy, I found the teenage protagonists at times unsympathetic, unlikeable, and all their backstories played out with the same “misunderstood, hating your parents” trope. I’m pretty sure there’s one or two kids out there who are happy and content with their parents, and vice versa. I found it hard to identify with them, but at the same time, I know that there will be a few uncool kids out there who will not even know who William Castle is, and certainly not get all the references to his movies. Another gripe was the use of the word ‘Gypsy’, which I know is traditional (and yes, it’s supposed to be written by a guy who died over 30 years ago), but it still grates on my politically correct side.
But I don’t really want to put people off it; it’s an enjoyable way to pass the time, and what more could you want from a William Castle creation? From the Grave: The Prayer is now available in print and eBook versions ($15.99 and $9.99) via Amazon, Kindle, and iBooks through William Castle Productions. And be sure to visit William Castle’s Blog to see what the recently resurrected filmmaker is planning on next…
Author: William Castle
Plot: 4 out of 5 stars
Gore: 1.5 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien