Blu-Ray Review – William Castle at Columbia Volume Two

This set includes several William Castle films from the early to mid-1960s, a period when he had started to move away from his gimmicks somewhat. However, they often had some sort of gimmicky aspect, and were often horror films (although two of these are not). The set includes Zotz!, 13 Frightened Girls, The Old Dark House and Strait-Jacket.

Psycho had happened by this point, and Castle was seen as quite old-fashioned. He felt that Hitchcock, whom he saw as a rival, had one-upped him. Roger Corman’s Edgar Allen Poe films were also coming up, and these factors put Castle and his career at a crossroads. One of his first post-Psycho films was Homicidal, a complete and utter rip-off of Hitchcock’s film, so much so that it actually used some of the same shots. Audiences were also becoming younger, and so Castle decided to try to reach this market (although this trend stopped with Straight-Jacket).

Zotz! was based on a script by Ray Russell, who had also written The Man With the X-Ray Eyes and Mr. Sardonicus. The film sort of mixes The Man With the X-Ray Eyes with a James Bond film. It’s about a language professor Jonathan Jones (Tom Poston), who gets the power to make things go in slow-motion when he points and says “Zots!” The US government isn’t interested as first, but the Communists are.

It delivers what you expect. All the films are super-short, and this one is very enjoyable. However, Castle was better suited to making horror films.

13 Frightened Girls is a textbook example of false advertising: it’s basically a kiddie spy film, not the thriller/horror feature that the title and poster promised. A 16-year-old girl (Kathy Dunn) has a crush on a 40-something intelligence agent (Murray Hamilton). It’s full of disturbing scenes of her trying to get off with him, and it’s a pretty terrible film, although there are some amusing bits. Hamilton is one of the great unsung character actors and he gets top billing here.

The worst film in the set is The Old Dark House, which is a kind of remake of the James Whale film, which was in turn based on a J.B. Priestley novel. The plot is very different, however. There’s a spooky house, some grisliness, and a strange family dynamic. Its most notable feature is that it was a co-production with Hammer, and so it features a lot of Hammer horror regulars. It wasn’t surprising that Castle and Hammer got together, as their films had been released as double features in the past.

Finally, there’s Strait-Jacket, starring Joan Crawford. When What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was a shock smash hit in 1962, it revitalised the careers of stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford to some extent. Castle’s greatest gimmick for the movie was casting Crawford. She had a lot of demands, including script approval, and he was happy to meet them. They even went on tour with the film, with Crawford doing personal appearances in cities across the country (as seen in the mini-series Feud, where Castle is hilariously portrayed by John Waters, who looks nothing at all like Castle). Cardboard axes were distributed at theatres during its theatrical run. Castle himself is said to have seen the film in the theatre at least a dozen times.

Crawford plays Lucy Harbin, who kills her husband and his lover with an axe. Then the narrative jumps forward 20 years to her release from a mental hospital, when she moves in with her adult daughter. Her daughter is very wary of her. When deaths start happening, of course suspicion falls on Lucy…

It’s a fun movie, and Crawford puts in a heck of performance, If it had been any other kind of film, she probably would have been nominated for awards. She worked with Castle again on I Saw What You Did, which sadly is not in this set. Lee Majors has his first big-screen appearance as the husband who died at the beginning. It’s all ridiculously campy, as you might imagine.

The script was written by Robert Bloch, who wrote the novel that Psycho was based on and had worked with Hitchcock quite a bit. With Castle, Bloch also worked on Castle’s follow up to Straight-Jacket, The Night Walker.

Castle continued making films until Shanks, with Marcel Marceau as a puppeteer who can manipulate dead bodies as if they were puppets. Castle tried to direct Rosemary’s Baby, but ended up just producing as the company wanted somebody hipper and has a small cameo.

If you haven’t bought the first of the William Castle at Columbia box sets, I would go for that one first as it’s a better group of films. It provides more of a picture of the kinds of films he was best known for, while with this set, only Zots! and Strait-Jacket are really worth bothering with.

The disc includes three different versions of The Old Dark House, commentaries on all of the films by various film writers and historians, plus interviews with everyone from cast members to Kim Newman, film critics and a film publicist Richard Kahn. Wardrobe and axe tests are included, as is the Super-8 version of Straight-Jacket, a gallery of on-set and promotional photography, a booklet with old and new writing on the film, and more.

Ian Schultz

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