William Castle and the Five Best Movie Gimmicks


The “Golden Era of Movie Gimmicks” was in the late 1950s and 1960s when producer William Castle came up with some very innovative ways to lure audiences to his low-budget thrillers and horror films. Although Castle remains the undisputed King of Gimmicks, there were memorable ones before and after him. Join us as we take a shot at listing the five best movie gimmicks:

1. The TinglerVincent Price stars as a doctor who discovers a crustacean-like creature that grows at the base of the spine during moments of intense fright. When one screams, the creature reduces in size and becomes harmless. However, if you’re too afraid to scream, the Tingler snaps your spine, causing instant death! At the film’s climax, Price surgically removes a Tingler, which subsequently escapes to a movie theater below him.  The screen goes black and Price urges the real movie audience to: “Scream!  Scream for your lives!” To heighten the effect, some patrons at selected movie theaters received mild electric shocks (yes, Castle had actually wired some of the seats!).

2. House on Haunted Hill – If five guests can spent the night in Vincent Price’s haunted house, each will receive $10,000. Castle’s big gimmick, dubbed “Emergo” (love the name!), was simply a skeleton on a wire which projectionists dropped over unsuspecting viewers during the film’s big shock scene. Again, the gimmick was only used in selected theaters, although it was recreated for a New York City film festival in 2010.

3. Scent of Mystery – Mike Todd, Jr. produced this light mystery about a novelist trying to save an heiress (an unbilled Elizabeth Taylor) from a murder plot. In selected theatres, over 30 aromas were piped in via plastic tubes at appropriate points in the film–this was dubbed “Smell-O-Vision.” There have also been other attempts to create smelly movies, the most famous being John Waters’ campy Polyester, which took the low-tech route with scratch-and-sniff cards (Waters, who has a great appreciation of “B” cinema history, called his gimmick Odorama).

4. 13 Ghosts – This second haunted house movie (albeit a family-friendly one) from Castle was filmed in “Illusion-O.” With this gimmick, Castle provided viewers with filtered glasses which allowed them to see the movie’s “invisible” ghosts.

5. Earthquake – The most expensive and large-scale gimmick (short of 3-D) was Sensurround, in which a film’s soundtrack was amplified in certain scenes to cause a rumbling sensation. It also caused headaches.  The first Sensurround film was the disaster flick Earthquake in 1974. It was followed by Midway (1976) and Rollercoaster (1977).

Honorable Mentions:  Macabre (Castle offered a $1000 life insurance policy if anyone died of fright while watching the movie); Homicidal and Ten Little Indians (1965) paused the action momentarily for a “Fright Break” and a “Murder Minute,” respectively; the otherwise forgettable thriller Wicked, Wicked was shot in “Duovision,” meaning that  almost the entire movie was shown in split-screen so the audience could follow simultaneously-occurring events; and, finally, Robert Montgomery filmed all of the Philip Marlowe mystery The Lady in the Lake in first-person (Marlowe is only glimpsed via reflections).

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café , on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!