William Castle was a man who knew how to sell a movie. Castle who was a director and producer from 1939 to 1977 made his mark in the late 1950s by employing gimmicks to draw audiences to his low-budget horror films.
From 1958 to 1974, Mr. Castle not only filmed movies but produced them as well. His gimmicks and films had an impact on every day popular culture in ways that he could never have imagined. Mr. Castle used these gimmicks to great effect in numerous films, a few highlights are listed here:
- In the movie The Tingler (1959), random seats were equipped with a buzzer that would be triggered by the projectionist at a specific point in the movie, causing the seats to buzz and frighten subjected audience members.
- In the 1965 film, I Saw What You Did the seats were equipped with seatbelts so the audience wouldn’t be scared out of their seats.
- 1961’s Homicidal, a fright break allowed audience members to leave the theater before the climax of the film concluded. Audience members that did leave had to do so via “coward’s’ corner” where they were issued a “coward’s certificate” after asking for a refund at the theater’s box office.
- In 1961’s Mr. Sardonicus the audience was given glow-in-the-dark cards featuring a thumbs up or thumbs down to display the choice on how the film would end and the fate of the title character would fair. Reportedly no audience ever chose the “happy” ending and it is rumored to never have been shot in the first place.
As great as these gimmicks are, William Castle holds a unique position as a promotor that is overlooked: he used insurance as a successful film gimmick twice in his career.
The fact that Mr. Castle began and ended the most storied period of his long career marketing films with insurance policies is so unique, it needs to be shared with any one willing to take the time.
Finding a Movie
Mr. Castle first used a gimmick to draw attention to his films in the late 1950s. His first film as producer and director was a b-grade horror picture called Macabre and how he got that film made is a story unto itself.
In his autobiography, “Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America”, Mr. Castle states he was inspired to make a horror film after seeing the film noir classic Diabolique with his wife at a local theater. There, teenagers were lined up around the block to see the film and be scared senseless. Sensing an opportunity, Castle set out to find a suitable story to rival the shocks of Diabolique. Finding the novel “The Marble Forest”, he bought the rights and set out making the film with a heavy personal investment.
To keep the film under his control throughout the process, Mr. Castle financed the picture independently by mortgaging his home for $90,000, retitled the film Macabre, and ran a tight production schedule to keep costs down. Despite all the planning and work, Mr. Castle put into the film, he did not feel he had the makings of a successful horror movie.
In “Step Right Up!”, Mr. Castle recounts the (literal) midnight realization of using insurance, particularly life insurance, as a marketing gimmick. Per his retelling, Mr. Castle placed a phone call to Lloyds of London and what happened next can only be described as something out of a movie.
‘I heard that Lloyds of London would insure anything or anybody. Calling an insurance company, I asked the operator to put me in touch with one of the brokers that handled Lloyds of London.
‘Good morning,’ a cultured British voice declared. [Castle]‘I’d like an insurance policy.’
‘For yourself, sir?’ The voice dripped molasses.
‘No. I want to insure everybody in the world.’
‘Sir, there are approximately two billion people in the world.’ The voice had chilled.
‘I know that,’ I impatiently replied. ‘And I want to insure every one of them in case they drop dead.’ The phone went dead.[i]
Mr. Castle then recounts that he met with negotiators representing Lloyds sometime later at an office to discuss his idea in person. After hearing the (refined) pitch again from Mr. Castle, Lloyds offered a policy that did not cover all two billion people on earth but one that just covered Mr. Castle against any claims from the audience.
The policy would pay Mr. Castle a settlement who, in turn, would pay the beneficiary of the deceased moviegoer. Once the terms were agreed upon, next came an interesting discussion of risk: How many people would “expire during the exhibition of [Mr. Castle’s] motion picture”[ii].
Mr. Castle opened the analysis of risk by saying that two people would pass away during his movie and Lloyds countered with twenty-five. After four hours of discussion, Lloyds moved down to ten while Mr. Castle moved his count to three unfortunate souls.
Finally, the count of five deaths was agreed upon with the amount of $5,000, $1,000 per death. The policy premium had to be broken out over two years for Mr. Castle to afford it due to his lack of financial liquidity at the moment, but he had his gimmick.
As Mr. Castle wrote in his autobiography, “Something completely new in the annals of insurance was taking place here.[iii]
Looking for a Suitor
After securing his Lloyds’ policy, the next step for Mr. Castle was to find a distributor for Macabre. His first stop was with Warner Brothers (WB).
After screening the film for a room full of executives, including a handing out of the insurance policy beforehand, Mr. Castle was offered $45,000 and twenty-five percent of the profits. This arrangement would still have Mr. Castle in the red financially, so he opted to not take the deal and seek his fortunes elsewhere.
It didn’t take much time for Mr. Castle and WB to be back in communication with one another.
Mr. Castle’s agent, Nat Goldstone, saw WB attempting to duplicate the insurance policy gimmick at a theater in San Diego with one of their own horror pictures. Per “Step Right Up!” WB had even used his exact same insurance policy slip by changing “Lloyds of London” to “Warner Bros”.
After a threat of a large lawsuit, Mr. Castle states that Jack Warner (the co-founder and CEO of WB) called to apologize. Mr. Warner claimed that the idea was taken by a promotions department employee without authorization and the promo was stopped and the person responsible was fired. Mr. Warner offered to double the original offer of $45,000 but Mr. Castle turned down the offer, dropped the threat of a lawsuit and continued to look for a new distributor.
Eventually, Macabre was bought by Allied Artists for a $150,000 and seventy-five percent of the profits. Mr. Castle, Macabre, and a Lloyds policy were ready for America.
Tales of Distribution
As the audience would find their seats, a countdown clock appeared on screen, counting towards sixty seconds. As the clock ran, William Castles voice began:
Ladies and Gentlemen…when the clock reaches sixty seconds, you will be insured by Lloyds of London for one thousand dollars against death by fright during Macabre. Lloyds of London sincerely hopes none of you will collect.
But just in case, isn’t it comforting to know that your loved ones are protected? You are now insured against death by fright![iv]
In the early days of Macabre, the film’s insurance policy was heavily promoted as part of the viewing experience. An enlarged replica policy slip that was “even bigger than the film’s title” hung outside above the theaters’ marque and dwarfed the film’s title.
To continue to ramp up the hype for the film, Mr. Castle chose to arrive at one film premiere via a hearse and coffin with the idea to pop-out of the coffin at the opportune moment before the film began to scare those in attendance. To his dismay, Mr. Castle’s coffin failed to open, and he passed out and was removed sometime after the showing had ended.
As terrifying as this instance was, it did not stop Mr. Castle from adding other gimmicks to the film’s showings. On top of the life insurance policies, he added nurses in full uniform and ambulances to wait outside theaters to “help” those who would be overcome with fright.
While these gimmicks seem antiquated to today’s audience, they worked wonders in 1958. For his initial investment of $90,000, Mr. Castle received $150,000 for the distribution of the film plus seventy-five percent of profits from the box office take that topped $5,000,000. Mr. Castle’s film made fifty-six times its original budget thanks to his marketing prowess and an insurance policy.
One More Time
The second time Mr. Castle would use an insurance policy as attention was for his last film Bug which started a large cockroach named Hercules.
In his autobiography, Mr. Castle states that he had the film’s publicists find an insurance company that would insure Hercules for $1 million. Per the press release for the film, a broker in southern California took up the policy which had a term period of the one-month that Mr. Castle and Hercules were on tour together.
The policy would only pay on the condition that two terms were met:
- Hercules died a natural death which “excludes any unnatural or violent demise…being squashed under an unfriendly heel, or perishing from food poisoning, expiring on a plane because of altitude, etc.”[v]
- Hercules’ carcass would be examined by entomologists who would be called in to determine his cause of death.
Bug almost featured another gimmick from Mr. Castle. Miniaturized windshield wipers that would be installed under random seats in the theaters showing Bug and controlled by the projectionist to simulate a bug crawling up the patron’s leg at a specified point in the film.
Mr. Castle’s idea was ultimately squashed because exhibitor resistance to giving the audience a reason for leaving the movie thinking something was really crawling up their legs.
Bug was made for less than $1 million and released on June 17, 1975. The film was met with faint praise and was dealt with a worse fate than most of Mr. Castles’ films because, on June 20, another horror film called Jaws was released. While Bug made over $3 million at the box office and was profitable, Jaws grossed over $450 million and launched the summer movie phenomena.
The Legacy of William Castle
Mr. Castle did not let the success of Macabre get to him. He quickly turned to make another horror film and recruited Vincent Price to star in his next two pictures: The Tingler (1959) and House on Haunted Hill (1959). While the first film has slipped into relative obscurity (besides the buzzer equipped seat) the later has become a classic in the horror genre and was remade in 1999.
House has spawned its own legacy from being featured in Michael Jackson’s song lyrics of Thriller (the song also features narration from Vincent Price) to launching Vincent Price’s mainstream career. One of the more obscure legacy points for House was that its success persuaded Alfred Hitchcock to make his own b-grade horror movie using black and white film. That film, Psycho, would go on to be considered one of the greatest movies ever made and featured its own marketing gimmick of not allowing anyone to come into the movie theater once the film had started as well as a plea from the Mr. Hitchcock to not divulge the ending to anyone who had not seen the movie.
Mr. Castle would produce or direct numerous films during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s but his most famous production was the film Rosemary’s Baby which netted an Oscar win for the film’s supporting actress Ruth Gordon and a adapted screen play nomination for Roman Polanski.
In 1977 Mr. Castle passed away at the age of 63. His legacy as a producer has been continued with his second daughter, Terry Castle, who has co-written and produced films including remakes of her father’s films House on Haunted Hill (1999) and Thir13een Ghosts (2001).
Mr. Castle also served as inspiration for John Goodman’s character in Matinee (1993).
Not a bad life for a man who used insurance to bring attention to his films.
[i] “Step Right Up!” pg 153 [iii] Pg. 154 [iv] Pg. 159 [v] Pg. 263