10 Best William Castle Movies, and That's No Gimmick

William Castle was one of Hollywood's greatest showmen and most influential filmmakers.

William Castle Movies

5. Strait-Jacket (1964)

Strait Jacket

Few know how to toe the line between unhinged and sympathetic better than Joan Crawford. In this stellar psycho-biddy thriller, she stars as Lucy, a woman recently released from an asylum after murdering her cheating husband twenty years prior. Lucy’s daughter is all grown up with a life of her own, and the return of dear old Mom causes some complications in her seemingly normal life. Castle’s skill is on full display, with some breathtaking uses of light and shadows that compliment the already impressive turn from Crawford. (Anna Swanson)


4. 13 Ghosts (1960)

Ghosts

William Castle’s films live or die by their gimmicks, and the one for 13 Ghosts is a hoot. As you entered the cinema, you were given a pair of red/blue spectacles – similar to mid-century 3D glasses – that allowed you to choose whether to see the film’s ghosts or not. If you could take the terror, you could look through one color, but if it became too much for your weak nerves, you could look through the other.

It’s a genuinely clever concept that did what so many of Castle’s films do: offer an immersive experience that made going to the cinema so much more than just watching a movie about a family that inherits a spooky house from a big game hunter for ghosts. These spectral specs made you feel like an active participant in an unusual stage show. Castle wanted you to have a blast while getting the shit scared out of you, but while only children will be legit spooked by a Castle movie, we can all marvel at the artistry and craftsmanship that the auteur endowed each of his films with. (Jacob Trussell)


3. Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

Mr Sardonicus

Is Mr. Sardonicus the most disturbing film directed by William Castle? Yes, yes it is. Baron Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe) was born a humble man and lived a simple life with his wife, but the two wanted more. After Baron’s father died, they discovered he was buried with a winning lottery ticket. Baron breaks into his father’s grave to retrieve the ticket but after seeing his father’s skull, his face is frozen with a ghoulish grin. The incident leaves Baron unable to speak and his wife is traumatized to the point of suicide. The grinning makeup, which took hours to apply, is stunning and the stuff of nightmares. When we don’t see the terrible grin of Sardonicus, it’s covered with an equally horrifying plastic mask with zero emotion.

Whereas other Castle films are more camp, Mr. Sardonicus is truly scary and didn’t need a cheap gimmick. But Castle is Castle and he included one just to be safe. For this film, the audience was given glow-in-the-dark cards and were able to vote on the film’s ending. Whether or not multiple endings were actually filmed is up for debate. What’s not up for debate is that terrifying grin. (Chris Coffel)


2. House on Haunted Hill (1959)

House On Haunted Hill

William Castle’s best films are a pure kind of treat, like getting a full-sized candy bar in your basket on Halloween night. House on Haunted Hill, which is equal parts campy and chilling, is no exception. Horror icon and frequent Castle collaborator Vincent Price stars as a gleefully sadistic millionaire named Frederick Loren who rents a haunted house and invites five financially strapped strangers to stay the night for a monetary reward. It’s all a part of a party he’s throwing for his fourth wife, Annabelle (Carol Ohmart), Loren explains.

His morbid sense of celebration aside, there are clearly hijinks afoot from the start, and the film unfolds in a series of scares, gags, and revelations, each one more convoluted or startling than the last. Frederick and Annabelle’s entertaining, acid-laced marriage would’ve been enough to carry the movie, but in typical Castle fashion, early screenings also included a special theatrical trick: a plastic skeleton rigged to fly over the audience during a climactic moment. (Valerie Ettenhofer)


1. The Tingler (1959)

The Tingler

Manifesting fear into a creepy, crawly critter is ingenious. What happens when we let this dreadful emotion rule our bodies? It solidifies and wants out. The fear then spreads to others, taking hold of them, infecting them with a like-minded sense of terror. William Castle has a rap for being a huckster, relying on gimmicks to sell tickets, but when you uncross your arms and watch The Tingler free of snobbery, the film is an incredibly inventive tale of horror where well-meaning humans confront their misplaced superiority.

The Tingler celebrates the genre by making our screams part of the action. When the creature is unleashed upon an unsuspecting (or our suspecting) audience, the wails of the patrons become the champions of the narrative. Our participation is critical to the success of the film and the survival of the characters. It’s a fun movie to watch at home, but if you ever do get the chance to see this flick in a theater with an engaged audience, The Tingler plays like the highest form of artistic horror. It’s scary, it’s joyous, it’s hilarious, and it’s a damn masterpiece. (Brad Gullickson)


Looking for gimmick-free horror? You’re in luck! Read more 31 Days of Horror Lists!

My name is Chris Coffel and I usually write about Nicolas Cage. When I'm not writing about Nicolas Cage I'm usually thinking about writing about Nicolas Cage.