An eccentric millionaire invites five strangers to a haunted house with each receiving $10,000 if they last the night.
This is a William Castle film so you know it’s going to be genius. And it doesn’t disappoint. I love the house with it’s sliding doors, acid bath and shadow play. Vincent Price in the lead is once again perfect casting with his trademark wryness, camp and sarcasm being demonstrated in spades. There also seems to be more understatement and, dare I say, nuance in this role.
The film itself looks amazing. I wish director Castle would get the proper adoration and respect for his films and legacy. The gimmicks associated with his films seem to overshadow the actual films themselves. This is a shame. I honestly thing Castle was an auteur who seriously influenced the genre of horror for the better. The House on Haunted Hill influenced Hitchcock when he was making Psycho apparently. I’m wondering if Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques influenced Castle’s film with the numerous double-crossings and red herrings that keep the audience guessing until the very last frame.
Emergo was the gimmick Castle used for this film. During a scene concerning a skeleton an actual skeleton on a pulley would be flown over the startled audience. Genius.
This film is currently (and inexplicably) in the public domain. I look forward to a really great Blu-ray release and transfer. The film’s beauty is a gem yet to be seen in all it’s glory.
I remember when I lived in London I loved perusing the list of films being shown citywide in the listings magazine Time Out. In those days (the mid 90s) there were plenty of funky little cinemas showing all manner of films old and new, renowned and obscure.
I remember going to see Witchfinder General and it instantly becoming one of my favourite films. The thing that shocked me most about the film was that it’s based on fact.
Set upon the backdrop of the Civil War between the Roundheads and Cavaliers, there was thought by those in charge to be a surge in lawlessness amongst the populace. With no state enforcers of the law being in place it was possible for self-appointed one-man ‘judge, jury and executioner’ figures to spring up. With these times being still very religious with that fanaticism stretching to superstitious extremes then such a figure could rationalise that he was doing God’s work and stamping out witchcraft and Satan worship.
Step forward Matthew Hopkins (Vincent Price). He leads his team of bloodthirsty underlings from town to town, stamping out ungodliness whilst accusing those who get in his way of being witches and so has the approval of the state to dispose of them in any number of ghoulish ways. One method in which he tests to see if people are witches is to throw them in a local lake or river. If they sink and drown, they weren’t a witch. But if they float then they are evil and need to be burnt, flogged or any other kind of torture. It’s lose/lose for the accused.
Director Micheal Reeves’ film doesn’t flinch away from the sadistic acts that Hopkins (who actually existed) inflicts and how utterly barbaric and cruel the times were. There are some great examples of dark gallows humour too- notice the children who have just witnessed a supposed ‘witch’ being burnt to death. We see them baking potatoes in her still smouldering ashes.
Witchfinder General was very controversial when it was first released with the BBFC demanding cuts and most critics denouncing the film’s unblinking depiction of the devilish practices carried out by Hopkins and his cronies. But, some critics saw the greatness in the film and over the years the film has gained a reputation as somewhat of a sick classic. Price’s performance is restrained and nuanced. Reeves’ direction is amazing and it feels almost as if you are watching a documentary rather than a British/American horror film from the late 60’s. American International Pictures invested some of the money for the film to be made but only thought of it as a tax write-off. They were actually very surprised when they saw the finished movie and how good it was. It’s name was changed to The Conqueror Worm for the U.S. Drive-In markets as this was a line from Edgar Allen Poe whose adaptations AIP were (in)famous for.
I love the stories about Price and Reeves not getting along during the shooting of the film. Donald Pleasance was originally chose to play Hopkins but Price was available and a bigger star which could translate as more money at the box office. With Price playing the lead instead the script had to be changed to accommodate him. Reeves wasn’t impressed by this and let it be known that he didn’t want Price in the leading role.
One of many examples of the bitchiness between them was from when they first met. Price’s opening gambit to the 28 year old Reeves was ‘I’ve starred in 87 films. What have you done?’ to which Reeves deadpanned ‘I’ve made 3 good ones.’
Witchfinder General is a warts and all classic. But don’t underestimate it. This is strong even by today’s standards and contains one of the most disturbing endings for a film I’ve ever seen.
A scientist (played by Vincent Price with his usual aplomb) discovers an organism that attaches itself to the human spine and feeds on the feeling of fear from the host person. The parasite is known to be present as it makes the spine of the person feel a tingling sensation. For this reason its known as a Tingler.
Add into this premise a plot line involving a couple who own a small cinema, one of whom is deaf and mute and another story strand involving the wife of Price’s character and her potential infidelity.
I was obsessed with the film’s director William Castle as a boy as I had read so much about the gimmicks he dreamt up to make the audience’s moviegoing experience something out of the ordinary and in keeping with a ‘roll up, roll up’ circus host as well as a filmmaker.
The gimmick for The Tingler was for some of the seats in the larger cinemas to have an electrical device attached underneath so that some audience members really did feel a tingling sensation at the end of the film when Price’s character has to announce to the cinema audience within the film that The Tingler is loose in the theater somewhere. Castle also employed planted screamers in the audience and people who were told to faint at specific points. A young John Waters famously went to see this film on its original release time after time but only after checking under every seat until he found a seat that had the device attached.
As I had read plenty about Castle and his brilliant brand of showmanship it was almost as if this overshadowed the actual films. His films weren’t available in England when I first read about his work and so there was an agonising wait before I could see any of his filmography.
And here in lies his greatest gimmick. For all of the pranks and hoopla, his film’s are actually amazingly made, beautiful to look at and constantly achieve just the balance of terror, kitsch and camp.
The Tingler is no exception. It captures the opulence and majesty of 50’s American living in some scenes (check out the set design) but also a kind of affectionate simplicity of small town life symbolised by the gorgeous little moviehouse.
But then theres the pure hilarity of The Tingler which is obviously a large rubber bug. Its one of the funniest scenes in the movie when Price tries to convince fellow characters that The Tingler could in fact kill a man effortlessly and quickly. But then thats the magic of Price- a camp knowingness and deadpan delivery. A raised eyebrow from him says more than a hundred lines from an inferior actor.
Even the introduction from Castle could be evaluated as high art if it was viewed merely as a short film rather than as an intro to his movie. The filmmaker warns people of what is to come and that they should scream for their lives if they experience what is being played out to them on the screen.
High art. C’mon Criterion- release a William Castle boxset already.