B&W, 1961, 89 mins. / Directed by William Castle / Starring Guy Rolfe, Ronald Lewis, Oscar Homolka, Audrey Dalton / Written by Ray Russell / Music by Von Dexter

Format: Columbia (US R1 NTSC) (MSRP $24.98) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

After his outrageous modern day spookfests, it only seemed natural for gimmick guru William Castle to make a gothic period yarn in the Hammer vein. Relatively speaking, Mr. Sardonicus is one of his more restrained works, taking its time to spin out a complex storyline with intricate characters. Of course, Castle fans should have no fear as he also makes time for bloodsucking leeches, grave robbing, disfigurement, revenge, and other sundry nastiness.

Gifted surgeon Sir Robert (Scream of Fear's Ronald Lewis) is summoned to the home of Mr. Sardonicus (Guy Rolfe), a retiring nobleman who wears a featureless mask to conceal his horribly disfigured face. At first the good doctor refuses to treat Sardonicus' affliction, citing in part his former involvement with Sardonicus' beautiful wife (Audrey Dalton), but through various persuasive and sadistic means (some involving put upon manservant Oskar Homolka), Sir Robert falls under Sardonicus' control. As we learn in flashback, Sardonicus was once a decent guy who felt compelled to raid his father's grave to retrieve a winning lottery ticket buried in the dead man's jacket. Unfortunately the sight of his father's decayed face sent Sardonicus into a state of grotesque facial paralysis, a condition which has begun to infect his soul as well...

Combining the lottery ticket narrative from Cornell Woolrich's short story "Post Mortem" with Victor Hugo's more famous The Man Who Laughs, this Castle concoction is by far the most elegant of his films. Its slow pace and reliance on psychological horror may be offputting at first, but the film has developed a steadfast cult following over the years and remains highly effective for more patient viewers. Most of its notoriety centers around Castle's sole gimmick here, the "Punishment Poll." Castle appears twice: at the beginning of the film to introduce the dictionary meaning of a "ghoul" (only used in the film in a metaphorical sense), and then again before the finale to administer a poll in the audience to determine Sardonicus' fate. All ticketgoers were given a card featuring a thumbs up or thumbs down option, and after tabulation, the villain (who isn't that evil, really) is given his due. Of course, Castle only attached one real ending to his prints; never underestimate the bloodlust of the general public. (And can anyone with lipreading abilities decipher what Castle was originally saying before he clumsily relooped his line, "And I hope your nightmares are nice ones"?).

Though Mr. Sardonicus popped up on television occasionally over the years, it remained curiously unavailable on home video for decades. Columbia's DVD is obviously welcome as it marks the first wide release of the film since its theatrical run, though the years have apparently not been kind. The image quality (especially during the prologue) is surprisingly ragged and worn for a Columbia transfer, and the gritty, high contrast appearance of the rest of the print creates the least impressive of their Castle transfers to date. It's about the same as the repertory prints still in circulation, however, and fans should still pick this up as it will no doubt be the only buying option for a very long time. From most companies this would still be passable, perhaps even impressive, but one has to hope that a better element is lying in Columbia's vaults somewhere. More inexplicably, the music goes several seconds out of sync during Chapter 15 (immediately before the grave digging), cutting into the previous dialogue sequence and remaining slightly out of whack throughout the reel. Extras include a new historical featurette, "Taking the Punishment Poll," which offers an affectionate scholarly look at Castle's promotional approach to the film, and trailers for this film along with 13 Ghosts.

B&W/Color, 1960, 84 mins. / Directed by William Castle / Starring Donald Woods, Martin Milner, Rosemary DeCamp, Jo Morrow, Charles Herbert, Margaret Hamilton / Music by Von Dexter / Written by Robb White / Cinematography by Joseph F. Biroc

Format: Columbia (US R1 NTSC) (MSRP $19.98) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)

After at least three stabs on home video, Columbia has finally perfected William Castle's family-friendly spook legend, 13 Ghosts. After Castle and co-scenarist Robb White devised the go for broke, surrealist spectacle of The Tingler, they retreated somewhat with a more linear, restrained haunted house yarn -- but this being a Castle film, it's still far more outlandish than what his contemporaries were cranking out at the time.

Strapped for cash, the Zorba family headed by father Cyrus (Donald Woods) and mother Hilda (Rosemary DeCamp) prepares for eviction by celebrating the birthday of their youngest son, Buck (Charles Herbert), who wishes for a real house with furniture. That wish is answered sooner than expected when a telegram arrives announcing their inheritance of a nearby Los Angeles estate owned by Cyrus' eccentric uncle, Plato Zorba, who was believed dead ten years earlier. The dead man's attorney and friend, Ben (Route 66's Martin Milner), explains that the furnished house comes with a spooky maid (Margaret Hamilton) and a collection of ghosts amassed by Zorba during his trips around the world. The older daughter, Medea (Jo Morrow), finds her flirting with Ben interrupted when a ouija board experiment points her out as the ghosts' next victim, and Buck develops a rapport with the specters who can only be viewed with a special experimental viewer. Things get even more complicated when the Zobras learn that a large cache of money may be secreted somewhere in the house... and they must try to find the location of the treasure before the ghosts decide once and for all to get rid of the new residents.

Though the playful but macabre storyline sounds much like your average Don Knotts programmer (or Castle's later, goofier The Spirit Is Willing), 13 Ghosts is far weirder than one might expect. Apart from the highly unlikely character names, the film moves in a series of bizarre, unexpected directions in which every plot device feels like a whimsical tangent from out of nowhere. The ouija board scene, the housekeeper, the glasses, the treasure, and even the ghosts themselves are all gimmicky elements which just barely add up but still don't make a tremendous amount of sense afterwards. Instead Castle gleefully ignores any logic loopholes and trots out his usual grab bag of tricks, best exemplified by the film's famous promotional gimmick, "Illusion-O." Each ghost appearance (regardless of whether it's seen through the ghost viewer in the film) in the black and white film is tinted blue, with the ghost opticals printed in red. Essentially a simpler variation on 3-D, this process allows the ghosts to be seen clearly when viewed through the red lens on the viewer, while they vanish altogether when seen through the blue one. Without the viewer, the ghosts are barely visible but look murky, a condition duplicated when the film was reissued in straight black and white. Though not as dramatic as the House on Haunted Hill method of barrelling skeletons out over the audience, it's a nice gesture and represents Castle at his most eager to please. Otherwise the film is a lot of fun, and its less than brilliant acting actually gives the ridiculous proceedings a more offbeat, tongue in cheek sense of flair, right down to the cheeky casting of The Wizard of Oz's Wicked Witch, Hamilton, as the "witch" medium/housekeeper who provides the film with its nifty final wink at the viewer.

The early VHS release of 13 Ghosts from Columbia and all widespread cable airings presented the standard, straight black and white version in a soft, dupey presentation. This same source was used for the Goodtimes VHS and Columbia laserdiscs, all of which omitted Castle's opening introduction (in which he explains the Illusion-O process at a desk accompanied by a skeleton secretary). However, Columbia eventually went back and struck new prints of 13 Ghosts which reverted back to Castle's original vision, and this excellent source was used for the dramatically improved DVD edition. Castle's introduction is now back in place along with the visual cues for viewers to hold up and remove their ghost viewers. Most importantly, the red and blue tints are back and look magnificent; even the splashy colors of the opening titles are far more enjoyable with their original hues. The 1.85:1 letterboxing duplicates the theatrical presentation and looks nicely framed; the same framing is used for the shorter, non-Illusion-O version included on Side B of the DVD. (For some reason the respective sides have reversed labels, so if you pop in the disc in and see black and white credits, flip it over.) The disc, timed to coincide with the FX-laden and much gorier remake, continues the respectful wave of Castle digital releases by including the punchy theatrical trailer, a nice but brief insert sheet, one ghost viewer (with a form to order more "for the whole family," at $2.95 a pop - just use a handy pair of 3-D glasses to replicate the effect!), and a short but thorough featurette, "The Magic of Illusion-O," in which a variety of fans and showmen (including Fred Olen Ray!) explain how Castle's gimmick was executed in theaters and scared the daylights out of young popcorn munchers. How can you pass this one up?

B&W/Color, 1959, 81 mins. / Directed by William Castle / Starring Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn, Darryl Hickman, Patricia Cutts, Pamela Lincoln / Written by Robb White / Music by Von Dexter / Cinematography by Wilfrid M. Cline

Format: DVD - Columbia (MSRP $19.95) / Letterboxed (1.78:1) (16x9 enhanced) / Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround

Thank you, Columbia! The gimmicky horror film to end all gimmicky horror films hits DVD in a superlative edition that wipes away memories of its weak inaugural home video bow on laserdisc. Fondlly remembered by drive-in buffs and revered by cult movie addicts, William Castle's The Tingler features enough surprises and twists to confound any first-time viewer, not to mention a dynamic performance by Vincent Price as a doctor determined to uncover the physical results of human fear. Of course, it's also a pretty spiffy monster movie, too.

Dr. Warren Chapin (Price) has made an unusual discovery; his autopsies on executed prisoners reveal that humans who die in situations of extreme stress or panic have their spines torn and snapped. How could this be? Warren dubs this force "the tingler" -- that strange sensation people experience in situations of mounting fear. His golddigging wife, Isabel (Patricia Cutts, doing a funny impersonation of Grace Kelly gone bad), scoffs at his notions and occasionally plans to murder him, just for the hell of it. However, Warren's assistant, David (Darryl Hickman from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis), takes these studies more seriously as the good doctor uses any means at his disposal to further his studies. Warren pretends to kill his wife, causing her to faint, and the subsequent X-rays reveal that the tingler is actually a strange, lobster-shaped creature which feeds on terror and grows at the base of the spine. The doc shoots up with LSD (apparently a screen first) to create a mindset of unrestrained hysteria, but he expresses his anguish with a scream, presumably the release which paralyzes this beast. Martha (Judith Evelyn), a deaf mute movie theater owner who only shows silent films, provides an important find in the research process, but when our heroes find a real live extracted tingler on their hands, matters veer wildly out of control... and the fun really begins.

Rapidly paced, luridly plotted, and enthusiastically executed by everyone involved, The Tingler shows off all of Castle's strengths as a master showman and filmmaker. While Hitchcock was crafting elegant Hollywood entertainment, Castle simply tried to grab his patrons by the throat and give them a rollicking good time, which he delivers here in spades. The original theatrical run was presented in "Percepto," whereby patrons during the "tingler in a movie theater" sequence were given little shocks of electricity to simulate the monster's attack. The result, of course, was giddy insanity as Price's voice urges patrons to "scream for your lives!" In another gimmick, the black and white image suddenly turns to blood red tinted color for one scare sequence involving a sanguinary bathroom sink and tub, and some theaters even slammed on the house lights when Price informed patrons that someone in the audience had fainted and was being carried out -- duplicated in the actual theater by a planted viewer. While Percepto would be impossible to duplicate in a home theater environment (unless you're a very craft electrician), the other two gimmicks are more or less present and accounted for on the DVD. The color sequence looks rich and startling, much better than the muddy brown "blood" on the laser (though grainy as always, a flaw inherent in the only decent existing material), and Columbia has actually uncovered a variation on the "Scream!" sequence amusingly designed for drive-ins. The anamorphic transfer (who woulda thought?) looks beautiful and well balanced, with Von Dexter's kitschy Vertigo-inspired score sounding clear and punchy. Though mono, the opening screams alone should give your sound system a real workout - and for those of you set up for surround, there's one very nice, well timed surprise. The DVD also includes a nifty featurette with Hickman talking about the making of the film, plus footage of Castle and reminiscences of the film's splashy opening in San Antonio. Also includes the original theatrical trailer, as well as a trailer for the 1990 version of Night of the Living Dead.

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