William Castle at Columbia, Volume Two: Limited Edition (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Tim Salmons
  • Review Date: Jan 28, 2019
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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William Castle at Columbia, Volume Two: Limited Edition (Blu-ray Review)

Director

William Castle

Release Date(s)

1962/1963/1964 (December 21, 2018)

Studio(s)

Columbia Pictures (Powerhouse Films/Indicator)
  • Film/Program Grade: See Below
  • Video Grade: See Below
  • Audio Grade: See Below
  • Extras Grade: A
  • Overall Grade: A

William Castle at Columbia, Volume Two (Blu-ray Disc)

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Review

[Editor’s Note: this release is mostly Region-Free aside from Strait-Jacket, which is a Region B disc]

William Castle’s career as both a filmmaker and a showman, lacking the constraints of studio-dictation, was on the rise in the late 1950s with the success of Macabre and House on Haunted Hill through Allied Artists. His days as a studio-contracted director at Columbia Pictures were now a thing of the past, and it wasn’t long before the very same studio came calling again when they saw how successful he was on his own. He soon returned to them, but with much more creative control over his work, producing and directing eight films that were mostly successful, including The Tingler, 13 Ghosts, Homicidal, and Mr. Sardonicus. The latter four, Zotz!, 13 Frightened Girls!, The Old Dark House, and Strait-Jacket, are included in Indicator’s newest Blu-ray boxed set offering William Castle at Columbia: Volume Two.

After Mr. Sardonicus, William Castle became more interested in trying his hand at other types of films, including comedies. Zotz!, a more family-friendly affair than any of his previous Columbia Pictures efforts, ditches the macabre in favor of a lighter story about a professor of languages (Tom Poston) who manages to come into possession a mysterious coin. When the ancient text engraved upon it is deciphered and spoken aloud, it imbues him with magical powers whenever he has it in his pocket. Laughed at by his friends and colleagues, it isn’t long before a foreign power learns of his incredible abilities and make an attempt to take the coin away from him.

Zotz! is most-assuredly one of William Castle’s least-known efforts. Overshadowed by his horror output, it was thoroughly enjoyed by many kids who saw it upon its initial release. In the U.S., Columbia Pictures even employed a minor gimmick for it, which was to hand out plastic coins to theater patrons. All of the film’s performances are sincere without every winking at the audience while Tom Poston’s character is an oddball from the very beginning; drinking sauerkraut juice, reading while bicycling, and quoting Shakespeare in various languages. There’s even a fourth wall-breaking moment when the Columbia Pictures’ logo lady speaks to a nearby-seated William Castle, asking him what Zotz means. Clearly, it’s meant to be a simplistically entertaining film.

One year later, William Castle made 13 Frightened Girls!, which is quite a misleading title (there are actually 15 in all). Released as The Candy Web in the U.K., the story concerns a group of young women who are the daughters of diplomats from different countries. One of them, an American girl named Candy (Kathy Dunn), becomes caught up in secretly helping an intelligence agent (Murray Hamilton) uncover a sinister plot against the United States. In over her head, she soon becomes a target in a game of international espionage and murder.

Like its predecessor, 13 Frightened Girls! goes for a less horrific approach, despite containing some rather risqué material (for the time anyway) involving 16-year-old girl Candy. She is rather frank and honest any time she shows an attraction towards a man, including one twice her age, making a couple of scenes a bit uncomfortable to watch. The spy plot is fairly straightforward and has a few twists and turns, including a finale that teeters on the edge of absurdity, but anyone who watches it cold expecting a William Castle chiller is likely to have their expectations dashed to bits. Yet even with middle-of-the-road aspects, it holds up much better on a second viewing.

That same year, William Castle also produced The Old Dark House in association with Hammer Films, which is a remake in title only of the previous James Whale film and J.B. Priestly’s original novel. Dipping back into horror/thriller territory (but with tongue firmly in cheek), Tom Poston returns as an American car salesman who is delivering a vehicle to an old mansion outside of London. Once he arrives, he discovers that an old friend of his is dead and that someone is bumping off members of the family one by one in order to secure an inheritance.

While there are several flaws inherit in The Old Dark House, it does have some positive aspects to it. First of all, the Charles Addams-drawn opening credits set the tone of the film beautifully, and truly come to life in full color. Second is the main cast, which is comprised of some truly great British actors including Robert Morley, Janette Scott, and Peter Bull. Third is the look of the film. It’s truly beautifully to look at as it is meticulously designed and well-photographed.

Despite all of that, Tom Poston is not a strong lead. Surrounded by a who’s who of British acting talent, he feels sorely out of place and seems to lack the right comedic bent needed to pull it off. The film’s clever twist shares a similarity with The Horror of it All, which was released a year later by 20th Century Fox and also an attempt at remaking The Old Dark House in a similar fashion. By and large, William Castle’s version is considered by many to be a failure, particularly based upon the box office take. Sadly, most viewers have never seen it in its original color format as Columbia Pictures later reissued the film in black and white, which is how it continued to be shown on TV until the late 1990s when a color version of the film was finally released on DVD.

If The Old Dark House seemed like bottom of the barrel, then what came next was certainly to be a career highlight for William Castle: 1964’s Strait-Jacket. Joan Crawford, who had just recently had a career resurgence in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, stars as Lucy, a vulnerable older woman who is released from a sanitarium after chopping off the heads of her husband and his secret lover from years before. Now living with her adult daughter (Diane Baker) and attempting to reconnect with her, she is still haunted by images of her past. New bodies begin to pile up, but is it Lucy or is someone else doing her dirty work for her?

The stories of how Strait-Jacket came into being are numerous and fascinating: from William Castle’s dream of wanting to work with Joan Crawford and author Robert Bloch to Crawford’s various demands on the set to her going on the road and promoting the film, it was quite an experience for everybody involved. The film certainly doesn’t hold a candle to something like Psycho or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, but it’s no slouch either. It was fairly gruesome for its time and, miraculously, managed to escape the censors unscathed. Diane Baker is excellent as Lucy’s daughter, and the place that she goes into the final act is star-making material. Today, the film holds up well enough amongst other films of its type. Whether you refer to them as “hag horror”, “hagsploitation”, or even “psycho-biddy”, films like Strait-Jacket, What’s the Matter with Helen?, and The Nanny continue to entertain viewers both ironically and not.

Indicator’s release of these four films all come directly from Sony via existing HD masters, all of which are quite good. For Zotz!, it’s a solid black and white transfer with plenty of detail, particularly in close-ups. There’s also good delineation on display with deep blacks and excellent contrast. It’s also a fairly sharp and precise presentation with mild speckling leftover, which is most evident during a couple of stock shots. 13 Frightened Girls! comes with three viewing options: as the original film, as The Candy Web, and as The Candy Web with the William Castle “Danger Card” opening and closing segments. All three versions are basically the same: clean and clear with nice detail, lovely color reproduction, and good contrast. Black levels are also impressive and everything appears clean without any unnecessary digital scrubbing.

The Old Dark House also comes with three viewing options: in color, in black and white, and in the U.K. color version, which is almost 4 minutes shorter. The color version is the best of the bunch in this set. It’s beautiful and organic with lush color, tremendous depth, deep blacks, and perfect contrast. The black and white version by comparison is fine, but it wasn’t shot for black and white, so it doesn’t hold a candle to its color counterpart. Last is Strait-Jacket, which also comes from an older, but good black and white transfer. Detail is mostly sharp and everything appears clear without any real problems. Some softness does occur from time to time, but it’s also inherent in the original cinematography.

The audio for Zotz!, The Old Dark House, and Strait-Jacket all feature English mono LPCM tracks while 13 Frightened Girls! features an English mono DTS-HD track. Each film also comes with a set of optional subtitles in English SDH. To be perfectly honest, there’s not much of a sonic difference between them, at least to my ears. Every track is limited to some degree due to their single channel nature, but nothing ever sounds out of place. They’re well-represented with clear and precise dialogue, good sound effects, and well-rounded scores. Nothing ever distorts and there’s never any heavy hiss or instances of crackle or dropouts. To be succinct, these tracks represent the originally-intended sound design of each film quite well.

ZOTZ! (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C+/B+/B+
13 FRIGHTENED GIRLS! (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C-/B+/B+

THE OLD DARK HOUSE (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C+/A-/B+
STRAIT-JACKET (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B/B/B+

For the extras selection, this set also packs quite a wallop, just like its predecessor. For Zotz!, there’s an audio commentary with author Kat Ellinger who discusses both William Castle’s career and the film itself; a 6-minute introduction to the film by horror author Stephen Laws; The Horror of it All, a 24-minute interview with film historian Kim Newman about author and screenwriter Ray Russell and his work with William Castle; an isolated music and effects audio track; the film’s theatrical trailer; an image gallery containing 81 on-set stills, behind-the-scenes stills, promotional images, and posters; and a 40-page insert booklet with the essay Zotz! by Joe Jordan, William Castle on Zotz! – a section from Castle’s autobiography Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America, Walter Karig and the Origins of Zotz! – exploring the original author and his novel, Poston’s New Movie Sounds Way Out! by Bob Thomas, William Castle on Tour by Carla Lowry, The Legacy of William Castle by Jeff Billington, several critical reactions, the film’s original poster, and presentation details.

For 13 Frightened Girls!, there’s an audio commentary with author Samm Deighan, who defends the film as more of a misunderstood Nancy Drew mystery; a 10-minute introduction to the film by horror author Stephen Laws; the William Castle “Danger Card” opening and closing segments; a set of alternate opening scenes with a Play All option in British, French, German, or Swedish; an isolated music and effects audio track; the British trailer introduction with model Alexandra Bastedo; the 13 Frightened Girls! trailer; The Candy Web trailer; an image gallery containing 22 on-set stills, promotional images, lobby cards, and posters; and a 40-page insert booklet with the essay 13 Frightened Girls by Rachael Nisbet, William Castle on 13 Frightened Girls! – a section from Castle’s autobiography Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America, Miss Teen-Age Diplomats: Frightened Girls on Tour – sections of various magazines from the time of the film’s release, an interview with Dona Holloway – Columbia Pictures’ president Harry Cohen’s executive secretary, several critical reactions, the film’s original poster, and presentation details.

For The Old Dark House, there’s an audio commentary with Kim Newman and Stephen Jones, who take back their previous statements about the film that they made in another audio commentary, which were negative; Not Too Spooky, a 29-minute interview with Jonathan Rigby about the genesis and making of the film; House and Castle, a 7-minute interview with Dr. Paul Frith of the University of East Anglia about the film; an isolated music and effects audio track; the original theatrical trailer; a Stills, Lobby Cards, and Posters Gallery, which contains 89 images total; a Press Books and Promotional Materials Gallery, which contains 120 images total; and a 40-page insert booklet with the essay Family Entertainment: William Castle’s The Old Dark House by James Oliver, William Castle on The Old Dark House – a section from Castle’s autobiography Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America, an interview with author J.B. Priestly, The Old Dark House and the BBFC by Anthony Nield, Exploiting The Old Dark House – promotional and gimmick ideas for the film, several critical reactions, the film’s original poster, and presentation details.

For Strait-Jacket, there’s an audio commentary with authors Lee Gambin and Emma Westwood, who spend a great deal of time talking about Joan Crawford and her career; Mirror Images, a 28-minute interview with author Jonathan Rigby about the genesis and making of the film; Joan Had Me Fired, a 6-minute interview with actress Anne Helm who goes into detail about why she was let go and replaced by Diane Baker; On the Road with Joan Crawford, a 7-minute interview with publicist Richard Kahn about Joan Crawford and her efforts to promote the film; Battle-Axe: The Making of Strait-Jacket, a 15-minute vintage making-of featurette; How to Plan a Movie Murder, a 5-minute promotional short featuring William Castle, Joan Crawford, and Robert Bloch cheerfully planning the film’s murders for the camera; a set of Joan Crawford Screen Tests: the 4-minute Joan Crawford Wardrobe Test and the 1-minute long Joan Crawford Axe Test; an isolated music and effects audio track; and the Super 8 version of the film, which is only 20 minutes long and features narration to compensate for the lack of footage.

Also included is a set of trailers (2 TV spots, the original theatrical trailer, and a Trailers from Hell version of the trailer with commentary by filmmaker David DeCoteau); an image gallery with 48 on-set stills, promotional images, lobby cards, and posters; and a 40-page insert booklet with the essay Strait-Jacket by John Oliver, William Castle on Strait-Jacket – a section from Castle’s autobiography Step Right Up! I’m Gonna Scare the Pants Off America, A Star of the First Magnitude: Joan Crawford on Tour – an explanation of the accommodations for the actress while promoting the film, Exploiting Strait-Jacket – gimmick ideas for the film, several critical reactions, the film’s original poster, and presentation details. All that’s missing is an audio commentary with authors/film historians Steve Haberman, David J. Schow, and Constantine Nasr from the Scream Factory Blu-ray release.

Indicator’s William Castle at Columbia, Volume Two Blu-ray boxed set release is likely to be seen by many to be of less importance in comparison to the popularity of the films in Volume One. However, for die-hard William Castle fans and completists, it’s a no-brainer and belongs in their film libraries immediately. This curated collection featuring hours of extras in beautiful packaging is well-worth the import. Highly recommended!

– Tim Salmons

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