Having covered 5 of William Castles big horror flicks from the 1960s here, I grabbed 4 more: his haunted house comedies The Spirit is Willing and The Old Dark House, both in full color on DVD, and his horror films Strait-Jacket and Mr. Sardonicus.
THE SPIRIT IS WILLING (1967)
The Spirit is Willing is sort of like Castle’s comedy version of his classic 13 Ghosts. A family inherits a house filled with spooks. Veteran actors Sid Caesar (he’ll always be Coach Calhoun to me) and Vera Miles are the couple, and Barry Gordon, another actor who has been around forever, is their teenage rebellious son. The maid is lovable Mary Wickles, who has been in TV classics like Make Room for Daddy, Dennis the Menace, and Sigmund and the Sea Monsters.
The family is my favorite part of the film. Sid Caesar is a great comic actor, and the interactions between he and his son—who he thinks is responsible for all the poltergeist-like destruction around the house—feel like they could be taken from any modern day teen comedy.
Other than that, The Spirit is Willing is a total slapstick farce with constant whimsical music and a messy series of scenes and annoying ghost shenanigans. It feels like a ride through Disney’s Haunted Mansion.
The opening scene shows us how the ghosts came to be in the house, and it’s very promising (it involves a woman with a cleaver and lots of screaming). But once the family arrives at the house, the ghosts trash the house incessantly, the son goes on his uncle’s boat, the ghosts do some silly dancing over the ocean, the son and his female friend set up a stakeout in a cemetery to see the ghosts (it feels like Linus and Sally waiting for the Great Pumpkin), and the family has a pirate party to draw out the ghosts (with Gomez Addams in attendance).
What I do like about the film is the rather mature subject matter for the time period. There are several scenes of the parents trying to get some love making in, and at one point, the son, who has just turned sixteen, has an encounter with a succubus!
THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1966)
I believe this film was actually filmed in 1962 in color, but not released until 1966 in black and white! The DVD I have is the color version. I don’t know. I guess I like William Castle best when he’s not doing horror comedies in color.
The strongest part of The Old Dark House is comedic actor Tom Poston (Mork & Mindy, Newhart) in the lead. He’s so funny while the rest of the film feels like a series of absurd skits rather than a cohesive plot (just like The Spirit is Willing).
So Tom, a car salesman, is asked to bring a new car to the mansion of his friend Casper. When he gets there, he finds out Casper has just died and the bizarre family members don’t leave the house because if they do they will be cut out of the family will. So it becomes a whodunit; everyone assumes one of them killed Casper for his part of the inheritance and will continue to kill the rest of them. It’s sort of like Castle made a comedy version of The House on Haunted Hill!
So the simple plot is that family members start getting knocked off one by one. Unfortunately, it’s mixed up in a headache-inducing series of events, including a man chasing Tom around the house constantly because he thinks Tom wants to get with his bombshell daughter, as well as a very bizarre “Noah’s Ark” side plot. The climax is equally awful—although the twist reveal of the killer is pretty good.
Strait-Jacket inevitably gets labeled as a Psycho rip-off, but it is really has more in common with many modern slashers that would follow it. It also has Joan Crawford, who seems to be totally doing an impression of her horror pal Bette Davis throughout the film. But she does it damn good because she’s awesome.
So 20 years ago, Mommy Dearest caught her husband screwing an ex-girlfriend and hacked them up with an axe. Her young daughter was sent to live with an aunt and uncle and now she’s all grown up and has a boyfriend…just as Mommy Dearest is released from the insane asylum! This poor guy is about to get the mother-in-law from hell.
Mommy Dearest comes to live with the family and starts to go crazy all over again. She sees heads in her bed. She hears children’s voices…reciting the Lizzie Borden 40 whacks rhyme with lyrics about her murderous rampage substituted. And she becomes really inappropriate when she first meets her daughter’s man.
Oh. And people begin getting hacked up. It’s pretty graphic for a William Castle film. It really does feel like Castle created the blueprint for slasher kills. Strait-Jacket is incredibly suspenseful and has some effective jump scares. I fricking loved it.
MR. SARDONICUS (1961)
Mr. Sardonicus is the mother of all William Castle films. If any of his films should have been remade it should have been this one. It’s like the torture porn of its day and could be re-imagined with a more graphic and violent presentation and very little change to the script.
A doctor is called to a castle by an old girlfriend who says in her letter that her life depends on him coming. His journey to the castle really feels like an homage to Dracula, complete with a horse & carriage ride through the woods, fog, and a creepy hunched over servant with a fucked up eye.
It is sheer insanity in this castle. The man of the castle wears a creepy mask. There’s a back story of ghouls and grave-robbing. Servants are tied up by their thumbs and covered in leeches. Women are brought to the house for special “parties” in which one woman is singled out for God only knows what. There’s a torture chamber. There’s a padlocked room no one is allowed to enter. It is all so sadistic.
And the twist at the end is just as evil. Someone please remake Mr. Sardonicus and bring this story to a modern audience.