The people at Scream Factory have made their name releasing special edition Blu-rays of horror movies primarily from the ’80s and ’90s, the decades that fans of my generation first fell in the love with the genre, and, as a result, produced the movies we hold most dear. But Scream Factory has also branched out in their later years, releasing not only contemporary films (through their partnership with IFC Midnight), but classics as well. Three classic catalogue titles recently made their Blu-ray debuts as part of the this trend: one lesser-known effort from John Carpenter and two from the great William Castle.
One of my favorite of all of Castle’s productions is The Tingler from 1959, starring Vincent Price as a scientist who discovers a creature that attaches itself to the human spine and feeds on fear. Every human has one of these “tinglers,” the movie suggests, but by screaming and releasing our fear (through, say, the viewing of horror films), the parasites can be weakened and eventually starved, which prevents them from curling up inside of us and crushing our spines. It’s truly one of the most ludicrous premises ever written for a horror movie, but what makes it particularly fun is that the film plays it totally straight and couches the whole thing in “science,” regardless of how goofy it all is. The movie became best known for its use of William Castle’s legendary gimmicks: at a key moment in the movie, theater seats rigged with buzzers would go off randomly, giving unsuspecting audience members jolts meant to be the Tingler attacking them. (Joe Dante’s brilliant Matinee brought this particular gimmick to life).
Even without the buzzer gimmick, The Tingler is a great deal of fun. Much of the credit belongs to Vincent Price, who is incapable of turning in a performance that is anything less than totally committed and totally entertaining. If anyone could sell the ridiculous “science” of The Tingler, it’s Vincent Price. Castle, who also directed the movie, never pretends that the movie is anything but what it is; his on-camera introduction at the start of the film tells us as much. He doesn’t just rest on the seat buzzer hook, either, instead crafting some memorable sequences, including one Vincent Price acid trip and a dream sequence spattered in red blood despite the rest of the film being black and white. Castle was a true showman, and like all great showmen, he understands that he’s got to find a new way to grab our attention and entertain us every 10-15 minutes. The Tingler absolutely does that.
The 1080p transfer on Scream Factory’s Blu-ray makes The Tingler look the best it’s ever looked. The black and white image is sharp and detailed, with solid contrast throughout. The “blood” sequence loses stability and gets blurry, but that’s a function of the way the movie was originally processed and not the result of a faulty transfer. An impressive number of bonus features have been included as well: a really informative commentary by film historian Steve Haberman, new interviews with star Pamela Lincoln and the film’s publicist, Barry Lorie, who speaks to Castle’s creation of “Percepto” to sell and promote The Tingler. A great making-of documentary called “Scream for Your Lives!” goes in depth on the movie, a collection of the famous “screaming” scene audio presented a few different ways, a recording of a song used to promote the movie, plus a trailer and an image gallery all make up the remaining bonus features, and serve the function that I wish all bonus content would: they teach me more about the movie and manage to make me even more fond of it.
Movie Score: 3.5/5, Disc Score: 4/5
Next up is another Castle production, 1964’s Strait-Jacket, starring Joan Crawford as a woman who murders her husband with an axe after catching him with another woman. Twenty years later, she is released from the asylum to which she was committed and reunited with her daughter (Diane Baker), who witnessed the grisly murder two decades earlier. As Crawford attempts to adjust back to normal life and her daughter prepares to be married, a series of axe murders begins… and there’s one obvious suspect.
Strait-Jacket has often been considered William Castle’s take on Psycho. There certainly are a number of connections, not the least of which being that Strait-Jacket’s screenplay was written by Robert Bloch, author of the original 1959 novel. A more accurate observation might be that this is William Castle doing Psycho II, which of course is ridiculous because that sequel wouldn’t be made for another 20 years. It’s Psycho II that owes a debt to Strait-Jacket, as it, too, focuses on someone attempting to re-enter society after being institutionalized for committing murder. There’s even Psycho II’s red herring/gaslighting stuff in Strait-Jacket! It’s a much more straightforward film from Castle, who appears to be attempting a more “adult” thriller after the joyful kookiness of stuff like House on Haunted Hill, Thirteen Ghosts, and The Tingler. Joan Crawford certainly gives it her all, and the film is surprisingly graphic and gruesome for the time. The depiction of the axe murders was the closest that Strait-Jacket came to having one of Castle’s trademark “hooks.” It’s a decent mystery, too, with a satisfying—if predictable—resolution.
Though there’s another Blu-ray of Strait-Jacket available on the market from Mill Creek (part of a double feature with Berserk), those releases tend to be on the cheaper side, both price and quality-wise. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of Strait-Jacket makes a nice companion piece to their release of The Tingler, if only to create a more complete picture of who William Castle was as a producer and director. The black and white photography is possibly even more striking here than on The Tingler, maybe because Castle had grown as a filmmaker or because he was more conscious of the look of Strait-Jacket without any gimmicks to back it up. Steve Haberman contributes another excellent commentary track, this time joined by fellow historian Constantine Nasr and author David J. Schow, whose perspective on horror is always a welcome one.
Other extras appear to be ported over from a previous release, as most are in standard definition: an interview with actress Anne Helm, who recounts the experience of working with Joan Crawford, who subsequently had her fired; an interview with publicist Richard Kahn (publicists are so rarely interviewed for bonus features, and both of Scream Factory’s Castle releases contain featurettes with them), who also talks about working with Crawford to promote the movie and suggests she co-directed Strait-Jacket alongside Castle; a retrospective featurette; two screen tests, one of Crawford and one for the axe swinging; plus trailers and an image gallery, both of which are presented in high def.
Movie Score: 3/5, Disc Score: 3.5/5
Scream Factory has celebrated the work of no director more than John Carpenter, whose films have nearly all been released by the company at this point. One of his least-known efforts is the 1978 TV movie Someone’s Watching Me! (which was released concurrently with two other Carpenter films from Scream Factory, In the Mouth of Madness and Memoirs of an Invisible Man). Long considered his “lost” movie because of its unavailability on home video, the film stars Lauren Hutton as a woman who takes a job as a television director and moves into a high rise, where she begins to receive phone calls and gifts from someone who is clearly spying on her.
Made in 10 days just before he went on to direct Halloween, Someone’s Watching Me! (aka High Rise, the original title) finds Carpenter doing sort of a “practice run” for making one of the best horror movies of all time. The way he moves the camera, his use of negative space (even more impressive because he was shooting for 1:33 television, not the anamorphic 2.35:1 of Halloween), his ability to generate suspense—it’s all on display here. The story is totally the stuff of made-for-TV thriller, but Carpenter makes the decision to direct the hell out of it, and does he ever. This is the closest I’ve seen to Carpenter doing De Palma (who himself was doing Hitchcock), so naturally I’m going to love it. It takes me back to the years of TV movies, when a director could get the opportunity to cut his or her teeth on something with lower stakes than a franchise film, but with more visibility than a micro-budget indie that’s going to get buried on Netflix (see also: Steven Spielberg and Duel, Wes Craven’s Summer of Fear). Obviously, Carpenter had directed other features before taking this gig, but he still shows the hunger of a young filmmaker and the talent of an expert craftsman. Lauren Hutton makes for a genuinely smarty, sympathetic lead, supported by Carpenter regulars Adrienne Barbeau as her co-worker and friend and Charles Cyphers as the cop who doesn’t quite believe her story.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of Someone’s Watching Me! is a small miracle, not only because it adds to their growing library of John Carpenter titles, but because they’re making this “lost” film available in high def for the first time. The disc offers a choice of aspect ratios in which to watch the movie: a 1.33:1 open matte presentation the way it originally aired on TV, or a 1.85:1 widescreen version. Since it was only ever seen on broadcast TV and standard-def DVD, the new 1080p HD transfer presents the movie as the best it has ever looked. John Carpenter is mostly missing from the bonus features (minus one archival featurette, “John Carpenter: Director Rising”), but Scream Factory has still managed to include a couple of cool bonus features.
Amanda Reyes, film and TV historian and author of a book about TV movies from the’60s through the’90s, contributes a lively commentary that goes over Carpenter’s career and where Someone’s Watching Me! fits into it, as well as the made-for-TV movie as an art form. Both Adrienne Barbeau and Charles Cyphers sit down for new interviews, with Cyphers not only focusing on his work here, but covering all of his collaborations with Carpenter. There’s also a couple of television promos, an image gallery, and another installment of “Horror’s Hallowed Grounds” with Sean Clark, visiting some of the movie’s filming locations.
Scream Factory has worked some miracles in the past—I’m thinking of their massive Halloween box set or their special edition release of Nightbreed—but this might be their best year yet in terms of what they’ve managed to put out. These two William Castle titles and a rare but excellent John Carpenter film play a part in the company’s impressive slate of releases this year. We’re lucky to have them.
Movie Score: 3.5/Disc Score: 3.5/5