See-Thru Hats

Where DID you get that perspex skull-cap?

PROJECT X is a 1968 William Castle sci-fi espionage flick which is, characteristically, extremely interesting and utterly bananas. I may have already spoken of my Big Theory about William Castle, but let me lead off with it again —

While known as a gimmick-meister, inventor of Emerg-O (plastic skeleton on rails flies over audience’s heads) and Percepto (electric joy buzzers beneath seats zap audience’s asses) etc, Castle might usefully be looked at as a pure eccentric, whose fondness for bizarre gimmicks extended into the plots of his movies as well as their promotion. This notion ties together many of the thrillers Castle made before discovering B-movie horror and selling himself as a cut-price Hitchcock — he had a love of weird plots which led him to adapt Cornell Woolrich (THE MARK OF THE WHISTLER) and to stuff HOLLYWOOD STORY with old-time silent stars playing themselves. This tendency flourishes in THE TINGLER, of course, but you can also see it in movies Castle worked on as producer — Orson Welles’ LADY FROM SHANGHAI, for instance, where the idea of a man hiring an assassin to pretend to kill him so he can escape the imminent atomic holocaust seems like pure Castle. Similarly, ROSEMARY’S BABY, with it’s upscale New York coven, and BUG, with its sentient fire-raising insects who can communicate with humans by spelling out words on a wall with their bodies, reflect a very individual sensibility. It’s fitting that Castle’s last film as director was SHANKS, a comedy about electro-galvinism starring Marcel Marceau. Some might argue that in fact, no, it’s NOT fitting, it’s INSANE. But it’s definitely more fitting for William Castle to go out that way than, say, David Lean.

So to PROJECT X, a twenty-second century spy thriller about a race to extract vital spy secrets from the mind of an agent in suspended animation and suffering from chemically-induced amnesia. Like the recent INCEPTION, the movie is wall-to-wall exposition, but unlike that big moneyspinner Castle can’t afford a slew of charismatic supporting characters to mouth his sci-fi pseudoscience. He has to settle for Harold Gould (dad from Rhoda) and Henry Jones. Jones, known to cinephiles as the snide coroner in VERTIGO, is Castle’s secret weapon, imbuing the most sinister experiments with a decaying glee. His morbid charm allows Castle to indulge his Charles Addams type gallows humour (the script is entirely void of comedy: Jones does it by twinkle alone).

The story, augmented with Star Trek sliding door sound effects and see-through hats, is both amazingly prescient and ham-fistedly goofy, which means the movie is always watchable. Since the hero’s mind has been wiped, Jones and his scientists plan to stimulate his subconscious by placing the guy in a fake 1960s setting (the character was a historian specializing in that period) with a fake personality/cover story, or “matrix”. Then they periodically blast his brain with holograms, which reconstruct what they know of his mission to what they quaintly call “Sino-Asia.” Apparently the Sino-Asians were planning to win World War III by mass-producing male children (I told you it was prescient!), but the hero found out something much more sinister

The holographic flashbacks are produced by Hanna & Barbera animation, weird superimpositions, and painted backdrops by comic book legend Alex Toth. All very stylish in their kitsch way. The real-world scenes suffer by comparison, being flatly shot in a fairly televisual manner by the reliably prosaic Castle, whose visual sense never could keep up with his crazy brain. He does manage a fair bit of camera movement, but his main technique is to hold a wide shot until the scene starts to crust over, and the light gets fossilized on its way to your eyes , then break it by moving an actor or the camera, just enough to maintain a baseline of viewer consciousness. But the nutty plot developments, which throw in telekinesis, germ warfare, brainwashing, virtual cigarettes, and a guest spot from Keye Luke, do keep us tingling with dazed anticipation. The leading lady, Greta Baldwin, is a Swedish dairy worker who stumbles into the story by accident and hangs around for purely decorative reasons, but her bizarre acting style is so winning that she actually compensates for the lack of conventional production values. The awkward way she walks, and her huge hands, and her bizarro line readings, are worth any number of exploding starships.

Meanwhile, the film’s vision of a Cold War still going strong after 150 years (but no mention of the Russians), even after crime has been (s0mehow) abolished, is a weird and quasi-fascist one. The Americans apparently dictate how many children their women can have, and indulge in mass sterilisation to keep numbers down (as we learn in a brief aside), so there doesn’t seem much to choose between the two sides. Oh, and the Americans all seem to be white, the only other colours of face appearing archive footage of 60s rioting… At least Trek hypothesized an uneasy detente between Earth and a vaguely oriental, vaguely slavic alien race, blatantly transposing ’60s concerns to its sci-fi universe, without actually accepting Mutually Assured Destruction as an eternal constant in human affairs.

Still, such gloomy thoughts seem inappropriate to such a cheerfully wacked-out fantasy as this. Nice to see a sci-fi movie that’s ludicrous while still getting things right — the future Americans regard Freudian psychology as old wives’ tales, although the movie does feature a Monster from the Id (my second this week, after SCOTT PILGRIM!) which strikes down an enemy agent in a hilariously, disturbingly protracted bout of synth-jazz, loud male screaming, fish-eye lens freak-out and solarized colours.

34 Responses to “See-Thru Hats”

  1. That sounds great! But I take slight issue with the idea of Castle as “reliably prosaic” – I mean, vast tracts of his work does look like bog-standard contemporary telly, but there are moments of pure visual wildness in, say, the Joan Crawford axe-murderer extravaganza Strait-Jacket (the overhead shot of Joan losing it in the vertically striped ladies’ room!) or the early, wonderful, Mitchum-starring noir When Strangers Marry, that demonstrate his abilities. It’s just that, I suppose, when you work that fast, you have to ditch an awful lot of niceties, and he did have a lot of hack in him. I can’t argue with that.

  2. John Waters has been most eloquent about Castle. And Joe Dante’s Matinee (cited just the other day on this site) is a full-press hommage to Castle.

  3. david wingrove Says:

    Would you believe I’ve never actually seen a William Castle movie?! Heresy, I know, especially the two starring Joan Crawford. Good to know some areas of camp cinema still remain to be explored.

  4. Not only the Joans for you, David, but the Vincent Prices also, I suspect. What pleasures await!

    Paul: As the frame-garbs above show, Castle is certainly capable of arresting images, it’s just that he parcels them out a little meanly at times, no doubt because of practical constraints. Also, his imagination is fired up by crazy stuff, not by the expository conversations which make up most of his scripts.

    Hope to one day visit the Lester archive, if they’ll let me. The papers are all leading on the quirky Spike Milligan letter contained therein.

  5. I always attributed the “William Castle look” — when, of course, there *was* one — to cinematographer Carl E. Guthrie, who also photographed Jack Arnold’s THE TATTERED DRESS and Heisler’s STORM WARNING. The bizarrely intense mutual loathing between men and women, especially in HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL and TINGLER, I attributed to screenwriter Robb White (who’s credited as “associate producer” on HILL).

    I do think you’re right, though, about Castle’s tropism toward oo-tray plotlines.

    Something should probably be said, in any case, about the British author L.P. Davies (born in Crewe), whose book was the basis for PROJECT X. Here’s a nice little piece I found …

    Lamont Johnson’s THE GROUNDSTAR CONSPIRACY is based on a Davies novel. I like the description that one of the marginalia writers, on the link above, gives for Davis: “reminiscent of an English PKD, perhaps John Wyndham channelling PKD.”

    as for Henry Jones … don’t let’s forget this performance:

  6. Let’s try that link again:

    We might also mention Jones’ performance in THE GRIFTERS.

  7. Oh, he’s incredible in that. I’m not sure I knew who he was when I saw that for the first time.


    Looking at this, I suspect that Davies’ book would have taken the protagonist’s POV, letting the reader freak out as the artificial world falls apart, in a very PK Dick way. Castle’s approach turns the hero into a stooge whom we can’t relate to, and makes the opening a great info-dump of exposition. Still enjoyable, but less exciting than it might be.

  9. Christopher Says:

    I watched one of Castle’s worst the other night,Macabre, from 1958.What is so bad about it is they had a great story and didn’t develop any real exciting measures to carry it out.In addition to the main child being buried alive plot and the race to find her,they had an even more provocative plot with Christine White as a sexy blind gal whos had a baby out of wedlock(the one buried alive)and who has died and is having a night funeral,symbolic of her world of darkness.THat plot showed great possibilites,but never went anywhere for long till it was back to the silly main story.
    Night Walker is one of my fave Castles!

  10. Tony Williams Says:

    SERPENT OF THE NILE (1953) is a much better version of CLEOPATRA with Raymond Burr playing a burly, doomed hetero Mark Anthony with Jule Newman anticipating Shirley Eaton in GOLDFINGER dancing totally covered in gold and Rhonda gives Liz a run for the money. This film was a revelation and deserves to be better known.

  11. Oh, I think I have that one! Wasn’t sure what to expect since Castle isn’t exactly known for his epics.

    Night Walker disappointed me somewhat, I liked the loopiness but it was all so PROTRACTED.

    I’m interested in checking out some more of his Whistlers and Crime Doctors. And it seems to me I’ve never seen Macabre, nor all of Straitjacket!

  12. Joe Dante Says:

    Well, David, starting Wednesday you can at least see the trailer for MACABRE on Trailers from It’s William Castle week in honor of the Film Forum retrospective that starts on Friday. Today is I SAW WHAT YOU DID and Friday is the morally odd LET’S KILL UNCLE. You sure make me want to check out PROJECT X again. Haven’t seen it since ’68!

  13. Christopher Says:

    oh yeah!..No one screams like Babs!…Now I know what scared me so much about this one…and “Dr. Bellows” with his turned up eyes really freaked me out…I haven’t seen The Night Walker since the early 70s,so it may not do me like it used to…Looking forward to your Macabre review Joe :o)

  14. Simon Fraser Says:

    So the Film Forum is doing a season of Castle, starting this month. The Tingler will be shown in ‘Percepto’ “Experience PERCEPTO! in the world’s only venue where you can experience it!”

    ….it bodes well.

    Incidentally their recent season of original 3D movies has been great. Just saw ‘House of Wax’ today, it looked spectacular.

  15. How exciting!

    I have a moth-eaten AVI of Let’s Kill Uncle, I’m tempted to investigate. I shall be checking the goings-on at Trailers from Hell religiously, since I can’t make it to Film Forum. I wonder if they have Rumble-Rama too? Or is that just the subway?

    House of Wax on the big screen is an all-time hoot, De Toth’s approach ain’t exactly subtle but it’s sure forceful.

  16. david wingrove Says:

    My God, that reminds me…I actually have seen THE NIGHT WALKER. Great movie with a stunningly surreal ‘dream wedding’. Well, the marriage of Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Taylor was a pretty surreal concept to begin with!

  17. david wingrove Says:

    As a self-respecting fan of all things queenly, I thought I knew my Cleopatra movies…and I’ve never even heard of SERPENT OF THE NILE! It sounds truly splendid. I do remember being dazzled as a child by SLAVES OF BABYLON, in which the lovely Rhonda Fleming stars as Queen Semiramis.

  18. You’ve never heard of Serpent of the Nile ?

    Are you sure you’re gay?

  19. Fiona and I can’t offer any direct eyewitness evidence on David’s behalf but we’d happily act as character witnesses!

  20. david wingrove Says:

    If I were to be outed as a closet heterosexual, I can’t think of a lovelier ‘outer’ than flame-haired Rhonda Fleming.

    But if you need reassuring, David, I do own a DVD of COBRA WOMAN. Also three rival versions of CLEOPATRA – Liz Taylor, Claudette Colbert and an obscure 19th century opera by Lauro Rossi. Will that do?

  21. Judy Dean Says:

    Yes, as one of David W.’s students I can vouch for his ownership of COBRA WOMAN, and his attachment to the finale, which he has shown in class on MORE THAN ONE OCCASION.

  22. Judy Dean Says:

    And some class members are still in recovery.

  23. Just tracked down my copy of Serpent of the Nile so David can update his gayness credentials next time we meet.

  24. david wingrove Says:

    Judy – I hate to tell you this, but the clip I showed from COBRA WOMAN (Maria Montez doing her sacrificial dance routine in gold lame robe and cha-cha heels) is not even the grand finale. It’s around midway through, and quite restrained compared to much of what follows.

  25. Judy Dean Says:

    What?! You mean there’s more??

  26. Oh yes, my favourite bit is “Geef me that coprah chool” with the hilarious pointing.

  27. Thank you for writing about my movies. I always love Science Fiction. Still do…especially now that I’m coming to you from the other side.

    Bill Castle

  28. Thanks for getting in touch! Hope they’re making you comfortable over there (no buzzers under the seats). Love to Orson.

  29. Randy 109 Says:

    The Blu-ray is out…wait till you see the screenshots!
    The clarity is amazing…

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