Last week I had the unfortunate experience of viewing I, Frankenstein. Granted, I had no expectations walking in with my free pass, but I felt a sense of dread wash over me when I spotted the bin of migraine inducing 3-D glasses. Oh Hollywood, when will the madness stop?
But cinema gimmicks are nothing new. In fact, there was a time when they were actually quite fun. To many, the Master of Gimmicks will always be the Great and Powerful, William Castle. Notably, his films do not take themselves too seriously, a tip Hollywood could stand to profit from these days.
My favorite Castle film will always be The Tingler, named for its villainous bug-like creature which feeds off of human fear. Because he was always going for campy thrills, the film has never really become outdated.
From the late 1950s until the mid-1970s, William Castle created a series of gimmicky horror films which focused on completely enveloping the viewer into the narrative. The Tingler is an interesting case because not only does it comment directly on the (artistic) phenomenon of realism in its narrative, but it also uses gimmicks to create a physical link between the onscreen and offscreen worlds. Those who were lucky enough to experience The Tingler in it’s original theatre run would have had their ability to remain rational intrusively tested through such gimmicks. “In what may be the ultimate direct audience address” (Kevin Heffernan), Castle utilized “Percepto” to make a select many seats in the theatre vibrate at choice moments in the film. Also, partway through, the story is suddenly interrupted as the Tingler escapes the diegesis “attacking” audience members. A booming voice warns of the danger at hand just before screams take over the soundtrack. It’s rather doubtful that this prank would have had people actually fearing for their lives, but it seems safe to assume it would at least create quite the thrilling atmosphere. Nowadays, even in my gimmick-free living room, the film fills me with joy. Moments like these are all in good fun.
Furthermore, this type of extreme devotion to the physical experience is an obvious precursor to the technologies that have developed the ride-film. On a related note, Lauren Rabinovitz has recently argued that new digital and computer technologies “threaten our acquired understanding of the photographic/cinematic domain”, subsequently undermining the viewer’s ability to “determine whether or not the representation has a real world referent”. But the extent to which a filmmaker like Castle is willing to go in order to involve the spectator suggests an intention to master a whole new type of realism. It is that of the hyper-real; a reality so intense, yet so paradoxical it can only be described as surreal.
Castle created real gimmicks to incite this hyper-real experience. Anyone who has seen The Tingler can attest to this. It is something that the present monotony of 3D can simply no longer promise its viewer.