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  • The Fright Break! April 18, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

    Beachcombing recently complained about the lack of the bizarre in classical music. Luckily cinema has no such limitations. Indeed, it is difficult to think of a major director prior to the second world war who was not a complete loon. Then there are – may the heavens be praised – the gimmicks: those loveably outrageous attempts to get punters into the movie theatre. There is a book to be written on this – has it already been done? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com. Everything from John Water’s smell scratch cards for Polyester (1981), to electric vibrators hidden in cinema seats – for The Tingler (1959), to the skeleton swinging out above the audience for House on the Haunted Hill (1959).

    Beachcombing’s personal favourite comes from William Castle’s Homicidal (1961). Now Homicidal is, by any standards, a strange film. Imbd reports: ‘The story centers around a murderous scheme to collect a rich inheritance. The object of murder is Miriam Webster, who is to share in the inheritance with her half brother Warren, who lives with his childhood guardian Helga in the mansion where Warren and Miriam grew up. Confined to a wheelchair after recently suffering a stroke, Helga is cared for by her nurse Emily, a strange young woman who has formed a close bond with Warren.’ But, believe Beachcombing, when he says that this really doesn’t do justice to this absurd horror flick.

    Castle was already an accomplished gimmick-user in 1961 – the idea for electric vibrations in The Tingler had been his own. However, in Homicidal he outdid himself. It is a shame, in fact, that he didn’t put as much energy into the film… Not only did the director offer a substantial insurance policy to anyone coming to see Homicidal – in case they died of fright… Castle also introduced the Fright Break. Five minutes before the end of the film and its madcap climax Castle speaks directly to the audience.

    This is the Fright Break! You hear that sound? The sound of a heartbeat! Is it beating faster than your heart? Or slower? This heart is going to beat for another 65 seconds [times varies] to allow anyone to leave the theatre who is too frightened to see the end of the picture, and get your full admission refunded. Ten seconds more and we go into the house. It’s now or never! Five! Four! You’re a brave audience! Two! One!

    Fright Break [clip on youtube]

    Fright Break [downloadable video clip]

    It is enough to read these words to understand just what a cunning old dog WC was.

    So did it work? Well, the studio heads were understandably anxious when Homicide was shown at Youngstown, Ohio on its test viewing. Castle and the studio heads turned up for the second show of the evening as there was a feeling that the original audience might be so curious at the novelty of the money back offer that they would leave the cinema just for the hell of it. In any case, at 8.30 pm director and the Columbia bosses sat down to watch the film and then at 9.55 as the Fright Break was announced they all held their breaths. Would the audience take advantage of the offer or would they stay behind and watch the last intriguing scenes?

    In what must have been one of the worst minutes of Hill’s life – and WH had mortgaged his house to make the film – almost the entire movie theatre stampeded for the door! He needn’t have worried though. It transpired that the film watchers were wilier than the director: they had stayed in their seats from the first performance…

    Something like one percent of the audience left later films. But Hill, who was rarely daunted, invented the Coward’s Corner for these skinflints. They had to walk through a yellow light to ‘the Corner’ in the eyes of the whole cinema while a voice taunted them: ‘These cowards are too frightened to see the end of Homicidal. Watch them shiver in Coward’s Corner! Coward… Coward… Coward…’ AND they had to sign a form stating ‘I am a bona fide coward’.

    After all, WH wanted to pay his mortgage back.