The Tingler

Synopsis: Vincent Price stars as an obsessed doctor who discovers that feat manifests itself as a parasitic creature, which grows on the spinal cords of terrified people. If they scream, the Tingler can be destroyed. If they don’t, it will sever the spinal column and kill them. He successfully isolates and removes the Tingler from a deaf mute (Judith Evelyn) who has been scared to death by her devious husband. Once captured, the Tingler escapes and runs amok in a crowded movie theater. Terror is loose, but can it be stopped?

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The Tingler 7.0

eyelights: its many gimmicks. its core conceit. its repartee.
eyesores: the tingler.

“Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic! But SCREAM! Scream for your lives!”

William Castle became a showman in 1958, with his 40th feature film, ‘Macabre’. After a decade and a half of working for studios, he decided to break out on his own and bankrolled his movie by mortgaging his home. Naturally, he wanted it to be a hit.

So he came up with his first attention-grabbing gimmick.

For ‘Macabre’, he gave out 1000 dollar life insurance certificates to audience members in case they died of fright while watching the movie. He stationed fake nurses and hearses at the cinemas to add dramatic effect. Unsurprisingly, the picture was a hit.

A year later, he came back with ‘House on Haunted Hill‘, whose gimmick was a skeleton that would fly above the crowd during key scenes in the movie. Castle was quick to capitalize on its massive success: ‘The Tingler’ followed not six months later.

Released in 1959, ‘The Tingler’ is by no means a traditionally good film. What it is is a horror spectacular, a picture more focused on its gimmickry than on conventional storytelling. In fact, it may be the most inspired extravaganza of Castle’s career.

This time, the producer came up with an ambitious concept: installing vibrating devices in select theatre seats, which would then be activated at key points during the film. Branded “Percepto”, it was supposed to reflect the cinemagoer’s level of fear.

And the only way to quell that fear, Castle told the audience in his opening intro, was to scream.

You see, ‘The Tingler’ revolves around Dr. Chapin’s experiments in fear. A coroner by day, he also keeps a research lab in the basement of his mansion where he discovers a parasite at the base of every human’s spine. This “tingler” feeds on its host’s fear.

Its only vulnerability: screams.

Castle’s gimmick was so involved that he actually incorporated the audience into the picture: in the finale, a tingler escapes from an apartment into the cinema below; Castle gives the illusion that Dr. Chapin stops the film to reassure the audience all’s well.

Castle had a planted audience member pass out just as a woman in ‘The Tingler’ screams in horror, and she would be carried away on a stretcher. In the chaos, Chapin (played by Vincent Price) would explain what had happened before continuing the movie.

In a small piece of cinema magic, Chapin spoke to the audience in ‘The Tingler’ and in the actual cinema at the same time. He would do that a couple more times, in what is really an inspired piece of theatre on Castle’s part – hokey though it may be.

Another cool illusion comes in a scene in which a character is seeing all sorts of horrific things in her apartment. Though the film is in black and white, as she goes to the bathroom, red blood pours out of the sink faucet, and the blood fills red with blood.

What Castle did to achieve that effect was to shoot only that sequence on colour stock – but he had a black and white set built and dressed and made up the actress in monochrome. The only thing of colour was the blood, creating this shocking contrast.

Genius.

Aside for the bombast of Castle’s gimmicks, the picture itself is rudimentary: the plot wouldn’t be too out of place on the small screen, the staging isn’t especially clever, and the performances are merely decent, with no one offering a memorable turn.

There is, however, one unforgettably hilarious moment when Chapin takes LSD to explore his own fears: Price goes all in as the character panics, has difficulties breathing, feels the walls closing in on him, …etc. Watching it is pure campy delight.

Where the picture really falters is with its titular creature: the tingler is basically a big rubber mock-up of a peripatus or a centipede. Afforded no mobility by its designers, it had to be dragged on a string to “move” it, making it look even more risible.

This completely deflates the horror of each scene it’s in because we simply can’t allow ourselves to believe what we’re seeing, thus creating a certain remove; without emotional involvement, there is no dread. At the very best, it serves as a target of derision.

Well, perhaps that’s why ‘The Tingler’ is considered a camp classic in some circles. Perhaps some people watch it for the inadvertent laughs it provokes instead of its intended squeals of delight and squirms of terror. It’s more an albatross than a creepy crawly.

And that’s too bad, because the picture is incredibly inventive. Though I’ve hardly seen all of William Castle’s gimmicky films, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that this showcases the showman at the top of his game. It sure must have been fun in cinemas.

On home video, it still retains some of its allure, but one has to be in the right frame of mind for it: one has to understand the context in which this film was made and remember that much of the experience is attenuated by the lack of interplay in home viewing.

Taking this into account, though, ‘The Tingler’ remains a silly ol’ time.

Story: 7.0
Acting: 7.0
Production: 7.0

Chills: 4.0
Gore: 2.5
Violence: 2.5

Date of viewing: March 24, 2017

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