Warning to the Reader: This post contains a significant amount of sexual innuendo regarding the term "the tingler." Some particularly sensitive readers may experience nausea, frustration, and a growing sense of anger and resentment. Others may experience fits of laughter and screaming. Be aware that such reactions are perfectly natural, and readers may leave the blog at any time that they are too uncomfortable with this discussion of ... The Tingler!
William Castle's The Tingler (1959)is one of my favorite horror movies, not so much because it's scary (though some of its shocks are effective), but because it's an unironic celebration of horror movies and the cinema in general.
William Castle was known for his many gimmicks that he used to promote his own particular brand of horror films, and The Tingler represents one of his most ingenious schemes. In one of his more famous movies, The House on Haunted Hill, the showman used a technique he called "Emergo" (pronounced "emerge-o"), in which a flying skeleton from within the movie would fly out of the screen and over the audience. My dad, in fact, remembers going to see this movie several times in the theater when he was young because the kids would throw popcorn and other stuff at the skeleton when it flew overhead.
For The Tingler, Castle created "Percepto," in which he rigged random seats in theaters showing the film with small electric motors that would deliver a mild shock to those sitting there. The filmmaker also planted audience members at different screening, and their job was to start screaming at certain key moments in the film. At some screenings, Castle also installed a "Coward's Corner," in which audience members too scared by the film could follow a yellow line to a special set of seats.
Before the film begins, Castle appears on screen to issue a warning to the audience. (He did this for several movies. In some movies, he would even appear to interrupt the film, as in Mr. Sardonicus, where he appeared toward the end of the movie to ask the audience if the eponymous villain should be punished. The audience always voted in the affirmative.) The warning states that some audience members with a certain "sensivitity" will experience a strange tingling sensation," and they can get "immediate relief by screaming." His warning concludes: "a scream at the right time may save your life."
I don't know how many audience members bought into this in 1959, but it smacks of a less cynical time, and that's what I love about this movie. Sure, it manipulates the audience, but that manipulation is well-meant and not meanspirited or phoney. Castle seemed to genuinely want audiences to enjoy his movies and to experience something different.
The Tingler stars Vincent Price as Dr. Warren Chapin, a scientist who studies the effects of fear on the human body. He has come up with a radical and unproven theory about fear: something inside the human body causes the spine to stiffen when a person is faced with a fear stimulus, and that stiffening could result in severe physical harm or even death if the fear reaction continues unabated. Warren informs his assistant David (Darryl Hickman) of his theory, naming the theoretical thing "The Tingler." David fails to mention that it might not be a good idea to name their radical, revolutionary scientific discovery after a pocket-sized vibrating device used for the purposes of self-pleasure.
That is just one problem that Warren faces. The other is that he is having difficulty proving this theory. It seems that something always causes the tingling sensation to disappear before its true cause can be detected. Warren makes several attempts to solve this problem, all of which are ethically shaky for a scientist.
Warren's wife, Isabella, is openly having an affair, and Warren seems to only grudgingly confront her with the infidelity. Their banter is incredibly sharp and witty. Warren accuses her of "playing the field, and vice versa." Isabella accuses him of losing contact with other humans: "There's a name for you," she concludes.
"And several for you," he responds.
Despite their unhappiness, Warren needs Isabella because her wealth keeps his scientific research going (clearly, the National Institute of Health is uninterested in funding research on the tingler). These are twisted, ruthless people: Isabella probably killed her own father in order to get her inheritance, and Warren threatens to shoot her and fake her suicide if she doesn't let David marry her sister, Lucy: "this silly pistol can make a hole in you the size of a medium grapefruit," Warren threatens.
Then, much to the audience's surprise, Warren shoots his wife. Before disposing of her body, however, he rigs her to an x-ray machine in hopes of getting some candid shots of her tingler. I think it speaks volumes about their relationship that he has to go to such lengths just to see his own wife's tingler.
It turns out Warren was shooting blanks (probably in more ways than one), and Isabella only fainted, but his experiment is a success, and he gets some x-rays of a long, worm-like creature growing and shrinking on Isabella's spine. His goal now is to try and capture a live tingler.
Warren next gets his assistant David to do whatever it is kids do and get his hands on a supply of LSD. (Though the acronym is never used in the film, Warren is shown reading a pamphlet on the effects of the acid. Film historians have credited this movie as the first representation of an LSD trip.) Warren locks himself in his laboratory, injects himself with a double-dose of LSD, and turns on a reel-to-reel in order to record the trip. Warren begins to feel claustrophobic, and he imagines that his laboratory skeleton is attacking him. However, it isn't long into the trip that he screams and passes out.
The difficulty here is that tinglers are very sensitive to sound, which explains why no one has ever captured a live tingler: people tend to scream before fear overwhelms them, and this causes the tingler to shrink to microscopic size. Warren's only solution would be to find a person who cannot scream and scare that person to death (again, a methodology that doesn't look good on an NIH proposal).
Early in the film, Warren had encountered a man named Ollie Higgins, who runs a silent-movie theater along with his deaf-mute wife. On their first meeting, Warren discovers that she has a particular aversion to blood and a tendency toward hysterics. After his failed self-experiment, Warren goes to visit the Higginses to see how Mrs. Higgins is doing. Ollie informs him that she hasn't left her room or slept in some time, and Warren requests to examine her in private. During the examination, Warren gives her an injection to help her relax.
Mrs. Higgins wakes up to find objects in her apartment moving without any apparent cause. Then, she is attacked by a machete-wielding, deformed killer and a hairy hand with an axe. She rushes into the bathroom and locks the door, only to find things even worse in there. This begins one of the most memorable and masterful horror scenes that Castle produced. The black and white film suddenly gets a shot of color as red blood comes pouring out of the bathroom sink. Mrs. Higgins lurches backwards, only to find the same thing happening in the tub.
Then, to cap it off, something begins to emerge from the tub.
The mute woman tries to scream, but nothing comes out, and soon she is literally scared to death.
After discovering the body, Ollie quickly does what anyone would do in this situation: the loads it into his car and takes it to Warren's house. When Ollie arrives, Warren knows exactly what he's gotten his hands on: the opportunity to capture a live, fully grown tingler.
We see the tingler first emerge from Mrs. Higgins as a shadow on the privacy screen, and this image establishes a motif of shadows on a screen that will become significant later in the movie.
The tingler is really masterfully designed: it's a spine-shaped bug, with feet that look like they fit perfectly between vertebrae.
Tingler's are also amazingly strong, as Warren finds out when it clings to his arm, and he is not able to get it off until someone screams. (That's what she said.)
Later, tired of the facade of her phony marriage and the constant threats to her life, Isabella slips Warren a ruffie and sets the tingler loose on him while he is passed out.
Luckily for Warren, his sister-in-law, Lucy, arrives and screams before it's too late. This leads Warren to conclude that the tingler is too dangerous to have around, and he decides that he needs to return the tingler to Mrs. Higgins before she is taken to the mortuary.
At Ollie's apartment, however, the tingler escapes and makes its way into the movie theater below. The theater is showing the action-packed silent film "Tol'able David," and the camera reveals the audience is caught up in the film's suspense (we also see what appears to be a date rape in progress as well). The tingler moves through the theater, bouncing along with the film's score and attracted to the emotional intensity of the audience.
This climactic scene represents Castle's masterstroke. The screen suddenly goes black, and Vincent Price makes an announcement that the film will begin again shortly. Then, the tingler gets into the projection equipment, and we see it move across the white screen before it goes black again. Price's voice over then announces that the tingler is loose in the theater, and the audience needs to scream in order to subdue it. This is where we should imagine that the "Percepto" technique gets put to use, and audience members would actually feel the tingler move through the theater, and the screaming would start.
The screaming works, and Warren is finally able to capture the tingler in a film canister--a wonderful bit of symbolism.
The movie ends with a twist reminiscent of a 50s EC horror comic, and then a final warning is given to the audience: "If any of you are convinced that you don't have a tingler of your own, the next time you find yourself frightened in the dark, try not to scream."
Oh, I don't doubt the existence of my tingler. Not one bit.
By the way, if the music in this movie seems familiar to you, you're not imagining things. The score that runs over the opening credits was lifted straight from Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, which was only released the year before. (Another Hitchcock connection: Judith Evelyn, who plays Mrs. Higgins, also played "Miss Lonelyheart" in Rear Window, though we never see her close up in that film.)
Castle is often criticized for being a poor-man's Hitchcock, sharing the great director's flair for showmanship but lacking the commensurate talent, but I think such criticism is too harsh. If you look carefully at the movie poster for this film included at the top of this entry, you'll see that the largest element isn't Vincent Price or the movie's title--it's a shot of the audience screaming. This, to me, totally encapsulates the experience of seeing a William Castle film. William Castle's movies, more than any other filmmaker's, are pure celebrations of the movie-going experience, and despite their low budgets and cheesy special effects, I appreciate them in a way that I don't get from other movies. And The Tingler is the perfect representation of the Castle ethos.