283. THE TINGLER (1959)

“Now please don’t fool with that stuff alone, Warren, it can produce some pretty weird effects.”—Lab assistant warning Vincent Price against taking LSD in The Tingler

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: William Castle

FEATURING: Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn, Darryl Hickman, Patricia Cutts

PLOT: Scruple-challenged scientist Dr. Warren Chapin discovers that a creature called “the Tingler” lives within the human spine. This creature grows when the host experiences fear, and shrinks when they scream. When an extracted Tingler escapes, Chapin and his assistant must race to re-capture the beast before it unleashes its terror—maybe right here inside this very movie theater!

Still from The Tingler (1959)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director/producer Castle, master of publicity-grabbing gimmicks, applied several such techniques to The Tingler, including hiring actresses to play nurses to stand outside the theater, and planting audience members to scream and faint at key moments in the picture. The most notorious gimmick in his oeuvre, however, was undoubtedly “Percepto.” For the theatrical release, Castle arranged for a handful of auditorium seats to be wired with war-surplus electric airplane de-icing engines. At a key moment during the film’s climax, the projectionist would activate the zappers, buzzing unsuspecting (or eagerly-hoping) viewers with a jolt of electricity, thereby breaking the fourth wall in a way 3-D never could.
  • Although best known for his B-movies, Castle’s resume is not exclusively low-budget shockers. He was an as assistant director on The Lady from Shanghai, and produced ‘s horror classic Rosemary’s Baby. (He has a cameo as a man wanting to use Mia Farrow’s phone booth.)
  • Price’s self-administered LSD experience was reportedly the first ever cinematic acid trip. Castle was so eager to clue in the audience to what was going on that he printed the name of the scientific monograph Price is reading on the back of the volume.
  • Directors and John Waters included The Tingler in their Top Ten lists for the Sight and Sound 2002 poll of the greatest films of all time.
  • Shane Wilson’s Staff Pick for the Certified Weird list.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A blank projection screen, onto which ambles the shadow of a large rubber insect puppet, followed immediately by blackness, the sound of audience members shrieking their heads off, and the unmistakable command of Vincent Price: “Scream! Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in this theater!”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even without the electrified seats, The Tingler is an odd little enterprise. Between the confident pseudoscientific explanations, the wildly shifting tone, and the utter commitment to the absurd and goofily executed premise, it’s a strange and silly cinematic experience. But “Percepto” ups the ante considerably. Whereas previous auditorium gimmicks were content to merely startle theater patrons and to play upon their emotions, The Tingler was now actively threatening the audience with physical harm. By bringing the actual audience inside the film, Castle’s gimmick becomes a means to shatter the fourth wall completely, paving the way for the interactive experiences viewers treasure so much now.


Original trailer for The Tingler

COMMENTS: Let’s not kid ourselves. The Tingler is very silly. Consider that the entire premise of the film is based on literalizing the chill that runs down your spine. Factor in that fear turns out to be a large, claw-less rubber crawdad. (Get your own, should they ever come back in stock.) Top it off with the discovery that the only antidote to this menace is the very thing that a horror movie hopes to earn: your scream. It adds up to a supremely goofy evening at the movies.

This could be a problem, were the filmmakers not fully committed to having fun with the premise, logic be damned. Castle is less of an auteur and more of a ringmaster. Just as you know that Space Mountain isn’t actually going to catapult you into orbit, The Tingler harbors no pretensions about being anything more than the light-hearted shocker it is. It uses every trick in its arsenal—sudden surprises, growing dread, unsettling imagery—to get the audience right in the palm of its hand.

Beloved star Price, the very model of refined hambone acting, is critical to the film’s success. He is seemingly cast against type as Dr. Chapin, the presumptive hero. However, his traditional role as velvet-tongued villain is employed carefully here, justifying his recklessness as a scientist, casting doubt on his reliability as a protagonist, and throwing into question just who will finish the film alive. Just witness the reckless abandon with which he throws himself into that fabled LSD trip. Oh, he’s playing it to the hilt. But there’s something so pure about his full-throated terror while under the influence that it’s impossible not to get on board, regardless of how goofy it may seem.

There’s a nasty undercurrent, as well. It’s most noticeable in the venomous interplay between Chapin and his wife (Cutts). Evidence is everywhere that the sourness of their marriage is ready to boil over, both in word (when Isabel says that Dave and Lucy’s wedding will take place “over my dead body,” Chapin quietly replies, “unconventional, but not impossible”) and in deed (his use of a gun to frighten her, followed by his invasive x-ray of her spinal parasite). The suggestion is even raised that Isabel is a murderer herself. It’s no surprise that his silent movie impresario friend feels comfortable scaring his deaf-mute wife literally to death (in the movie’s cleverest scene, in which all of Martha’s fears are illustrated through the surprising introduction of color). Ugliness is in the air.

In some ways, the weirdness of The Tingler is very much of its time. Percepto has now lost its edge for anyone who has taken in a 3-D movie at a theme park and been treated to vibrating seats and splashes of water. But for audiences willing to be frightened of a silly looking monster, or for whom the mere sight of blood sets the nerves on edge, the scares of The Tingler are real and not to be mocked. For what it is, The Tingler is a true original, a symbol of a time when the best hucksters in the land were making movies.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The ballyhoo is fairly crazy, but the film itself is even more insane, boasting the single whackiest premise of any horror film ever made.” – Kim Newman, Empire (DVD)

“The movie is wonderfully weird. It’s a real coke-bender of a screenplay, crammed full of irrational dialogue and overtly good or hateful characters. But it really gets crankin’ at the end, when the Tingler gets loose, shuffles its chunky lobster-self into an on-screen movie theater and begins having its way with both the audience and projectionist.” – Jamie Laughlin, Dallas Observer (revival screening)

“…a pure candy-covered delight of earnest goofiness… how any red-blooded American could hear ‘Vincent Price’s acid trip’ and not fall over themselves rushing to find a copy of the movie is beyond my comprehension.”–Tim Brayton, Alternate Ending

IMDB LINK: The Tingler (1959)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

The Tingler (1959) – Overview – Turner Classic Movies devotes more space to this film than almost any other in their catalog, including the trailer and three video clips, an impressive number of essays and recollections about the film, and links to lobby cards and the “Percepto” pressbook

Percepto Operation Manual – Download instructions to set up your own electrified movie seat

Top 10 William Castle Film GimmicksThe Tingler only places third on this list, which seems low by about two slots, but this does serve as a nicely compact-yet-comprehensive roll call of some of the master’s greatest stunts

Mini-Ep #24: The Tingler and All That Jazz – Comedian Gilbert Gottfried briefly discusses The Tingler on his podcast/Uber ad

For John Waters, ‘The Tingler’ Still Resonates – John Waters explains his love for the “Percepto” gimmick in this segment for NPR’s “Scenes I Wish I Had Written” series (although he spends most of the segment talking about other subjects)

READER RECOMMENDATION: THE TINGLER (1959) – Shane Wilson’s original review for this site

DVD INFO: The original DVD release (buy) hit stores in 1999 in a crisp 40th anniversary edition, including a featurette about Castle and the drive-in theater version of the fabled “Scream for your lives!” scene. In 2009, The Tingler was packaged as one of the eight films in “The William Castle Film Collection” (buy), along with such Castle classics as 13 Ghosts and Mr. Sardonicus. The set also includes a feature-length documentary, Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story. Unfortunately, the set is out-of-print.

The movie is also available to watch for free with an Amazon Primesubscription, or via streaming rental for a modest fee (buy or rent on-demand).

2 thoughts on “283. THE TINGLER (1959)”

  1. Aw, no mention of John Waters? In his standup “This Filthy World” he recounts showing up in the theater as a kid looking for the four or so seats the cheap theater wired so he could be guaranteed an ass buzz.

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