William Castle, 1959
Starring: Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn, Darryl Hickman, Patricia Cutts
"Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic. But scream! Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in this theater!"
Dr. Warren Chapin has been experimenting with states of fear in animals and humans. He discovers the presence of a strange, parasitic creature that attaches to the spine during moments of extreme terror. The creature, which he has dubbed the Tingler, can be subdued by screaming, but if the subject is unable to scream, the Tingler will eventually kill them by crushing their spine. Meanwhile, Chapin meets Martha Higgins, the wife of his friend Oliver; they own the local movie theater. Martha is deaf, mute, and terrified of blood. After Chapin accidentally cuts himself, she passes out and is unable to sleep for days. He gives her a sedative and commands she rest, but that night she dies of fright. When he autopsies her, he discovers the Tingler, which gets loose and begins to look for its next victim...
After the success of House on Haunted Hill, director William Castle reunited with his regular screenwriter Robb White, actor Vincent Price, and composer Von Dexter for sci-fi themed horror The Tingler. This is one of Castle’s most enjoyable films and anyone who loves camp horror should immediately seek it out. As with several of Castle’s other films, the fourth wall is regularly broken. He begins the film with an introductory warning about how scary the film is and tells the audience that some people will be more susceptible than others. There is also an excellent concluding scene where the Tingler breaks out into a movie theater and Price warns us to “scream for your lives!” The movie theater, screening a silent film, was a delightful choice and seems an obvious precursor for later movie theater-based films Demons.
The Tingler is undeniably gimmicky, despite the fact that the titular beastie doesn’t make an appearance till an hour into the film. As with House on Haunted Hill, Castle used a gimmick that appeared through out select theaters. Known as “Percepto,” the device was attached underneath various theater seats and intermittently buzzed audience members. Castle also hired people in the theater to scream and faint; they would then be attended to by fake nurses on hand in the lobby.
The main draw of the film is actor Vincent Price, who is wonderful as Dr. Chapin. As in many of his early horror films - House of Wax, The Mad Magician, House on Haunted Hill - Price plays a sympathetic but morally ambiguous character. Here his scientific and medical practices are definitely questionable. He pretends to shoot his wife in order to briefly study her, it is implied that he injects a patient with LSD, he injects himself, and also casually mentions that his wife has permanently disappeared. As always, he plays the role totally straight, which gives some added credibility to the thoroughly ridiculous plot.
Patricia Cutts (Battle of the Coral Sea) plays Isabel, Chapin’s beautiful but unfaithful wife. Their relationship closely mirrors that of Price’s character and his murderous, unfaithful wife in House on Haunted Hill and as in that film, Cutts and Price’s major scenes together, full of quick dialogue and icy barbs, are among the film’s highlights. Marital strife is an important theme throughout the film, not just with Chapin, but also with his friend Higgins and his mute wife. Judith Evelyn (Rear Window) is memorable as Mrs. Higgins, the deaf woman who cannot scream and save herself from the tingler. Pamela Lincoln (Anatomy of a Psycho) is Isabel’s sweet, likable sister and Darryl Hickman (The Grapes of Wrath) is decent but forgettable as her fiancé and Price’s assistant.
Despite the fact that The Tingler was shot in black and white, there’s an excellent scene with some color where Mrs. Higgins is scared to death by a bathtub full of blood. There is also what I believe to be the very first acid trip in cinema when Price injects himself with LSD in order to be scared. He delivers a truly over the top, hilarious performance, which alone makes the film worth watching.
The Tingler isn’t a perfect film and anyone who likes their horror more serious and modern will probably be disappointed. The science is completely absurd, but this is the type of film where that doesn’t matter in the least. It doesn’t really matter what the Tingler is or how it came to be. It is worth nothing that it bears some similarities to the ear worm in Wrath of Khan and the creature Cronenberg used in a later film about primal fear, Shivers. Cheesy, but somehow still frightening.
Campy, silly, creepy, very enjoyable, and thoroughly weird, The Tingler comes highly recommended. It’s available on DVD and in the five disc William Castle Collection alongside 13 Ghosts, 13 Frightened Girls, Homicidal, Strait-Jacket, The Old Dark House, Mr. Sardonicus, Zotz! and the documentary Spine-Tingler: The William Castle Story, as well as other special features. The Tingler is a perfect Halloween film and should be watched at least once, if not many more times.