The Tingler (1959)
"When the screen screams you'll scream too...if you value your life!"
Pathologist Warren Chapin’s work in conducting autopsies at the local prison leads him to become obsessed with the idea that something comes alive inside the human body when a person gets scared, as the case is with inmates about to be executed, and the only way to stop it is by screaming and relieving the fear. When he comes across Ollie and Martha Higgins, the owners of a nearby cinema, he knows he has found the perfect guinea pig to test his theory out – Martha is a mute and her inability to scream and stop the Tingler should produce interesting results.
The Tingler was one of a number of gimmick horror films made in the late 50s and early 60s by William Castle. These were films with low budgets, but Castle effectively promoted them through the use of gimmicks which encouraged cinema goers to come and experience his films, rather than just watch them. His most famous film, House on Haunted Hill, was filmed in ‘Emergo’ where a skeleton with red eyes would float over the audience in some showings to parallel what was being shown on-screen. His first hit, Macabre, became successful when every customer was given an insurance certificate from Lloyd’s of London should they die of fright whilst watching. It might sound too gimmicky but it worked – Castle’s films were box office hits.
The Tingler’s novelty value was the inclusion of ‘Percepto’ - vibrating cinema seats, fitted with electric buzzers on the underside and designed to ‘tingle’ the occupant at certain points to coincide with the action. During the film’s climax inside a cinema where the Tingler creature runs amok, the lights go off (and the screen goes black), there’s a lot of screaming and Vincent Price’s character is heard talking to the people to reassure them that everything is ok - in reality, Price’s character is actually addressing the audience in the real cinema as this was the point where the electric seats would kick into action. It’s a brilliant moment of film and meta-film coming together to cause maximum panic in the audience. It sounds gimmicky and is very ‘carny’ but I would have love to have been there in the cinema back in the 50s to experience it for real, even if it wasn’t to get an electric shock myself to see and hear people jumping up and screaming all around. Castle even hired people to pretend to faint inside theatres to really add to the effect – no expense was spared in trying to give people a memorable night out at the cinema. The director even pops up for a little prologue where he appears on-screen and warns the audience about what they are about to see.
The Tingler is not a fantastic film and is fairly nonsensical for the most part, buoyed only by an excellent performance from Vincent Price. The idea of some creature living inside us all and only coming alive when we show fear is too daft to be believable considering no one has ever discovered it before so just go with the flow and see where the script takes the idea. But, like with House on Haunted Hill, there are lots of well-written, shady characters floating around, each with their own agenda and all bordering between good and evil. Who are the villains here? Who is out to get who? Each character seems happy to back-stab the next and although it can be tricky trying to work out motives and links between characters, it keeps the film from stalling too much whenever the creature isn’t the focus of the scene.
Speaking of which, there would not be a story if we didn’t actually discover that there is such a thing and the Tingler itself is a weird centipede-like creature brought to life with a not-so-convincing puppet which has strings to wriggle it around. It does come with a nice sound effect, kind of like a heartbeat, which grows louder as it becomes more powerful and dangerous. The creature isn’t the main source of the scares though and this comes from Castle throwing the kitchen sink into the scene where Martha is subject to a night of terrors from Chapin in an attempt to get her to scream (or not, in her case). The Tingler was filmed in black-and-white, which makes one scene involving a bathtub filled with bright red blood even more effective when it was shot in colour.
Vincent Price is fantastic as always, bringing up the level of the material significantly with his cool delivery and doing his best to convince the audience that the Tingler is deadly (as he wrestles with it at one point). Whilst trying to scare himself, Chapin elects to go on an acid trip by taking LSD and The Tingler is believed to be the first cinematic portrayal of the effects of taking the substance. Seeing Price, in his forties by this point and as adult in the 50s he’d be the first to admit to being a little square, try to act as if he’s on drugs is hilarious, with him screaming and hurtling himself around his laboratory.
The Tingler is a daft enough horror film when watched from the comfort of your home in 2020 but I bet back in 1959 in the cinema, it would have been excellent enjoyment. It’s got plenty of flaws but a good sense of knowing exactly what it wants to do and how to get there, and in those respects it does the job admirably.
Director(s): William Castle
Writer(s): Robb White
Actor(s): Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn, Darryl Hickman, Patricia Cutts, Pamela Lincoln
Duration: 82 mins