The Tingler: Horror's Greatest Gimmick
Dir. William Castle (1959)
A pathologist discovers a creature that lives at the base of its victims spine, feeding off of their fear. The only way to defeat it is to scream.
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS
Old Horror Hollywood was a magical place, filled with legends of the silver screen who utilized fantastic writing and groundbreaking camerawork to tell the old campfire tales in a way that bridged the gap between towns, cities, and even countries. Vincent Price was one of those legends, one of the greatest who ever lived. He introduced so many to horror, despite cutting his teeth in films that were the opposite of scary. He really made his name, however, when he starred in House of Wax in 1953, but he starred in so many apocryphal horror films that he attained one of the greatest nicknames in horror: The Merchant of Menace (which is as clever as it is terrifying). I took the opportunity to dig into my new William Castle set to watch one of Price’s most gimmicky roles, as pathologist Dr. Warren Chapin (Price) in his pursuit of the titular Tingler.
Ya see, Dr. Chapin performs autopsies for the prisoners who are executed on death row, and he has a theory that fear is caused by a creature that lives at the base of people’s spines. Screaming relieves the pressure caused by the creature and causes it to shrink, but when he meets a theater owner’s wife (Judith Evelyn as Martha Higgins in her last role) who is unable to speak and, therefore, scream, he decides to perform an experiment (with the aid of the totally period-appropriate LSD). He wants to see if her inability to scream will cause the Tingler to grow out of control, and he decides to test his theory by dosing Martha with LSD without her permission.
While The Tingler is not the best of its era by any stretch, it’s a unique film with one of the greatest gimmicks in Hollywood history: Castle had buzzers installed in seats throughout the country called Percepto, and when the Tingler was shown on screen, the buzzers would give moviegoers a slight shock. He also paid people to sit in the audience during showings of his film to scream at random times, further elevating the terror. While it may seem counterproductive to release a film that is only largely known today for this gimmick, it’s worth considering that it’s a small miracle that the film is remembered at all after 63 years. It’s also worth considering how terrifying this must’ve been when it was released: Price starred in both this and House on Haunted Hill in 1959, which would’ve made a killer double feature.
Of particular note is the use of color in the otherwise black-and-white film. During the film’s LSD trip, the first ever shown on film, the blood in the scene is actually colored red, the only use of color throughout the entire film. There is blood coming from a faucet and blood filling a bathtub, from which a hand slowly reaches for our deaf and dumb victim. It’s interesting and unique and gives the film yet another gimmicky flair that is worth a watch as part of horror history. Another great touch is the use of the overarching heartbeat whenever the Tingler is on-screen. It lends an air of anxiety to every scene, further inducing the audience into a state of fear. At the end of the day, Castle was the perfect person to bring this film to the screen, and he makes excellent use of Price’s hammy dialect and eclectic scene-chewing. He also makes excellent use of the monster, which appears to be a cross between a lobster, a slug, and a centipede.
Despite the film’s reputation as being solely concerned with making money, Price delivers one of his best performances in a classic role. The film is filled with classic tropes: the conniving wife, the mad scientist, and even the introduction by the director of the film. It’s also very well written, as, it often feels, only films in this era have been. There’s a difference in quality that is noticeable when watching a film like this; this was a popular movie, sure, but its much better produced than films of the same caliber today. It’s still a B-movie, and when put side-by-side with B-movies of today, there’s simply no comparison. The film owes part of that, certainly, to Price, but it’s not a bad film beside. The theater scene near the end, which uses completely blank screens along with Vincent Price encouraging the audience to scream, must’ve been fucking nuts in the 50’s. From what audiences of the day say, it would a truly outrageous experience to actually see in the theater. All in all, the film as a whole is a bit ridiculous at times, but it hits where it needs to and it’s a nice monster-movie fright film of yesteryear.
Who this movie is for: Classic horror fans; Vincent Price lovers; Vindictive doctors’ wives
Bottom line: While lacking in scares compared to films of today (and even some of its time), The Tingler is a gimmicky fun ride that is one of horror master Vincent Price’s best roles. The Tingler likely won’t scare you, but it’s part of horror history and is well deserving of its status as one of the best horror movies of the 50’s. It’s unintentionally hilarious at times and is definitely worth a watch for anyone interested in exploring their horror roots, and it’s streaming free on Tubi for those who would like to give it a watch.