The Tingler (1959) ***½
Twenty-five years after the slow, lingering death of his career, this is the movie for which producer/director William Castle is best remembered, to the extent that he is remembered at all. I don’t think anyone will argue with me when I say that The Tingler is Castle’s magnum opus, marking the pinnacle of his career, both as a director and as a huckster. It was to promote The Tingler that Castle developed and deployed his best, and best-remembered, gimmick-- “Percepto,” which, as Castle himself tells us at the film’s beginning, enabled certain “especially sensitive” moviegoers to experience for themselves the physical sensation of the titular monster’s attack.
The story revolves around the activities of pathologist Dr. Warren Chapin (Vincent Price), who has spent the past several years’ worth of his off hours researching the physiological effects of fear. What started Chapin on this arcane path of investigation was his observation that the bodies of those who knew they were about to die often exhibited a curious pattern of internal injuries completely unrelated to whatever trauma actually killed them. In particular, Chapin has found that the vertebrae of those who have time to fear what’s about to kill them are often cracked or shattered, as if they were squeezed at the moment of death by some incredible force. The remarkable coincidence between the site of these mystery injuries and the fact that we often physically feel something in our spines when we are afraid is not lost on Chapin. It is his theory that there is some physical or physiological manifestation of fear that exerts itself on the spine, and that the strength with which it does so is proportionate to the intensity of our fear. At the suggestion of a passing acquaintance of Chapin’s-- a theater proprietor named Ollie Higgins (Philip Coolidge)-- he names this force “the Tingler.”
When Higgins introduces Chapin to his deaf-mute wife Martha (Judith Evelyn), the woman unexpectedly provides Chapin with an insight into the workings of the Tingler. Martha, you see, is deathly afraid of two things-- germs and blood. When Chapin accidentally cuts himself on a broken saucer, Martha has a veritable panic attack. Her back goes rigid, her eyes bulge from her face, and she passes out on the spot. Higgins tells the doctor that she’s always had this reaction to the sight of blood-- show her even a drop, and she faints dead away. But Chapin knows a faint when he sees one, and what happened to Martha was more akin to a seizure. It occurs to Chapin that Martha, whose lack of a voice obviously prevents her from screaming, may be prevented thereby from releasing the tension caused by the Tingler, and that that tension thus builds up until it overwhelms her system, causing her to lose consciousness. Chapin leaves the Higginses, his mind buzzing with excitement at the implications of his theory.
Chapin’s arrival at his home provides an opportunity for Castle to display his second great talent, his skill at portraying the incredibly fucked-up personal lives of his characters. Warren lives not just with his wife Isabel (Patricia Cutts), but with her sister Lucy (Pamela Lincoln, from Anatomy of a Psycho) as well. Isabel is also Lucy’s legal guardian, and has been since their father died many years ago. What makes this situation fucked up is the fact that Isabel is a selfish, conniving, domineering, amoral bitch; not only is she flagrantly unfaithful to Warren, she’s determined to sabotage Lucy’s burgeoning romance with his assistant, David Morris (Daryl Hickman, who many years later had a busy career as a voice actor in cartoons; he did voices for “Pac-Man”, “Pole Position”, and “Challenge of the Go-Bots”, among others). Even worse, Warren believes that she actually poisoned her father to get her hands on his money. So what keeps this breathtakingly dysfunctional family together? Isabel’s money, of course. She supports Lucy and finances her husband’s private research, using the huge amounts of his time that it sucks up to give her both an excuse and an opportunity to cheat on him. But turnabout, as the saying goes, is fair play, and Chapin decides to play a little trick on Isabel after Lucy and David leave for the night, a trick that will both scratch his itch for revenge and further his research. When Isabel comes home from a night out on the town with one of her sleazy boyfriends, Chapin is waiting for her with a pistol. He orders her into the lab, and tells her that she has a choice: either she stops interfering with Lucy’s life and immediately gives her her fair share of their father’s money, or she “commits suicide” that night. Chapin reminds Isabel that he, a pathologist, will have no trouble “rearranging” things to make her death look self-inflicted, nor for that matter would it be difficult for him to order the exhumation of her father’s body for an autopsy. Organic poisons, as Chapin helpfully informs his wife, take a very long time to break down. Isabel is at first defiant in the face of her husband’s little performance, but it isn’t long before she begins to sense that he may be serious, and that’s when she starts to panic. She tries to flee the lab, and Chapin fires his pistol. Isabel falls-- dead we think at first, but no. Chapin’s gun is loaded with blanks, and Isabel has merely passed out from fright. Her husband wastes no time in setting up his X-ray machine to see if he can photograph the Tingler in action.
The next day, when David comes to the Chapin house to assist Warren in his work, the pathologist has something amazing to show him. He got pictures of the Tingler, alright, and what an ugly son of a bitch it is. In the X-rays he took the night before, Isabel’s spine is gripped by something that the radiation can’t penetrate (something, in other words, as dense as or denser than bone), which bears more than a passing resemblance to a centipede fully as long as a human vertebral column. There’s no doubt about it, the Tingler is a real, solid, physical entity, and from the look of it, it may even be something living, some kind of parasitic organism. Whatever it is, though, screaming seems to destroy it, or perhaps to cause it to be re-absorbed into the surrounding tissues. The implications are staggering, and Chapin is eager to find a way to separate a Tingler from its human host, if such a thing can be done. In the meantime, David has a little something for his boss as well. The younger scientist has brought with him a small vial of a remarkable new drug that has been shown to have extraordinary effects on the human nervous system. The name of this drug: lysergic acid. I think you can see what’s coming. Chapin elects to use the drug on himself in an attempt to induce the sort of fear that activates the Tingler under laboratory conditions, and what follows may very well be the first LSD freak-out scene in cinema history-- and who better to be the first to explore this virgin territory of bad acting than Vincent Price? Words fail me.
I still haven’t quite figured out how to interpret what happens next. The naked facts, as presented in the movie, are that Chapin, who has been speculating about what would happen to a person if they were prevented from screaming when the Tingler reached the peak of its development, returns to the Higgins house, supposedly to treat Martha for the severe nervousness from which she has been suffering ever since she passed out during the doctor’s last visit. When he is alone with Martha, Chapin injects her with something, and then goes downstairs and gives Higgins a prescription for barbiturates. After Chapin leaves, Martha has what looks for all the world like a really bad acid trip, in which she is menaced by a wide array of knife- and axe-wielding zombie-like creatures before locking herself in the bathroom. It is here in the bathroom that the first of several magnificent gimmicks associated with The Tingler makes its appearance. When Martha turns around, she finds the sink and the bathtub filled with-- that’s right-- blood! And we know it’s blood, because it practically glows the most lurid red you’ve ever seen. You see, Castle filmed this scene and this scene alone on color stock, but before the cameras rolled, he had the set-dressers and makeup crew go over everything that would appear in the shot in a meticulous effort to simulate the appearance of monochrome film. The result is an incredible image in which only those gallons of gore in the bathtub appear in color. When a blood-soaked arm emerges from the tub, it’s more than the poor woman can handle, and she collapses on the bathroom floor. A moment later, we see Chapin receiving a phone call from Higgins; Martha is dead.
Those are, as I said, the naked facts. They seem to point to Chapin deliberately killing Martha so as to be able to get his hands on a Tingler. On the other hand, we will later see Higgins packing up a steamer trunk with many of the props used by the creatures in Martha’s “acid trip,” most damningly, a rubber mask in the form of a zombie’s face. And indeed, Higgins will come right out and admit his culpability to Chapin. So is Chapin’s apparent involvement in Martha’s death a red herring? If so, how do you explain the partial-color sequence in the bathroom, which is clearly meant to suggest hallucination? Or did Chapin really intend to kill Martha, but Higgins got to her first, handing Chapin an air-tight alibi in the process? Like I said, I still haven’t figured that one out.
Anyway, Chapin has Higgins bring Martha to his lab, where he performs an autopsy. And what should he find wrapped around the woman’s spine but a Tingler! The thing is even uglier in person than it is in an X-ray. Sitting there in Chapin’s hands, it looks less like a centipede, and more like a little-known organism called an onychophoran, a creature that is widely regarded as representing an intermediate evolutionary stage between annelids (the segmented worms) and arthropods (insects, spiders, crustaceans, centipedes, and the like)-- picture a really huge, black earthworm with lots of squat little legs. Until the thing starts moving, this is actually a pretty damn good special effect, by 1959 standards. Unfortunately, sooner or later, it does start to move, dragged across the floor on the end of a string by somebody standing off-camera. And when it attacks somebody, Castle employs the tried and true technique of having the creature’s victim “subtly” manipulate it with his or her own hands while pretending to struggle with it. Ed Wood would have approved heartily.
The point at which things start to go to hell in a hand-basket comes when Isabel attempts to use the Tingler to kill Chapin. She drugs him, and then sets free the creature, which has thus far been kept locked up in a portable animal cage. Chapin is saved at the last minute when Lucy comes home, sees the Tingler, and screams in horror at the top of her lungs. Apparently, the Tingler doesn’t have to be inside you to be weakened by a scream. The next day, Chapin concludes (after determining the apparent indestructibility of the Tingler) that the thing must be put back into Martha’s body, on the theory that something about the chemical changes that take place in a dead body must be lethal to Tinglers. It is now that we learn of Higgins’s role in the death of his wife, and it is now that the Tingler escapes from Chapin, and gets loose in Higgins’s theater.
Which brings us to the real reason that most people remember this movie. As the Tingler creeps about the darkened theater looking for victims, shortly after it tries to crawl up a woman’s leg, the film suddenly seems to break. The screen goes white, and across the blank screen crawls the silhouette of the Tingler. Then, Vincent Price comes on in voice-over, informing us that the Tingler is loose in our theater, and that we must scream as loud and as hard as we can, or we will fall prey to the monster. The movie helpfully coaches us, providing a series of voice-overs from supposed moviegoers, saying things like, “AAARRRRGHHHH!!!!!! It’s over here!!!!!!” After a few moments of this, Price tells us that our screams have vanquished the Tingler, and that it is now safe to resume watching the movie, which is by this point pretty much over anyway. Now this would have been a pretty slick piece of huckstering in and of itself, but Castle wasn’t content to leave it at that. Remember that “Percepto” thing I mentioned? Remember how Castle told us that certain members of the audience would physically feel the effects of the Tingler? Well, when The Tingler was first released, Castle had selected theaters wire some of their seats with little electrical buzzers to zap the people sitting in them at intervals during the Tingler’s attack on Higgins’s theater. Now if modern exploitation filmmakers had half that much wit or imagination, I might actually consider paying the prices that today’s first-run theaters charge for admission.
Even without Percepto, though, The Tingler is one of the most entertaining horror flicks of the late 1950’s. As in Castle’s previous The House on Haunted Hill, it seems to take place in a mad parallel universe where nobody can be trusted, where dirty tricks and deadly double-crosses are simply accepted as an ordinary part of daily life. Vincent Price, unsurprisingly, seems perfectly at home in this world, his vast experience with villainous roles serving him very well here. Warren Chapin, after all, is The Tingler’s hero by default only, the least despicable-- and therefore most sympathetic-- of an entire rogue’s gallery of shady, dysfunctional characters. The sense one gets that this is not really the world we live in is important to The Tingler’s success, for it makes it rather easier to swallow the movie’s patently absurd premise when everything else about the story feels so fundamentally out of whack. Another contributing factor is the sheer, gleeful abandon with which Castle seems to have approached the project. I think this, more than anything else, explains my probably inordinate love for Castle’s movies. The man was obviously having fun, and his style of directing makes that fun contagious. You feel like a spoilsport if you try to evaluate something like The Tingler according to the usual critical standards, and I quickly learned that it was far more fulfilling not to argue with a William Castle flick.