The Tingler

The Tingler (1959) movie poster

(1959) dir. William Castle
viewed: 11/07/08

Back in my childhood, I watched monster movies and horror films, and I scanned the TV Guide each week to see what would be playing late Friday or Saturday nights or Saturday afternoons.  I read a couple of issues of Famous Monsters of Hollywood and any books I could find about horror films and movie monsters.  I remember in one book or magazine, a still photo from The Tingler, starring Vincent Price, an image of a hand rising out of a bathtub of black ooze with a frightened woman in the background.  I noted to myself that this was something to look out for.

At some point, I can’t remember exactly when, I finally did see The Tingler, and while at that time I didn’t know anything about William Castle and I can’t say how much of it I found campy or ridiculous, but I remembered liking it very well.  I’ve kept that memory in my brain all these years, that I always really liked The Tingler, and as I have gained knowledge about cinema and the film and William Castle, that I probably had pretty good taste, even back then.

The Tingler is a B-movie, for sure.  Price is a scientist who discovers some “thing” that grows along the human spine when a person becomes frightened, but this thing disappears when someone screams and fear is “released”.  This is what makes one’s spine “tingle,” thus the title.  And also, as the film likes to remind the audience, when you scream for your life…you really are.

Because after performing an autopsy on a deaf mute woman who had been frightened to death, unable to scream, her tingler is removed and it’s a big lobster-like centipede that goes around grabbing people by the throat until they scream.

There is much about this film that is fascinating, some of which you wouldn’t necessarily know by just watching the film.  Castle was a known showman, whose films didn’t end in the editing.  For the showing of this film, Castle had “plants” in the audience who would pretend to faint and have to be removed by people in doctor’s uniforms.  But more than that, a few chairs in the theater were rigged with electrical vibrations, which were meant to simulate “the tingling” sensation, making the whole cinematic experience much more of an event.

But the values of the film are not limited either to the film or the past way in which it was shown.  But there is much more.  The film utilizes a number of techniques that end up being quite effective.  At one point in the film, the tingler gets loose in a movie theater.  Price looks a little off-camera, but toward the audience and states: “The Tingler is loose in the theater!”, which works on the double level of true to the narrative, but he’s looking down on the audience, too.  The screen goes black and Price tells the audience to watch out, the Tingler is loose, and to “scream for your lives”.  This is followed by a myriad of screaming voices, after which Price then instructs that it is now okay, that the Tingler has been paralyzed by the audience’s screams and everything is okay.  We can re-start the film again, again referring to the silent film shown on screen and The Tingler itself.

While this might sound just purely silly, there is in the setting a sort of metacritical reflexive sensibility in this whole sequence.  The Tingler gets loose in a theater showing that shows silent films and at one step further, the Tingler actually gets into the projection booth and breaks the film, then crawling across the now entirely white screen in silhouette, before attacking the projectionist and giving another sequence of completely black screen.  The Tingler plays with the audience, plays with the notion of the cinematic experience, breaking out of the film, breaking the film, just attacking, in a sense, the whole event and process of watching a movie.

Castle’s visual play is not even limited to this, but it the sequence in which the deaf-mute woman is frightened to death, in a sort of “haunted house” series of surprises, she ultimately walks into the bathroom in which the faucet on the sink if pouring blood, bright red blood in an otherwise entirely black-and-white film.  And then there is the tub, which in color is also luridly red and the hand is not coming out of ooze, but out of thick nearly day-glo red.  I think that there is yet another reference in a discussion in an earlier part of the film about how films are all made in “color these days”, furthering the self-reference and playing further with that notion.

And if this all wasn’t enough, The Tingler, according to some of the historians, is the first time that LSD is used in a movie.  In trying to frighten himself, Vincent Price injects himself with a massive dose of LSD, then not an illegal substance, but one still considered as dangerous as “nitroglycerin”.

It’s a brilliant film, a brilliant, amazing B-movie from one of the best B-movie men in the business.  And the further depths of the film make it almost Modernist is its breaking apart of the cinematic process.  It’s terrific.  I was a little shocked to read that it was listed among The 100 Most Amusingly Bad Movies Ever Made in The Official Razzeie® Movie Guide.  That just goes to show how some people have no sense of quality.

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