In the late 1950s, horror movie schlockmeister William Castle pioneered interactive in-theater gimmicks as a way to drum up audience cash (and buzzy word-of-mouth) at a time when television threatened to steal away the same moviegoers who had made the 1930s and ’40s boom years for the U.S. film industry. Whereas other filmmakers of the time embraced widescreen camera lenses, vivid Technicolor and roadshow extravagance, Castle went straight for the guts–or in this case, the spine.
The Tingler (1959) is a glorious exaltation of big screen gimmickry. The film features Vincent Price as Dr. Warren Chapin, a mad scientist (what else!) who discovers that extreme fear is caused by a parasite attached to the spine. The only way to stop the “Tingler” (so called because it causes that tingling sensation you get on your spine when you feel afraid) is to let out a blood-curdling scream, killing the monster and detaching it from your spine. In a Hitchcockian turn, Castle himself appears in the prologue of the picture, warning the audience: “Remember this: a scream at the right time may save your life!”
The film marks the second collaboration between Price and Castle, the first being the slightly less ridiculous (but no less delightfully spooky) House on Haunted Hill. Here again, Price is in classic form, delivering pages of pseudo-psychological dialogue with authority and doling out some truly beautiful insults to his philandering wife. The script by Robb White features many memorably silly moments, made even funnier by hindsight. For example, The Tingler is notable for being the first movie to feature an acid trip. When Dr. Chapin’s sister-in-law warns his naive assistant against Chapin against dropping the still-legal drug to induce extreme paranoia, the assistant replies incredulously: “It’s not a drug, it’s an acid!”
The TCM Film Festival and the Egyptian theater (where the film was screened) added an extra treat to the acid trip, projecting hallucinogenic designs on screen during Price’s hilariously melodramatic performance. The visual effects flashed on and off during Price’s close-ups, but would disappear when the film cut to another angle. The best part of it was when the timing was just slightly off, leaving these Day-Glo designs on the screen during a mundane shot of a chair or a laboratory table.
As Dr. Chapin, Price is in full creeper mode, conducting his sideline fear experiments on the corpses of recently executed criminals. During one such autopsy, he meets a man named Coolidge who is strangely intrigued by Chapin’s experiments. The scene, wherein the two men cheerfully converse while Price dissects the corpse (of Coolidge’s brother-in-law, no less!) is perversely absurd; at the end of the clunky exposition, Price gives the man a ride home like it’s the most natural thing in the world. We learn that Coolidge’s wife Martha is a deaf-mute, an interesting piece of intel that flips a switch in Chapin’s twisted brain: a deaf-mute can’t scream. If Chapin can scare Martha to death, he might finally have physical evidence the Tingler exists.
No one in this picture has any compunction about preying on the disabled, but at least Judith Evelyn, who plays Martha Coolidge, lends a real gravity to the plight of her character. Evelyn makes you feel for Martha and the scene where a mysterious assailant springs all manner of traps to frighten poor Martha to death is legitimately distressing, not least of all because of her performance. The scene also features a very effective Castle gimmick: when Martha runs into the bathroom, a bloody hand rises from a sink filled with lurid red blood. The whole movie was filmed in black and white except for this scene, which was filmed in color, while the set was painted in black and white and Judith Evelyn made up with gray makeup to mimic grayscale. The effect is genuinely shocking, something I was not expecting. The only downside is that scene is of poorer quality than the rest of the picture, apparently because it comes from a different, degraded print. The rest of the movie was projected in crystal clear 35mm.
More famous than the bloody sink, however, are two classic Castle scares: EMERGO! and PERCEPTO! The first made its debut earlier than same year in House of Haunted Hill, during which a skeleton on a string was released from the ceiling of the theater, dropping in front of the screen at the exact right moment to scare the beans out of the audience. The Tingler recycles this gag and it’s just as effective. I’m particularly fond of the juxtaposition between Vincent Price’s exaggerated expression of terror and the spindly, little plastic skeleton.
But, by far the most famous and ingenious effect is PERCEPTO! Castle had theaters playing the film rigged with “electric” buzzers that would vibrate the seats during the climax of the film. The Tingler has escaped into the silent movie theater owned by Coolidge (don’t ask me how, as it’s basically a giant centipede on a string). The little monster slithers into the projection booth, upsetting the film and crawling “across” the screen. Castle cuts to view full of the film-within-a-film in time to see the shadow of the hideous creature lurch across the screen. The audience in the silent movie theater screams. The audience in the Egyptian theater screamed. The in-movie theater turns off all its lights, the screen goes black for several seconds and then Dr. Chapin/Vincent Price is heard informing both audiences: “Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic. But scream! Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose…in this theater!!” Just then, a few audience members in the Egyptian started screaming and people flooded the theater floor, brandishing flashlights, running around and screaming, “The Tingler is loose! Scream! Scream for your life!” The seats started buzzing with PERCEPTO! and an hysterical man ran around the theater, writhing against a prop “Tingler” wrapped around his neck. The entire affair was goofy, hilarious, and probably the most fun I had at the TCM Film Festival. The screening stayed true to Castle’s inventive, on-the-fly intentions. The atmosphere was less of a serious film festival and more like a home movie projected on a sheet with all your friends doing the sound effects. It captured the joy of the midnight movie experience.