The following is a review of “The Tingler” (1959), as part of the William Castle blogathon hosted by other lovers of all horror films, at The Last Drive In and Goregirl’s Dungeon. Be sure to check out more from the historic and frightening career of one of the greatest showmen in movie history.
“I am William Castle, the director of the motion picture you are about to see. I feel obligated to warn you that some of the sensations—some of the physical reactions which the actors on the screen will feel—will also be experienced, for the first time in motion picture history, by certain members of this audience. I say ‘certain members’ because some people are more sensitive to these mysterious electronic impulses than others. These unfortunate, sensitive people will at times feel a strange, tingling sensation; other people will feel it less strongly. But don’t be alarmed—you can protect yourself. At any time you are conscious of a tingling sensation, you may obtain immediate relief by screaming. Don’t be embarrassed about opening your mouth and letting rip with all you’ve got, because the person in the seat right next to you will probably be screaming too. And remember—a scream at the right time may save your life.”
Not a bad set-up to a film, huh? This is the warning that audiences would receive if they were brave enough to venture into a dark theater during the last days of July, 1959. Is a warning such as this necessary for viewers of the film? No- it’s a just part of the magic that happens when the innovative William Castle decides he wants to do more than just make a movie- he wants to give his audience an experience. An unforgettable experience.
In the film, Dr. Chapin (Vincent Price) is a pathologist obsessed with discovering what physically happens to someone when they are scared. He meets a movie theater owner, Ollie (Philip Coolidge), whose wife, Martha (Judith Evelyn), is both deaf and dumb. She also has a fear of blood, and when she witnesses Chapin cut his hand open, her fear makes her body go rigid, but because she cannot scream to release the tension within her, she continues to stiffen until she faints.
Chapin is fascinated by her reaction and goes home to share these findings with his assistant (Darryl Hickman) who also happens to be engaged to Chapin’s sister-in-law (Pamela Lincoln). They are both intrigued by Chapin’s discovery as well, unlike his own wife (Patricia Cutts), who deeply hates her husband and has turned into an adulterous, bitter woman.
Determined to make a breakthrough in his work, Chapin goes to extremes to be able to examine a subject while still scared. After terrifying his ridiculous wife until she passes out, he takes X-rays that show a parasite on her spinal cord, which he names the tingler. After she is no longer scared, the tingler disappears. The one sure way to make a tingler go away is to release a scream. In order to further his work, Chapin must find a subject that he can literally “scare to death”. If only he knew someone (like a deaf and dumb- easily frightened woman) that when scared, couldn’t release her fear by screaming.
I’ve heard people complain about the ridiculous plot, but not me. I actually think it’s one of the most original and creative ideas to come out of 1950’s horror films. Robb White wrote the screenplay for this and four other William Castle films. They seemed to understand one another, giving their collaborations the perfect blend of screams and laughs.
Anyways, it’s not the story or the screenplay, or even the acting, that makes this film so good. Heck, it isn’t even the directing, which despite being some of Castle’s better work, still lacks in quality and seems to be more comparable to Ed Wood than say Val Lewton. The brilliance of “The Tingler” is in Castle’s ability to get the audience personally involved in the film. So often you’ll hear someone watching a horror movie say, “Don’t worry, it’s just a movie.” That’s not the case here. Throughout the film the audience becomes a character. Castle carefully planned the film’s climax to get the audience thinking they were going to be attacked by the parasite, and then just for fun, he created an easy way for everyone to be safe- screaming. During the film’s most terrifying moments, the tingler has crawled down into the movie theater run by Ollie and his wife. The tingler goes into the booth, shutting down the projector. The screen goes black- the theater is silent, until Vincent Price and his “spine-tingling” voice can be heard speaking to the theater full of moviegoers (and those of us sitting in our darkened living rooms),
“Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic. But scream! Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in this theater!”
How intuitive to know and understand that it’s far scarier to feel as if you’re part of the suspense and not just watching as an observer. Of course William Castle went even further by having planted “screamers” inside theaters, just to get everyone involved, and by placing women dressed as nurses in the lobby to “administer assistance to those who pass out from fear”. He even placed small buzzers know as “Percepto’s” on some seats, giving audience members a little shock, and yet another reason to scream. He truly thought of everything.
We, as movie lovers, always can find ways to agree or argue about the best films or directors. But what about the other guys? The ones who thought outside the box and made films for us to enjoy while sitting in dark, dirty theaters with the musty smell of curtains overpowering the old stale, over-buttered popcorn. William Castle was a revolutionary filmmaker that deserves to be remembered for his numerous contributions to the film industry. With little money and only his imagination, he invented a different way to experience movies, full of fun, laughter and just enough terror to still keep us all afraid of the dark.
I, again, want to thank the hosts of this deliciously wicked blogathon, The Last Drive In and Goregirl’s Dungeon, for coming up with such an incredible and overlooked filmmaker for us to showcase. I am honored to have been invited to participate. Don’t forget to visit either of their sites to read more phenomenal thoughts on the man, the legend, William Castle.