Vincent Price canoodles in fear with a lab skeleton.

Gimmicks Aside, The Tingler is Fucking Fantastic

  • Subscribe!

    subscribe
  • William Castle, King of B-movies, loved gimmicks. Giving audience members a certificate for a one-thousand-dollar life insurance policy in case Macabre caused them to die of fright. Red/blue glasses so you could see or hide the ghosts in 13 Ghosts. A forty-five-second “fright break” to leave and get a refund if you were too scared to watch the rest of Homicidal.

    The Tingler had a great gimmick: “Percepto!” A selection of seats would be wired with buzzers, so members of the audience would be given small electric shocks during the film. “I feel obligated to warn you that some of the sensations,” William Castle says in a James Whale’s Frankenstein-style introduction, “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.” If you have ever heard of The Tingler, everything you know about it probably starts and ends with that gimmick. And that’s a shame, because it is so much more than that. It’s an incredible film in its own right.

    The Tingler has one of the most bananas premises of all time: what if the tingle you get down your spine when you’re scared was a creature? Vincent Price plays Dr. Warren Chapin, a pathologist who theorises that while experiencing extreme fear, a parasitic creature grows on the spine. He’s right. This “tingler” feeds off its host’s fear, and shrinks and is weakened if the host screams.

    It’s an insane premise, but The Tingler plays it totally straight. That’s not to say it’s not a funny film: it is, both thanks to its fun, campy tone and genuinely good gag-writing. But The Tingler never winks. Too many modern films preemptively make fun of themselves in a way that’s supposed to be charming but is more likely the opposite, like Spider-Man laughing at Doc Ock’s name being Otto Octavius. The Tingler simply takes its insane premise as read and expects you to go with it, and all the better for it. Vincent Price is, as usual, entirely committed to the role even at its most ludicrous. The tingler itself is fantastically designed: resembling a centipede the length and thickness of an arm, it has an organic feel that makes it sincerely creepy.

    Chapin shares his theory with Ollie (Philip Coolidge), who he meets when he shows up to his brother-in-law’s autopsy. Even though the brother-in-law was executed via electric chair, his vertebrae are cracked – the work of the tingler. Chapin hasn’t seen one for himself, because he would need to be able to examine the body immediately after the person dies of fright. By the time the bodies arrive for autopsy, all that’s left of the tingler is the destruction it’s left in its wake.

    Ollie immediately seems like a weird guy – “I could understand going to a friend’s funeral…” Chapin tells him – but they get along fairly well. Chapin gives him a ride home: he lives beside the cinema he runs with his wife, showing only silent movies. Ollie’s wife, Martha (Judith Evelyn) is deaf and mute, which raises an interesting wrinkle: because she cannot make a sound, she cannot scream and release her “fear tensions”. She faints at the sight of blood.

    Like Jeffrey Combs in Re-Animator two and half decades later, Vincent Prince’s Chapin has incredibly ominous energy, a hero so weird and terrifying that the villain has to be a million times more evil to play opposite him. His desire to see the tingler for himself makes Chapin all the more threatening. It looks like he’s killed his wife – he shoots at her and she falls – but he just fired blanks to scare her. (Her fright gives him a chance to take an x-ray, and so he gets to see the tingler in some form.) This means that when Martha dies, we instantly suspect him.

    Alone in their apartment, Martha sees some crazy shit: a decaying corpse sits up in her bed, a hand wields an axe at her, doors, windows and rocking chairs move apparently of their own accord. Most strikingly, in this otherwise black-and-white film, bright red blood pours out of the taps in the bathroom. A bloody red hand rises out of the bath filled with blood. For this effect, Castle used colour film for the sequence and painted the set black, white and grey, as well as putting grey make-up on Judith Evelyn. It’s so well done, the colour footage of the painted sets and Evelyn in grey make-up doesn’t stick out at all from the black-and-white film stock that surrounds it. Blood coming out of the pipes is a horror staple – it is probably a good 50% of The Evil Dead, and blessedly so – but when the red colour is so unexpected, it compounds the shock of it wonderfully.

    Unable to scream, the tingler kills her. And so Chapin gets to see one in the flesh.

    Chapin extracts the tingler during the autopsy, but it’s not long before it gets loose. It tries to kill Chapin in his sleep, only stopped when his wife sees it and screams. It gets loose in Ollie and Martha’s cinema, allowing the movie to do a bunch of fun stuff with the space of the actual cinema you’re watching it in. (Another reason, along with the buzzer gimmick, for what I’d give to see The Tingler on the big screen.)

    William Castle was a gimmick guy. The Tingler is a gimmick movie. But reducing it to its gimmick, no matter how great a gimmick it is, is fucking over a fantastic horror movie: not (just) a campy bit of fun, but a genuinely scary, inventive and clever film.

    subscribe
    Categories
    Movies, Review
    Social