What fears lie within the heart of man? Can fear actually kill you, and if so, is it in the form of a parasitic slug that crushes your spine and takes your life? The only appropriate answers would be: a) many, b) yes, and c) most definitely – especially if gimmick master William Castle has anything to say about it. The Tingler (1959) manages to rise above the hucksterism (although it’s there in spades) to slyly comment on marital relations and creepy body horror in a very entertaining B movie setting.
Coming off the success of House on Haunted Hill earlier in the year, Columbia Pictures was eager to stay in the Castle business and quickly green lit the film, bringing him back to direct, Vincent Price to star, and Robb White (Macabre) to write. Released at the end of July, The Tingler did well with audiences looking for a fun and immersive experience, something critics derided at the time as a cheap ploy to get asses in seats. Well, yeah. Isn’t that where they’re supposed to be?
It is sometimes hard to look past the ephemera of Castle’s films and just take them as is: schlock wrapped in an earnestness to please. I think that’s a noble endeavor, and The Tingler works better than most thanks to committed performances and a flat out weird, witty script.
Warren Chapin (Price) is a pathologist studying fear; when he does the autopsy on a recently fried convict, he and the man’s brother in law, Ollie Higgins (Philip Coolidge – North by Northwest) discover a hard, intertwining growth on the dead man’s spine. After a series of x-rays, Warren shares the findings with his assistant David (Darryl Hickman – Network), and together they come up with the theory that the only thing that stops the growth of “The Tingler” (as Warren dubs it) is the release of fear through screaming.
Meanwhile, Warren’s wife Isabel (Patricia Cutts – The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) isn’t making things easy on the homefront; tired of Warren’s studies and lack of attention, she spends most of her time in a drunken and floozified (?) state, romping around with every boy in town. When Ollie’s deaf and mute wife (Judith Evelyn – Rear Window) dies of fright in their apartment above the movie house they own, Warren discovers her tingler is the size of a Weiner dog and twice as angry (10 times as angry? I don’t know. How angry does a Weiner dog get?). Looking to get rid of her betrothed, Isabel tries to kill Warren with the loosed creature. Will she succeed?
William Castle’s films were often described as immersive, because they were; ambulances out front of the theatre, “death” insurance policies, flying skeletons on wires. The Tingler though has a couple of the best conceits: in larger theaters, certain seats were rigged underneath with small motors turned on at specific points in the film to create a tingle or hum for the audience member. What really adds to the experience though is picturing oneself in the theatre upon release: near the end, Warren and Ollie chase the tingler to Ollie’s theatre below and the screen goes black; Warren then tells everyone in the crowd to scream to ward off the monster – a true meta moment, as the viewer is brought directly into the action, all the while Castle gets to comment on the rush of scary movies. It’s a neat trick, and one Joe Dante would pay tribute to in Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990).
The body horror cannot be dismissed or downplayed either; there’s a scene in silhouette of Warren removing the creature from Ollie’s wife that plays as quite invasive while only being suggestive. A little early to call it a trend, but “they came from within” has a strong progenitor with our outsized, bulbous centipede.
So the horror is somewhat effective, as far as throat-clutching graboids go; even stronger is the familial drama that plays out between Warren and Isabel, as they throw verbal daggers at each other, rarely missing. The snark is strong with both, and it’s very amusing to see Cutts try to slice Price down, even as he reciprocates. This is no melodrama, but rather a commentary on the soapy nature of such.
This is the cast to deliver it, too - or definitely Price, Cutts, and Coolidge at least; Hickman and his fiancé Lucy played by Pamela Lincoln (Anatomy of a Psycho) are little more than cutouts from the reaction bin – not their fault, it’s just not where the juice is.
And that’s what is so great about Castle’s films (or some at the very least): there’s juice everywhere; it’s in the flying skeletons, the death waivers, the charged seats. That was his showmanship to the letter: offer more than the audience expects. And sometimes, as with The Tingler, that juice is on the screen as well.
The Tingler is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: SISTERS (1973)