Written by Robb White
Directed by William Castle
A Columbia Picture
Starring: Vincent Price (Dr. Warren Chapin); Phillip Coolidge (Oliver Higgins); Darryl Hickman (David Morris); Patricia Cutts (Isobel Chapin); Pamela Lincoln (Lucy Stevens); Judith Evelyn (Martha Higgins); William Castle (Himself)
As we’ve already discussed in our look at Mr. Sardonicus, William Castle was a master at many things, filmmaking not being one of them. Oh, he had verve and imagination enough to sell his films and turn them into money-making crowd-pleasers, which is a good thing because without that trait it is doubtful that anyone would’ve bought a ticket. Of course, one shouldn’t run away with the idea that Castle was an incompetent director (this isn’t Ed Wood we’re talking about); his films are no worse than the films that Roger Corman was releasing at the time (and I would argue that many of Castle’s films, including The Tingler, are better) and we are talking about a period of film history where actual scares in popular “scary” films were few and far between, but Castle is looked down on by most film scholars because the selling points of his films tended to be the gimmicks that accompanied the films rather than the films themselves (blood-red popcorn, ghost-viewers, paper skeletons descending from the ceiling). For those who read articles about William Castle (like this one) rather than actually sit down and watch the films, it can seem like his films, once divorced from the in-theater gimmicks, are flat and lifeless. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, as Castle made more and more films, they revealed a man with a gifted imagination in terms of story and effect: one can see a progression from the rather run-of-the-mill situations presented by Thirteen Ghosts and The House On Haunted Hill to films like Strait-Jacket and The Night Walker. The Tingler is a watershed moment for Castle; yes, it’s difficult not to giggle into one’s hand when one of the characters pronounces the name of the creature – The Tingler – with a sense of awe in their voices and there is some degree of motivational confusion around the halfway mark (and Vincent Price’s acid trip has to be seen to be believed – not that you will believe it), but beneath it all is a story that is asking some interesting questions: what is the nature of fear and can someone actually be scared to death? The Tingler takes these ideas and turns them into a fun and relatively suspenseful story.
Dr. Warren Chapin (Vincent Price) is the county coroner who conducts experiments in his home laboratory on fear and its effect on the human body. A tossed-off remark from cinema manager Ollie Higgins (Phillip Coolidge) gives Chapin a name for the phenomenon: the Tingler (that force that makes your spine tingle during times of stress). Chapin’s experiments lead him into some strange situations such as pretending to shoot his unfaithful wife Isobel (Patricia Cutts) and injecting himself with LSD (!) to observe his own reactions in a seemingly real fear situation. These experiments lead him to the conclusion that the Tingler – a seemingly real creature that grows and attaches itself to the spine in moments of fright – can be dissipated by a good healthy scream. This leads Chapin to Ollie’s wife Martha (Judith Evelyn), a deaf-mute who cannot scream her Tingler into submission. When Martha dies after a surrealistic fright, Chapin finds himself with an honest-to-goodness Tingler. But what exactly is it and what was it that actually killed Martha Higgins?
Despite some of its more confusing elements (such as when the Tingler stops attacking Warren Chapin when someone else screams or exactly how Ollie could’ve gotten the bathtub to fill with blood), The Tingler‘s script is an earnest attempt by Castle and writer Robb White to tell an interesting story that has some imagination to it (no real scares, unless you happened to be sitting in one of the special seats during its first run – more on that later). The script does have its flaws; along with the two examples listed above, we also have the character of Isobel disappearing completely from the script after her attempt on Warren’s life (Lucy says she packed her things and left, but it’s her house, for crying out loud), and once we get the twist ending – that it was Ollie who simulated the scares that led to Martha’s death and not a shot of acid from Warren – we can only reflect on how much the better the film would’ve been had Warren been the killer after all. But it also has terrific dialog, most of it coming out of the mouth of the film’s star, Vincent Price. Whether he’s being sarcastic with Ollie about how much pain is involved in an electric chair execution (telling Ollie to try it out, he finishes with “If it hurts, let me know”), threatening Isobel (“This silly little gun could put a hole in your the size of a medium grapefruit”) or chiding Ollie’s attempt to blame the good doctor for his plot to murder Martha (“Just because poisons exist is no excuse for using them to murder someone”), Price is always spot on; his Dr. Warren Chapin is intelligent and fascinating. His area of expertise may have little to no practical use (so the Tingler exists… so what?) but it’s easy to see why he’s obsessed with it. His character may not be the most consistent of men – he’s good-natured one moment and creepy the next – but the way Price plays him just adds to our fascination with him. Even the moment he jokes with David (Darryl Hickman) about being late for his date with Lucy (Pamela Lincoln) exposes his frightening side; he stands in the doorway, frowning, and says “Young man, what do you mean keeping this beautiful girl waiting,” and for a moment we see the Warren Chapin who digs into cadavers looking for the heart of fear. It’s only for a moment and is quickly replaced by the smiling and charming Warren talking excitedly with David about his new theories, but it is this moment that we remember when, later that night, Warren glances out the window at his wife kissing her young lover on the sidewalk. The interesting thing about Castle’s script is that it fools us twice in believing that Warren is capable of murder. His cold voice and stare are all we need to readily accept that he has just shot Isobel, but it turns out to be an elaborate bluff; Warren has shot a blank at her to teach her a lesson (which only hardens her resolve to get back at him) and to x-ray her to find her Tingler. Warren may have a vindictive sense of humor, but this sequence should convince us that he is no killer. But we fall for it again when he gives Martha Higgins a shot of what he says is a sedative but we assume is LSD. What other explanation could there be to the apparent hallucinations that scare the poor, tortured woman to death? (Well, there is another explanation but, as already stated, it defies belief.) Despite Vincent Price’s (deserved) reputation as fright-film’s greatest ham, The Tingler presents him at his best. Still don’t believe me? Take a look at the scene when David studies the x-rays of the Tingler and asks who it is. Warren dodges the question and when David correctly guess “Isobel?”, Warren turns momentarily cold and repeats “I said it doesn’t matter.” On the first viewing, we never really know where Price’s Dr. Warren Chapin stands: charming doctor or psychopathic scientist?
But this film is a lot more than just “the creepy Vincent Price show.” The script attempts (and mostly succeeds) in delivering a collection of characters with real problems and motivations for their actions. Sure, David and Lucy may be just the standard “nice-kids-in-love,” but Isobel is a different story. The film paints her as a villain (her swanky saxophone theme that plays whenever she is onscreen conveys this well enough) but she has her reasons for her villainy: Warren neglects her (which he acknowledges, making him more well-rounded too), and she resents the fact that she is paying for the tools that he uses to ignore her (his laboratory and equipment). Her unfaithfulness is entirely understandable; she only becomes a villain in her treatment of David and Lucy and in the realization that she probably murdered her father to inherit his estate. And while Warren might be malicious in his phony attempt to kill her, Isobel one-ups him by making an actual attempt on his life: spiking his drink and letting the Tingler loose to strangle him in his sleep. Her depravity stretches far beyond the role of the neglected wife revenging herself; more sympathetic is Ollie Higgins, the film’s other naughty devil. Through most of the film’s running time, Ollie seems like nothing more than a poor, hapless joe trying to eke out a living with his strange wife (like Warren and Isobel, it’s easy to wonder how the Higgins wound up together). Even his profession – the proprietor of a silent movie cinema in the 1950s – is geared to get the audience to like him (notice Warren’s look of pleasure when he discovers what Ollie does for a living); a man who brings old classic films to the public can’t have anything but a good heart, right? But Ollie’s got troubles: the theater doesn’t bring in much money, it’s too difficult to run, and his wife is a neurotic, greedy deaf/mute whose brother is a convicted murderer. He seems to take it all in stride, which is why it is so difficult to believe that he is capable of murder (the revelation feels like a last-minute rewrite). Ollie claims that Martha had tried to kill him several times in the past, but it’s a bit difficult to buy it (Martha, despite all her weirdness, doesn’t seem to be capable of murder anymore than her husband and, if Ollie’s claim is true, why did he stick around? His adherence to his marriage vows has even less motivation than Isobel’s off-screen decision to leave Warren). Ollie may have the motivation to kill, but he doesn’t have Isobel’s killer instinct, which is why The Tingler’s denouement seems slap-dash and confused.
But what of the Tingler itself, that multi-limbed, rubbery creature which wobbles and jerks forward by way of a not-incredibly-well-hidden fishing line, and whose tendrils can apparently squeeze the life out of a man? Would it be insane to profess some degree of affection for that obviously inert slab of rubber (wouldn’t you just love to own it and keep on a shelf)? As creatures go, the Tingler will never beat H.R. Giger’s alien in a “Best Cinematic Monstrosity” contest, but the imagination that went into its creation – its many arms which fit so neatly between a man’s vertebrae – cannot be dismissed. And that silly little creature inspired Castle’s most memorable gimmick: Percepto. Castle went all out to sell the scariness of the Tingler in the film’s last ten minutes. He hired actresses to sit in the theater, scream, faint and be carried out by faux-nurses during the film’s first blackout (Price’s voice explains the situation to the audience and tells them to keep calm), he went to the trouble of shooting a black-and-white sequence with deep-red blood as the only color (a marvelous sequence by any standard), got Price to exhort the audience to scream the Tingler into submission during the second blackout, and set off Percepto (small buzzers attached to selected theater seats) to help the audience along. Hitchcock may have seen suspense cinema as a slow, agonizing ordeal for the audience, but it’s clear that Castle saw it as a party; it was fun to be scared, and no one had more fun than William Castle. And that’s what we, as an audience, take away from a viewing of The Tingler: a fun experience with a creepy-looking creature and an even creepier performance (when he’s not charming the socks off you) by Vincent Price. I have no idea if Price considered this film one of his better achievements (considering that he never made another film with Castle, chances are he didn’t), but his fans at least can enjoy his performance in a highly entertaining film with a high-concept monster and an acid trip that (in terms of campiness) puts Roger Corman’s feature-length trip to shame.
And who, among you, can say that they don’t love it when Price says, at the end of the film, “Ladies and gentlemen, just a word of warning. If any of you are not convinced that you have a tingler of your own, the next time you are frightened in the dark… don’t scream.” William Castle was no Hitchcock, but he knew how to please a crowd, and The Tingler was the pinnacle of a fun and fantastic career.
P.S. – Dig the music, you soundtrack fanatics… Von Dexter’s opening theme has a touch of Bernard Herrmann’s main theme from Vertigo without being a complete rip-off. Just one more reason to watch this wonderfully fun film.