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The Tingler (1959)
The Tingler has all the necessary ingredients for a good William Castle movie: a goofy premise, a tone that is both camp and macabre, a great cast, and an outrageous marketing gimmick. It also has some unexpected deeper levels, contained within the symbolism of both the gimmick and the monster. The Tingler is also an important milestone in a career that led to Castle being recently dubbed "the godfather of interactive cinema."1
Vincent Price plays Dr. Warren Chapin, a pathologist who is researching the effects of fear on the body. One effect in particular is definitely starting to interest him - he thinks the tingling in your spine when you are scared is caused by a parasitic creature. The Tingler, as the creature is called, grows near your vertebral column and can only be killed off by releasing the tension with a bloodcurdling scream. Chapin manages to capture a specimen for study, but all hell breaks loose when the creature escapes into a crowded movie theater.
Castle learned his trade directing B-movies at Columbia, before setting out on his own in the late 50's, mortgaging his house to raise the cash to make Macabre. Being an independent producer, without the marketing machine of a big studio to back him up, he knew he needed something to make his movies stick out from the pack. In The House on Haunted Hill, he experimented with a certain level of interaction with the audience by having a skeleton seemingly come out of the screen and fly out over the heads of the moviegoers.2 Now with The Tingler, he took it one step further with a gimmick he called Percepto, wiring up certain seats in the theaters with joy buzzers that would be activated at a precise point.3 The point in question is the scene towards the end, where the screen has gone black and the voice of Vincent Price is begging the audience at the cinema in the film to scream for their lives, because the Tingler is loose in the theater.
The audience had already been subtly primed for this by Castle himself, who opens the film directly addressing them with a short monologue, warning that several individuals will be sharing in the physical sensations of the characters on-screen, and the only way to save yourself from harm is by "...opening your mouth and letting rip with all you've got...". By the time we get to the Percepto moment, although Price is supposed to be talking to the people in the film, his words are quite obviously aimed at the real-life cinema audience; and rather than just passively watching the events on screen, they are, if only for a minute or two, made to feel like they are being dragged into them. The idea that the monster could burst out of the screen, break into our world, and attack us has been explored, symbolically in Hitchcock's Rear Window (if you substitute the apartment block for a cinema screen and the killer that lives there for a monster), or literally in films such as Lamberto Bava's Demons. Horror films allow us to confront dark themes and often repulsive scenarios, but always with the knowledge that the screen is a barrier, keeping whatever is occurring on there at bay. By using Percepto, Castle pulls off a wonderfully crafty subversion of this.
Although the Tingler itself, being a very cheap, very wobbly, special effect, is pretty lame and laughable, the idea behind it is brilliant. The human body being violated by a creature growing inside pre-dates Alien. However, unlike the chest bursting creature from that film, this is not a violation by an outside force, but an attack from within the raging torrent of the human psyche, perhaps more akin to Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, where the real monster is within us. Freud had a similar idea with the Id, a chaotic place in the mind, where primitive urges and drives reign. This leads on nicely to the idea, popular in Freudian psychoanalysis of Catharsis (a term literally meaning "purging"). This is where patients are urged to confront and re-experience repressed traumas and other events from the past and release them from the unconscious.3 These theories peaked in 1970 with the publication of Arthur Janov's (perfectly named as far as discussion of this film is concerned) "The Primal Scream", which encouraged the idea of shouting and screaming, as valid parts of the therapeutic process.5 If we keep in mind the "letting rip" that Castle referred to at the start of the film, and think of the Tingler as the trauma, then the metaphor is obvious; and, of course, horror movies themselves are the perfect medium for us to explore and confront such psychiatrist-friendly subjects as sex, death, the family, and our place in society.
In case you're worried that the whole film is little more than an extended psychotherapy lesson, then you can relax, as, from a pure entertainment point of view, The Tingler has plenty going for it. This is largely down to Castle going to the trouble of getting a decent script written; the scenes between Chapin and his wife are raised above standard soap opera melodramatics by some razor sharp dialogue that Price clearly relishes getting his teeth into ("I was going to use this cat for my experiment, but you made a much better subject. Have you two met, in the same alley perhaps?"). Touches like this give The Tingler, like all of Castle's best work, a ghoulish sense of humor.
As a character, Chapin is something of a change from the usual archetypal mad scientist. While genuinely concerned for the welfare and future of his wife's younger sister (who is also his lab assistant's fiancée), his interest in the rest of the human race is limited to how much they can further his experiments. He puts up with endless torments and humiliation from his wife, because he needs her money to finance his work. When he does pull a gun on her, it is not done in a fit of jealous anger, but as part of a calculated scheme to induce fear (and therefore a Tingler) in her.
The Tingler was not designed to be viewed at home on DVD, but in a theater full of people. William Castle used his tricks to sell not just a movie that you watched alone, but an experience, that you immersed yourself in, sometimes participated in, and shared with a room full of people. He was not an artist or an auteur, and never claimed to be, unlike Hitchcock, who liked box office success but also craved credibility. No matter how groundbreaking and original Castle's gimmicks were, they were done purely to sell tickets (not that Castle would have disagreed with any pretentious musings if he thought they would help him sell a few more). Nowadays, despite being stripped of the interactive elements of the viewing experience, watching The Tingler is still great fun, thanks to the kooky plot, great cast, some wonderfully bitchy dialogue, and a gleeful streak of ghoulishness that I think perfectly reflects the character of the film's director.
This review is part of our Shocktober Classics 2009: Staff Screams event.
3 Weaver, Tom. Science Fiction Stars and Horror Heroes: Interviews with Actors, Directors, Producers and Writers of the 1940s through 1960s. McFarland Press, 1991.
4 Janov, Arthur. The Primal Scream. Dell Publishing, 1970.