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THE TINGLER (1959)

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"Anything that can exert such tremendous pressure on the spinal column must be something you can see – touch – hold in your hand. It may exist only for a fraction of a second, but during that fraction there’s something inside every frightened person as solid as steel – and probably stronger. Oh, by the way, I think I found a name for it: "The Tingler"…."

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Director: William Castle

Starring: Vincent Price, Philip Coolidge, Judith Evelyn, Patricia Cutts, Darryl Hickman, Pamela Lincoln

Screenplay: Robb White

Click here for the DVD Review

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Synopsis: A convicted murderer is dragged screaming to the electric chair and executed. Dr Warren Chapin (Vincent Price) performs the autopsy. He is interrupted by Oliver Higgins (Philip Coolidge), who was the dead man’s brother-in-law. Warren finds that his subject’s vertebrae are all cracked. He tells Ollie that he has seen this before in people who were completely terrified immediately before death, and that he is conducting research into the nature of fear. When Ollie remarks that the force that Warren is investigating might be what makes the spine tingle, Warren agrees and dubs the force "The Tingler". Warren drives Ollie into town, where he and his wife, Martha (Judith Evelyn), a deaf-mute, own and operate a silent movie theatre. Ollie invites Warren in for coffee, and after a few minutes Martha joins them. She behaves strangely, refusing to shake hands with Warren, and fretting over the money she keeps in a safe. Warren breaks a saucer and cuts his hand while cleaning it up. At the sight of the blood, Martha goes completely rigid, then collapses. Ollie tells Warren that she always faints when she sees blood, but Warren disagrees, diagnosing Martha’s collapse as psychosomatic shock induced by her inability to release her fear by screaming. He treats Martha with smelling salts and when she has recovered, apologises to her and leaves. At home, Warren finds his sister-in-law, Lucy (Pamela Lincoln), waiting for her fiancÚ, David Morris (Darryl Hickman), who is Warren’s assistant. Lucy must tell Warren that his wife, Isabel (Patricia Cutts), is out with another man. She also tells him that she and Isabel, who is her guardian, had an argument over Isabel’s refusal to consent to her getting married. Warren promises to talk to Isabel about it. When David arrives, Warren tells him about Martha Higgins, and the two debate the physical ramifications of her inability to scream. Later that night, Warren sees Isabel through a window; she is kissing another man. When she enters the house, Warren reveals his presence and insists she talk to him. When Isabel reacts contemptuously to his demand that she permit Lucy and David to marry, Warren pulls a gun on her, forcing her into his laboratory. Backing his terrified wife into a corner, Warren shoots twice, and Isabel falls to the ground. Picking up Isabel’s body, Warren lays her on an examination table and x-rays her spine. He then brings Isabel around, telling her that his gun was loaded with blanks, and thanking her for her help with his work. Isabel threatens his life. The next day, Warren shows David the x-rays. They reveal the presence of a strange creature within Isabel’s body, lying along her spine and gripping her vertebrae. It is the physical manifestation of Isabel’s fear: "The Tingler"….

Comments: The Tingler represents the high point of William Castle’s career as gimmick-meister extraordinaire. The film opens with Castle himself doing his best Alfred Hitchcock impression, assuring his audience that, "for the first time in motion picture history!" they will feel "some of the physical reactions" that the characters onscreen do. However, not everyone will feel this – just those people sensitive to these "mysterious electronic impulses". Should anyone feel this "tingling sensation", Castle further explains, there is a way they can defend themselves: by screaming. To cut a long story short, The Tingler was the occasion of the greatest Castle gimmick of all: Percepto! This involved wiring the seats of the cinema with electrical currents, so that at the appropriate point in the film, certain audience members got a mild electrical shock. Not content with this, however, Castle outdid himself by stationing "nurses" in the foyer and planting screamers and fainters in the audience. He also included two truly remarkable sequences in the film: one in which, despite the black-and-white cinematography, blood is suddenly a vibrant red; and another when, the screen going black, Vincent Price’s voice advises the audience members that the Tingler is loose, and that there is only one sure way they can protect themselves: "Scream! Scream for your lives!"

What a wonderful time that must have been to be a film-goer! Can you imagine what it must have been like to see this film cold, with no intimation of what was going to happen? What it was like to be one of the "lucky" ones who experienced Percepto? To be trapped in the dark in a crowded cinema full of excited, screaming people. Oh, man…. I saw The Tingler at a revival cinema some years ago. The audience was small, but enthusiastic. When the picture cut out, and Vinnie told us to scream, we obeyed – in fact, in the immortal words of Bill Castle, we let rip with all we had! But without Percepto (and without the colour insert, now that I think about it), and more importantly, already knowing what was going to happen, it just wasn’t the same. Man, oh man – to have been there at the time…! (By the way, if anyone hasn’t seen Joe Dante’s Matinee, do so immediately. I mean it!)

But even without the gimmicky trappings, The Tingler is a great film. Now, obviously I don’t mean "great" in the Citizen Kane sense of the expression. What I do mean is that The Tingler possesses two vital qualities that sets it apart from 99% of the genre films being churned out of the Hollywood cookie-cutter today. Firstly – it’s fun! Secondly – and this is even more important – it’s a complete original. There’s nothing like The Tingler. No film made before or after it quite matches it for its mix of the imaginative, the creepy, the funny, and the downright weird. Compare it to a film like Bats, which manages to go for ninety-two minutes without having a single original moment. In contrast, The Tingler crams so many original ideas into its eighty-two minutes that it is quite possible for the viewer to travel from go to whoa without even having time to consider that not one single aspect of the story makes the slightest lick of sense. The Tingler itself is, of course, a scientific impossibility, given its remarkable ability to create mass out of nothing. Then there’s the little question of how it got into the human body in the first place, not to mention how it reproduces. What exactly is its relationship with its host? Why on earth should screaming, not just while it is inside its host, but even when it escapes, kill it? And how exactly does it survive outside the human body? None of these questions are ever addressed, and truthfully, it isn’t one bit important. We’re too busy enjoying the Tingler to worry about its biology. And there are a lot of other things to enjoy about this film, too.

First of all, let’s consider how The Tingler uses Vincent Price. It would be going too far to call Warren Chapin the film’s hero, given the extreme dubiousness of much of his behaviour. Even "protagonist" might be pushing it. But it really doesn’t matter. It’s Vinnie, and so we like him, no matter what he does. However, we also distrust him instinctively, and Robb White’s screenplay exploits this feeling in a particularly clever manner. Is there anyone, seeing this film for the first time, who doesn’t think that Warren has shot and killed Isabel? Is anyone, no matter how many times they’ve seen it, entirely convinced that Warren hasn’t shot poor Martha Higgins up with LSD? (Let’s face it: everything that Martha sees couldn’t possibly have been contrived!) Vincent Price’s performance in The Tingler is first rate. He keeps a straight face through the most ludicrous situations, and delivers his preposterous dialogue without giving the slightest hint of just how preposterous he must have considered it. Any lapse in gravity would have killed the film on the spot, but Vinnie carries it off in exemplary fashion. This is not, perhaps, so surprising. What is unexpected, though, is the performance of Patricia Cutts as Isabel. Cutts is an actress I cannot recall seeing in anything else, and about whom I know nothing. Nevertheless, her Isabel is a remarkable creation, matching Vinnie’s Warren Chapin line for line, sneer for sneer, homicidal impulse for homicidal impulse. (One thing about Bill Castle’s films – they were never exactly a shining advertisement for the joys of matrimony!) Some people complain that the Warren/Isabel interludes slow the film down. Not me! – I could listen to those two for hours! The truly marvellous thing about Isabel is not just how unrepentantly bad she is, but that she gets away with it! In the course of the film she’s guilty of serial adultery and attempted murder. It’s also implied that she murdered her father for his money. Despite all this, after her attempt on Warren’s life fails, she simply walks away scott free (leading to the following wonderful exchange: "Warren, Isabel’s gone!" "Oh, Isabel’s always gone!"). Ah, the life of a B-movie leading lady! – that’s the life for me!

Besides Percepto, the other aspect of The Tingler that assures it an odd kind of immortality is that in it Vincent Price takes what is almost certainly the screen’s first LSD trip. Having tried the then-legal drug himself, Robb White wrote it into the script. David Morris obtains a sample for his mentor, handing it over with a casual, "Here’s that prescription you wanted." When Warren observes that it’s "a very interesting drug", David cautions him, "So’s nitroglycerine." (Eh?) Later, Warren wishes that he could frighten himself in order to experience the Tingler himself, but laments that nothing frightens him. (This bit cracks me up. I would have thought that any man married to Isabel would have been living in fear!) In order to experience real fear, therefore, Warren shoots up. (Despite The Tingler being made four years after Otto Preminger’s epoch-making The Man With The Golden Arm, we don’t actually see the injection.) Having read up on the drug in a helpful little booklet entitled "Fright Effects Induced By Injection Of Lysergic Acid LSD25" (the title of which, appropriately enough, is printed on the back of the book, not the front), Warren gives himself twice the recommended dose: "one hundred micro-milligrams". I say again – eh? Is this one hundred micrograms (yike!) or one hundred nanograms (wuss!)? In any case, Warren’s trip gives Vinnie the chance to escape the restraint of the rest of his performance, and really chew the furniture! In typical fifties fashion, Warren’s trip is a bad one. Under the horrified eyes of David and Lucy ("David, what is that drug?" "It isn’t a drug," objects David, obviously in a contrary mood, "it’s an acid."), Warren staggers around, howling "The walls! The walls!", quaking at a skeleton, and finally biting down on his own hand in an effort to prevent himself screaming. It’s to no avail. Consumed by fear, Warren finally screams in terror and collapses – and cinematic history is made!

Another thing I love about The Tingler – and okay, I admit it, I’m sick – is its completely cavalier attitude to autopsies. The off-kilter feel of the film is established early on when Oliver Higgins wanders with the utmost casualness into his brother-in-law’s autopsy. Warren is mildly put out, but carries on with what he’s doing. His immediate discovery is that the dead man’s vertebrae are cracked, leading to the obvious conclusion that Warren’s autopsies are conducted back to front – literally! Having examined the corpse’s backbone, Warren decides he’s seen all he needs to see. He writes out the death certificate – "heart failure due to electrically induced shock" – despite not even getting to the heart, then cleans up and gives Ollie a lift into town, leaving the cut-open corpse lying on a slab in the middle of the room. Classic! Bizarre as this scene is, it is effortlessly surpassed by the events following Martha Higgins’ death. Having found his wife dead on the bathroom floor, Ollie wraps her up in a sheet and carts her over to Warren’s house. Warren offers to perform an immediate autopsy – as you would. Thoughtfully setting up a screen between Ollie and his wife’s body, Warren goes for the spine again. In an absolutely jaw-dropping scene, Warren finds his Tingler, prying the nasty little critter up from Mrs Higgins’ spine. (Despite the light being between Warren and the screen, this event is rendered in a startlingly clear silhouette, making sure that Ollie doesn’t miss a detail.) The Tingler secure, Ollie simply wraps his wife up in her sheet again in order to take her back home, apparently unbothered by the gaping wound down the back of her body; and when he picks her up, we see that she was lying on her back! This idiocy climaxes when Warren has to put the Tingler back into poor Martha’s body in order to kill it. He slips it into place easily enough – even though Martha is again lying on her back! I tell you, I would really like to know what medical school Warren graduated from….

Diverting as all this is, the moment when the Tingler escapes is the highlight of the film. Having decided that the only way to kill the beastie is by putting it back where it came from, Warren tries to find out at which funeral home Ollie has left his wife’s body. Discovering that Ollie has lied to him on this point, Warren puts two and two together and invades Ollie’s apartment just as he is preparing to leave. Finding the paraphernalia with which Ollie frightened his unfortunate wife to death, Warren accuses him of murder. Ollie blunders from excuses to accusations, pointing out that it was Warren who put the idea in his head in the first place. Besides, he argues, Martha had tried on many occasions to kill him. ("You don’t know how it was!" protests Ollie. "I know exactly how it was," replies Warren feelingly.) Meanwhile, the Tingler has pried its way out of its cage, and via a loose floorboard has invaded the cinema underneath the apartment. The Higgins’ silent cinema is one of the film’s most appealing aspects. Lots of people want to see the old films, Ollie tells Warren at one stage, and not just to make fun. They miss the days when a film was a film, and didn’t need Cinemascope or 3-D or stereophonic sound (or, presumably, Percepto) to draw an audience. The film showing throughout (I don’t know why – anybody?) is Henry King’s Tol’able David. As the Tingler invades the cinema, we watch Richard Barthelmess fight his heroic battle against Ernest Torrence. One girl, fascinated by the movie, becomes increasingly irritated with her boyfriend’s grabbiness, until finally she changes seats. Unfairly, it is her leg to which the Tingler then attaches itself. She screams bloody murder, and Warren decides that the best way of preventing a panic is by turning out the lights. Smooth move! Telling the audience that a girl has fainted (and it was of course at this point that one of Castle’s plants would be carted out of the real cinema), Warren flicks the lights back on and he and Ollie continue the search. Before they can find the Tingler, it reveals itself, crawling into the projection booth, stopping the film, getting its silhouette thrown on screen (again with the silhouette!) and attacking the projectionist. Warren again turns off the lights – and here Percepto kicked in! The plants in the audience screamed on cue, and Vinnie’s voice advised the other audience members to do likewise. After an entertaining interlude, things settled down and the rest of the film was shown. Warren and Ollie rescue the projectionist and capture the Tingler, which is returned to whence it came. Despite Ollie’s threats, Warren goes to get the police. (If I were Ollie, I’d simply deny, deny, deny. There is no way they could prove anything in court – not considering what Warren’s testimony would have to be!) But the police never get their chance at Ollie. Fate intervenes in the shape of a kicker ending – which, like everything else about The Tingler, makes no sense whatsoever, but is a bit of a giggle. And thus concludes William Castle’s magnum opus. Would that most of the people working in genre films today could make something half so entertaining….

Footnote: Gather round, children, while Auntie Liz tells a story of her misspent youth. During my second and third years of university, while I was studying invertebrate zoology and parasitology, two of my lecturers were fixated upon an odd little invertebrate known as Peripatus. At the time, this animal was – and as far as I know, still is – considered to be the link between the arthropods and the segmented worms. Usually a couple of centimetres or less long, this charming little creature (which boasts, if I recall correctly, some rather odd dietary and sexual habits) has a segmented body, each segment bearing a stumpy pair of legs and pad-like feet, while its head has a pair of feeler-like projections. Sound familiar?

The first time I ever saw The Tingler was during my third year of uni. When the moment came for Warren Chapin to pry a full-grown Tingler loose from the unfortunate Martha Higgins’ spine, I sat bolt upright, pointed at the TV and shrieked, "Peripatus! It’s Peripatus!" I subsequently showed the film to a uni friend, who also sat bolt upright, pointed, and shrieked, "Peripatus! It’s Peripatus!"

And indeed, the resemblance between the two – size difference aside – is remarkable. Whether screenwriter Robb White modeled his Tingler on Peripatus, or whether the whole thing was merely a more than usually happy piece of serendipity, I’ve never been able to determine. But whatever the explanation, it’s just one more reason why The Tingler holds a very special place in my heart.

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Peripatus

 

YOU be the judge!

 

Special thanks to Dr Freex of The Bad Movie Report and Andrew Borntreger of Badmovies.org for the use of the stills.

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The Tingler

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The Tingler