From the DVD case: Vincent Price stars as an obsessed doctor who discovers that fear manifests itself as a parasitic creature, which grows on the spinal cords of terrified people. If they scream, the Tingler can be destroyed. If they don’t, it will sever the spinal column and kill them. He successfully isolates and removes the Tingler from a deaf mute (Judith Evelyn) who has been scared to death by her devious husband. Once captured, the Tingler escapes and runs amok in a crowded movie theater. Terror is loose, but can it be stopped? (1959, b&w)
Mark says: There is nary a scene in The Tingler that isn’t filled to the brim with absurdity. Of course, with a William Castle picture (I Saw What You Did, House on Haunted Hill), you don’t expect much else.
Castle was the king of gimmicks and for The Tingler he created “Percepto.” At larger theaters, Castle had one of every ten seats rigged with an electric motor that would buzz and vibrate at just the right moments. The premise being that if audience members screamed, they could escape the clutches of the “Tingler,” thus saving their own lives. A silly gimmick, to be sure, but it must have been wonderful fun.
Vincent Price (The Abominable Dr. Phibes, The Pit and the Pendulum) is Dr. Warren Chapin, a pathologist researching the phenomena of fear. Warren ultimately discovers that the tingle you feel on your spine when you are afraid is an actual living creature that can only be kept at bay by screaming. Warren further postulates that if a person were somehow prevented from screaming, the Tingler would actually kill that person by crushing his/her spine. And that, my friend, is the ridiculous basis of this film.
Price has long been noted for his ability to recite the most outrageous dialog and make it sound plausible. In The Tingler, he is really put to the test. Though you might not always believe what Price is saying, you have to admit that he sure sounds good saying it. Even without the benefit of “Percepto,” Vincent Price makes The Tingler a treat to watch.
Robb White (13 Ghosts) wrote the screenplay, and his script shares common elements with House on Haunted Hill, another film he authored also starring Vincent Price and produced/directed by William Castle. In both films, Price is married to a conniving wench. In House on Haunted Hill his wife is played by the lovely Carol Ohmart, in The Tingler, Vincent’s wife, Isabel, is portrayed by Patricia Cutts. Isabel is such a nasty creature that she poisoned her own father to get at his fortune. Isabel is also openly unfaithful, inspiring some witty banter between the couple:
Warren: “Did you hear what the little husband said to the big wife?”
Isabel: “Is this another one of your oblique jokes?”
Warren: “He said why does the back door slam every time I come in the front door?”
Darryl Hickman plays David Morris, Warren’s youthful assistant who happens to be in love with Isabel’s younger sister, Lucy (Pamela Lincoln). David and Lucy are an attractive pair, but Isabel is against the relationship. Isabel also refuses to dole out any of her father’s fortune to her sister while Lucy is involved with the young pathologist. It takes Warren’s threat of exhuming her father’s corpse for autopsy before she can be convinced to be nicer to the young lovers.
Another key couple in The Tingler are Ollie and Martha Higgins, played respectively by Philip Coolidge (North by Northwest) and Judith Evelyn (Rear Window). Ollie can seem both harmless and sinister. As the story unfolds, we discover that Ollie has a great potential for evil. Martha is a deaf mute who suffers from OCD. She constantly has to reassure herself that her cash is locked securely in its safe, and she washes her hands in an obsessive-compulsive manner. She also has an incredible phobia of blood, tensing up and fainting whenever she catches a glimpse of the fluid. Together, Ollie and Martha operate a theater that exclusively plays silent films.
Warren is immediately intrigued with Martha, a woman so capable of terror, yet not having a means to scream. It is hinted that Warren considers using unscrupulous measures to torment Martha so he can capture and study a Tingler first hand. When Martha is literally frightened to death, a little later in the movie, we fear Warren may have had something to do with it. Again, Price plays the ambiguity of his role with perfection.
The Tingler itself is obviously a cheap piece of plastic pulled along by (sometimes visible) wire. It seems to be a cross between a lobster and a centipede. I assure you, your cat has coughed up scarier things.
There are a few other scenes worth mentioning. First, in an attempt to scare himself, Warren takes some LSD, making history as the first onscreen acid trip. However, far from being frightening, Price’s hammy acting imbues the scene with a comic flavor. Still, it’s a fine piece of entertainment.
Of course, the highlight of the movie is when the Tingler escapes in the crowded movie theater. The lights go down and Price’s voice shouts, “Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic! But scream! Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in this theater!” Obviously, this is when the projectionist would push the “shock button” and theater patrons would be subjected to “Percepto.” As an added bonus, the shadow of the Tingler crawls across the movie screen while the audience is “screaming for their lives.” Stupid, maybe, but I sure wish I could have experienced it.
In another scene, Martha wakes up to find a disfigured man with a hatchet in her room. As she flees the intruder, she finds herself in the bathroom. At this point in the film there is a color sequence. The movie is still in black and white, but the bathroom faucet is running with bright, red blood. Also, the bathtub is filled with the gory liquid, and a blood-drenched arm reaches out of it. The scene isn’t necessarily scary, but I must say, the effect is pretty cool.
Though The Tingler has an outrageously ridiculous premise and plot, with dialog that is nothing short of laughable, it’s hard not to enjoy. There’s an innocence and whimsy to it that really enhances its nostalgic appeal. For fans of the genre, as well as the era, I definitely recommend this film.
Scene to watch for: That final shot of Philip Coolidge’s terror-stricken face as Judith Evelyn walks slowly towards him (see top image).
Line to listen for: “Look at that Tingler, Dave. It’s an ugly and dangerous thing. Ugly because it’s the creation of man’s fear, which is ugly, too. Dangerous because – because a frightened man is dangerous.”
Trivia: Darryl Hickman would eventually marry his co-star, Pamela Lincoln, after the filming of The Tingler.
Mark’s Rating: ! ! ! ½ out of 5.