The Tingler (1959) ****1/2
Director: William Castle
Runtime: 1h 22m
In his own time William Castle was regarded as a half-rate Hitchcock wannabe. Hitchcock’s influence cannot be understated, virtually every horror filmmaker from the period owes him some kind of debt, and Castle was certainly no exception. Castle himself is partly to blame for his reputation as pale imitator of Hitchcock, starting with The Tingler he introduced all his films in full Hitchcockian style, in that instance going so far as to stalk onto the camera silhouette first! Of course, the director’s thick New York accent gives lie to the ridiculousness of the impersonation, turning the whole affair into a loving parody. Yet there is more to Castle than mere Hitckcock’s copycat, in many ways the director was wildly ahead of his time with his use of meta-theatricality and audience participation. Had Castle been putting on unwatchable adaptations of Greek drama with copious nudity (al la Dionysius in ‘69) he would be praised as a visionary by snobby critics/scholars and studied by bored college students in especially pretentious theater classes. Fortunately for all of us, Castle made art that is actually enjoyable to watch, and while contemporary filmmakers and scholars often neglect him (John Waters being a notable exception) his works remain surprisingly fresh and impressive for those who bother to seek him out.
The Tingler is perhaps Castle‘s greatest achievement, though I should note that as of writing this review I have yet to see The Night Walker (1964), Straight Jacket (1964) or Zotz! (1962). Its premise is delightfully wacky: Fear, rather than being just the product of neurochemical reactions, is caused by a giant centipede that is called into existence by extreme emotions and manifests at the base of the human spine. This creature is dispelled only when the fear tension is relieved, usually by a scream. Dr. Warren Chapin has had a theory about this psychic fear-beast for years, noticing an inexplicable pattern of broken vertebrae in the bodies of recently executed criminals. He even has a name for it: The Tingler, so called because of the tingling sensation that people feel on the base of their spine during extreme fright. However, he hasn’t been able to prove it despite his constant efforts, as the feeling of fear and the creature with it vanish as soon as the subject screams. Chapin has gone to absurd lengths to produce this effect, even dosing himself with LSD to induce a waking nightmare in what proves to be, unless I am mistaken, cinema’s first acid freak-out.
On the surface, Chapin’s life seems enviable. He lives in a big house, complete with a well-supplied laboratory. His wife, Isabel, is beautiful and rich; his assistant David is dedicated and intelligent; and his sister-in-law, Lucy, adores him (though not as much as David is, who she’s planning to marry as soon as it’s convenient). However, it is soon revealed that his wife despises him, and is trying to hurt him as much as possible with a series of shamelessly public affairs. Chapin is surprisingly understanding of the situation; he knows that while she is not the best wife, he is certainly not the best husband either. What he cannot abide is the fact that Isabel is getting in the way of David and Lucy’s burgeoning romance. You see: Isabel is withholding her sister’s share of the inheritance to keep her from marrying David; money that David and Lucy need to start their life together. For her part, Isabel’s worry that the young lovers will just wind up like her and Chapin is understandable and perhaps even correct. The whole melodrama takes a turn for the ridiculous when Chapin decides to capitalize on the dispute to test his theory about the Tingler. Late one night he comes home to find that one of Isabel’s gentlemen callers has just slipped out the back door. So Chapin draws a gun on her and threatens to kill her and arrange it to look like a suicide unless she agrees to let David and Lucy marry. When she faints from terror he’s able to capture a quick x-ray of the creature as it fades out of existence.
Chapin never intended to hurt his wife, only scare her terribly, but the audience can be forgiven for not trusting him after a stunt like that! What happens next only casts further doubt on Chapin’s reputation. Chapin has recently become acquainted with Martha and Oliver Higgins, who run an old movie house specializing in silent films. Martha is a deaf/mute with an intense fear of blood, so intense that if she sees more than a drop of it she will faint from terror. Because of her condition she is incapable of screaming, and thus dispelling the effect of The Tingler. When Chapin pays her a visit while her husband is out and offers her a sedative, the audience naturally assumes that he’s really giving her a dose of LSD, just enough to trap her in a waking nightmare long enough to extract the physical Tingler monster from her. That she is then visited by a most peculiar and disturbing nightmare, one that causes her to literally die from fright only makes it seem more likely that Chapin has poisoned her for his mad experiments.
This nightmare scene makes good use of the film’s low budget: The rest of the movie is shot in black and white to save money, while the nightmare scene is the only sequence in color. You wouldn’t know it at the start though, the crew is filming on a colorless set and the cast is wearing make-up that reduces their features to deathly pale or darkest pitch. It’s only when the terrified Mrs. Higgins stumbles into the bathroom that the nature of the scene is revealed: The faucet drips bright red blood and the tub is full nearly to the brim with more of the same. Indeed, the only clue you'll get that the scene was shot in color up until that point is a slight, but still noticeable increase in how scratched the film is; the first time I watched The Tingler, I was taken completely by surprise by the sudden flash of red. When combined with an effective, but deliberately anachronistic style of a silent horror film, the effect is nothing short of stunning. Incidentally this scene proves that while Castle doesn’t have Hitchcock’s gift for composition, he is as willing to experiment with formal stylistic elements as the old master.
At this point it appears obvious that Chapin has murdered this poor, disabled woman in order to prove his ludicrous theory. However, this is not really the case. As it turns out she was killed not by Chapin in his mad quest to find The Tingler, but by her husband who was after the money she kept socked away in her safe. Who is responsible for her death by fright is irrelevant though, her paralyzed body finds it’s way onto Chapin’s operating table where he extracts The Tingler from her abdomen. The Tingler is a rather impressive rubber centipede, about two feet long and black. The impressiveness of the prop disappears as soon as Castle tries to convince us it’s moving though. Castle uses the same special effect I used in my childhood movies shot on my dad’s movie camera: he ties a string to one end of the creature and pulls it along from somewhere off camera. Despite being terribly strong and nigh indestructible The Tingler isn’t all that frightening a monster, a single scream is enough to drive it into dormancy. Since anyone attacked by the creature is bound to start screaming as soon as they get in any real trouble, there’s nothing to fear unless you’re a deaf/mute or drugged into unconsciousness.
Unfortunately for Chapin, Isabel is still angry about the whole “pretend to kill you thing” (women can be so irrational sometimes, amiright fellas?). So she decides to drug her husband and sic The Tingler on him, making the whole thing look like a gruesome lab accident. The attempt fails, mostly due to the slow pace at which The Tingler moves. While Chapin is spared, the monster gets away and it’s up to him David and Lucy to track it down before it can hurt anyone else. It’s at this point that Chapin realizes the error of his ways; from here on he’s committed to returning the creature to Mrs. Higgins’ body where it can no longer be a danger to anyone.
Up until this point we have been dealing with a well-crafted horror film with an effective though often ridiculous performance from Vincent Price and a few striking moments of brilliance. What happens next catapults The Tingler into the ranks of the truly first-class horror films. The monster heads for the Higgins' movie theater, and slips into the auditorium. Suddenly all lights cut out, not just on screen but also in the darkened hall of the movie theater where the real-life audience is watching. Vincent Price’s voice booms out, telling the viewers that the monster is loose in the theater, and that their only defense is to scream, scream! At this point during the original theatrical run joy-buzzers hidden in certain seats would begin to buzz their occupants, simulating the creeping approach of The Tingler. One can only imagine what it would have been like to have been a child in one of those Saturday morning matinees. Children, by their very nature, are already uncertain about the differences between reality and fantasy, and in this scene Castle is doing his very best to collapse the barrier between the two. It must have seemed like the movie monster crawled out from behind the screen and entered into the real world. Some critics insist that films must be viewed in their original venue to be appreciated, and this is mostly pretentious mummery; yet The Tingler stands out as one of the very few exceptions. The scene works on an academic sense when seen on DVD in one’s own living room, yet the visceral impact of Castle’s trick is lost without the shared environment and electrified seating. As you might have guessed I’m hoping someday, preferably when I have kids of my own, that some local theater will stage a genuine revival complete with joy-buzzers.
The Tingler is an impossibly fun movie, and it is on its surface an impossibly silly one too. The monster is one of the most ludicrous concepts I’ve ever been asked to swallow from a movie. Yet, despite that silliness of premise and the infectiousness of the fun there is something dark and rather troubling lurking under the film’s surface. Despite being the very definition of juvenile horror film, The Tingler contains an unsettlingly adult fear in-between it’s silly fantasies. The notion of being trapped in a relationship that was once vibrant and happy but has since decayed into a state of mutual loathing is something everyone contemplating marriage should fear. The Tingler’s two wretched marriages are among the most depressing and unflinching versions I’ve ever seen, and certainly the most distressing in a B-horror movie! There’s no bad guy, just two people who fell in love and then fell out of love and made each other miserable in the process. Worse still, there’s nothing that suggests the same thing won’t happen to Lucy and David a few years down the road. After all, David is a workaholic scientist just like Chapin, and Lucy is an affluent heiress just like her sister. The same seeds of boredom and resentment are already present in their relationship.
William Castle dreamed of directing Rosemary’s Baby, seeing it as the film that would transform him from glorified carnival barker into a respected auteur (though, to his fans he will always be both). Yet the studio head Robert Evans decided that Castle did not have the nuance needed to direct the movie, and instead forced Castle to give the job to Roman Polanski. The version we got is of course stunning, and Polanski is to be praised for his work. Yet, I can’t help but feel that Evans was wrong about Castle’s ability to direct the film. Rosemary’s Baby (1968) is very much a story about an unhappy marriage, full of suspicion and thinly concealed resentment. Castle could have directed that film, indeed was hankering to direct that film half a decade before when he made The Tingler. The popular theory is that Castle would have turned Rosemary’s Baby into a hokey, old-fashioned horror film just like the ones that had defined his career up to that point. While that is certainly a possibility, I think it sells Castle unfairly short. The Tingler proves that he was capable of directing a serious, adult horror film and would have loved to do so, if only he had the chance.