The Tingler (1959) [31 Days of American Horror Review]

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Director: William Castle
Starring: Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn, Darryl Hickman, Patricia Cutts, Philip Coolidge

Released a mere five months after House On Haunted Hill, William Castle’s second and final collaboration with Vincent Price would see the pair at their lurid best.

After floating a plastic skeleton over the audience the last time, Castle’s gimmickry would be stepped up several gears with the arrival of Percepto!, a vibrating buzzer device in selected cinema chairs which activated on time with the onscreen horror.

The cue for this would be the appearance of the titular Tingler itself, a multi-legged, creepy-crawly that grows near the human spinal column and is the cause of the tingling feeling we experience when we are frightened. Which incidentally, can only be destroyed by the victim screaming at the top of their lungs, something the audiences of the time were encouraged to do more than once thanks to some delightful fourth-wall breaking.

Sadly, modern viewers won’t ever be able to completely recreate The Tingler experience as it’s showman creator intended, but there’s more than enough up on the screen to make for a massively enjoyable movie experience.

Dr. Warren Chapin (Price) is a forensic pathologist who discovers that the spine-tingling sensation humans experience in states of heightened tension and fear is actually due to a creature that inhabits our bodies that he dubs “the tingler”.

A parasite that attaches itself to the spinal column, it grows stronger the more frightened it’s host gets, eventually crushing the spine entirely if allowed, while the only way to halt its activity is by releasing that tension with a scream.

Chapin encounters silent movie theatre owner Oliver Higgins (Coolidge) and his deaf/mute wife Martha (Evelyn), who dies shortly after their meeting when weird, supernatural occurrences literally scare her to death. Convinced to perform her autopsy by Higgins, Chapin manages to remove a still-living and very large Tingler from her spine.

The woman’s death was not as it seemed though, but before her killer can be revealed, the Tingler itself escapes and begins to hunt in the crowded movie theatre…

As wonderfully ridiculous concepts go, The Tingler is quite hard to beat. That a parasitic centipede/slug creature can grow inside our bodies to such a huge size by feeding on fear is pretty out there by itself. To then let it loose in a cinema with the sole intention of getting real-life audiences screaming their heads off (enhanced by Percepto!, obviously) is a spark of, if not genius, sheer unabashed hucksterism that could only have came from William Castle.

Unlike his moustache-twirling turn in House On Haunted Hill, Vincent Price dials it down somewhat here as the work-obsessed pathologist Chapin. While thoughtful and caring towards his wife’s younger sister Lucy (Lincoln) and her fiancé Dave Morris (Hickman) also his lab assistant), he’s clearly been ignoring his wife Isabel (Cutts) for years, resulting in a war of attrition between the two. She’s out every night, bringing strange men home and daring him to react, while he just focuses more and more on his research, making it very clear that the only thing he’s interested in about her is her wealth that funds his work.

In fact, the only time we see him paying anything close to attention to her is when he pretends to shoot her as part of a particularly cruel experiment. Make no mistake, Chapin might be the main protagonist, but he’s no hero here.

It’s a brilliantly complex relationship the pair have and while it’s no surprise that Price is up to the task of making what could be a cold fish still appealing, Patricia Cutts as the spurred and spiteful other half is a revelation. She’s a stunning and charismatic presence on screen and makes the most out of an often-sparkling script that gives her several verbal battles to get to grips with.

As the strange couple who run the movie theatre, Evelyn and Coolidge make for a weird and slightly unsettling pair. There’s clearly something not right with Higgins from the get go, appearing unannounced to observe his newly-executed brother-in-law’s autopsy, meaning the slow unfurling of just how wrong he is the least surprising element of the film.

Despite not having the most to work with as the mute victim Mrs Higgins, Broadway star Judith Evelyn really shines here too. Her completely silent performance is at once creepy and tragic, those wide eyes and expressive facial contortions perfectly conveying initially her isolation and quirks, then later her abject terror as reality seems to warp around her.

It’s that latter scene that really hits a chord, not so much with the obvious horror props that drive her to an early death, but in how Evelyn reacts to them and brilliantly, how the sudden burst of vivid red colour erupts into what has until then been a black and white film. It’s only a bathtub of blood (albeit with a gory hand rising from it), but it’s effect is show-stopping.

The Tingler itself isn’t exactly a show-stopper, but it’s much more impressive than you would expect from a film that skirts as close to gonzo trash as this one. The reveal in particular is brilliantly realised, shown in silhouette, with the horror of it all being conveyed by Price’s terrified reaction as the score gives way to a deep, throbbing heartbeat. Once we actually see it…well yes, it’s inherently silly, but it’s gloriously hideous too and is the last thing you’d want coiling around your spinal column.

Castle had already set up the audience to scream their hearts (or spines) out in his Hitchcockian intro piece, so with the suspense raised, having an in-character Vincent Price directly addressing a movie theatre crowd (and by extension the real-world theatre crowd watching) is an absolute masterstroke. One can only imagine the mayhem in cinemas at the time, screaming for all their worth at the on-screen Tingler, as well as the knock-on effect of the Percepto! setting off under random seats.

The Tingler is as trashy as horror gets, using gimmicks in place of real moviemaking craft, but dear lord, it’s a ridiculous amount of fun too. The other contender for William Castle’s finest hour, this is a shining example of just how enjoyable horror cinema can be when it’s not taken entirely seriously.

Rating: 3.5/5.


The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy

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