Vincent Price - Dr. Warren Chapin
Philip Coolidge - Ollie Higgins
Patricia Cutts - Isabel Chapin
Judith Evelyn - Martha Higgins
Pamela Lincoln - Lucy Stevens
Darryl Hickman - David Morris
Genre - Horror/Science Fiction/B-Movie/Creature Feature
Running Time - 82 Minutes
This month's theme has already been a huge success so far. A lot of you seem to be enjoying my reviews on these older horror films - films that the genre owes a lot of gratitude to and many fans seem to take advantage of. I guess I'm on that boat since I haven't really discussed many films prior to 1970. In fact, I'm actually pissed at myself for not reviewing more films starring one of my favorite horror actors ever - Vincent Price.
In my eyes, Vincent Price is "The Man". His tall 6'4" stature, his distinct voice, and his charismatic presence still capture audiences today - long after his passing. I'll watch anything Price is in, and have not regretted any of his films that I have watched. While he's done some great stuff with American International Pictures, I also enjoy his efforts with William Castle.
William Castle was one of the most clever filmmakers of his time. While his direction wasn't anything special, it was his promoting and marketing skills that led to his success and pop culture status. When his films were in theaters during the late 1950's and early 1960's, Castle would accompany them with gimmicks that would interact with the audience watching. Each film had their specific one, which brought in audiences and made Castle a rich man [I'm sure producing ROSEMARY'S BABY in 1968 helped too].
For his second collaboration with Price, THE TINGLER from 1959, Castle used a gimmick called Percept-O, which added electroshock treatment to theater seats, shocking people into screaming to paralyze the The Tingler that's "attached to our spinal cords". It was a successful gimmick that added a ton of fun to Castle's film. The film became a cult classic because of it, as well as for the rubber monster that is the title character. Unfortunately, watching THE TINGLER without the gimmick does feel like the movie is missing something, especially during certain points in the final act of the film. Still, the film is entertaining enough and one of William Castle's better works.
Dr. Warren Chapin (Vincent Price) is a pathologist who is experimenting on the effect of fear on living things, believing there's a creature called a "tingler" that's attached to the spine and grows every time we're afraid. Ollie Higgins (Philip Coolidge) meets Warren while claiming the body of his brother-in-law, who was executed in an electric chair. Ollie is fascinated by Warren's beliefs and his obsession to capture a living tingler. Warren takes X-rays of his unfaithful wife (Patricia Cutts) after scaring her, getting a glimpse of the creature. Realizing that screaming will only paralyze it, Warren has to find someone who can't scream in order to prove his theory.
After meeting Ollie's deaf-mute wife, Martha (Judith Evelyn), Warren wants to use her for the experiment, not really considering that she would have to die in order for him to study the tingler. After some surreal events one night, Martha dies of fright. Warren examines her and manages to cut out a living tingler out of her. However, the tingler has a mind of its own and decides to escape, threatening anyone nearby.
THE TINGLER was William Castle's follow up to the highly successful 1958 classic, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL. THE TINGLER has become a cult classic, doing good business upon its release and being considered William Castle's best film by many. Even though THE TINGLER was made to really make Castle's Percept-O gimmick chairs a reality, the film happens to be an entertaining and satisfying flick that rightfully earns its reputation.
While the narrative does take quite a bit of suspension of disbelief due to certain subplots that wouldn't make sense otherwise, I think THE TINGLER has a great premise and follows through with it very well. I like the idea of Dr. Warren Chapin experimenting on the idea of fear, what causes it, and what consequences it has on the human body. Sure, a living breathing creature that lives on our spinal cords because of this fear is a bit of a stretch. I mean, how would we NOT know there's something living inside out of us? Still, it's an interesting concept that any screenwriter could play around with. Thankfully, Robb White [who was Castle's long time collaborator] crafts a well-written script that's a monster movie, soap opera, and mystery all rolled up into one.
I think what I like the most about the narrative in THE TINGLER are the characters. They all play a role and are interesting to follow. Warren Chapin is White's take on the Mad Scientist character, but done in a more subtle way. It's obvious throughout the film that Chapin values his work and quest for knowledge over his own life or the lives of others. His marriage is strained due to his work. It also doesn't help that his wife, Isabel, is an adulteress who flaunts her lovers in front of Warren. Their relationship is quite complex and one based on blackmail and dislike for one another. Warren implies that Isabel may have murdered her father to gain his inheritance. Isabel implies that it's her money that funds his experiments. Warren shoots Isabel with blanks, which causes her to pass out and makes her an unwilling lab rat. Isabel drugs Warren and runs away after letting The Tingler loose on Warren. It's such a soap opera relationship that it adds humor and entertainment [the dialogue is actually quite well written in this film] every time these two try to hurt each other through their words and actions.
I also find it fitting that Warren also happens to be a pathologist, doing autopsies on the deceased - as he's not really concerned about the well being of others unless they'll help him prove his theories. He's willing to hurt his wife to X-ray the Tingler. He's willing to hurt himself by taking double the normal dose of LSD [THE TINGLER was the first film to mention the drug, which was legal at the time] to see how fear effects him and his own Tingler. Warren even seriously considers scaring a deaf mute, Martha, so she can die from fright [since she can't scream], just to cut her open and finally get his hands on a Tingler. There's a moment in the film where Warren sedates this poor woman, but we're never sure if he gives her an actual sedative, or some LSD as she has some really trippy visions to make her drop dead. It's never really confirmed, which makes Warren a shady character. He's in a shade of grey, which I like.
Speaking of Martha, her relationship with Ollie is also very strange. While Warren and Isabel make it very clear that they can't stand each other, Ollie is more passive-aggressive with his wife. Ollie would rather hang with Warren [learning about death and the Tingler] than spend time with his wife, never really paying her attention and sort of being dismissive with her. He's also tired of being Martha's care taker, almost as if her being deaf and mute is a huge burden on him. Ironically, both Ollie and Martha own and run a local theater that only plays silent movies. Ollie's behavior after Martha's death is also suspicious, making us wonder if Warren, Ollie, or even both managed to murder her.
The only normal relationship is between Warren's sister-in-law, Lucy, and her boyfriend [his assistant] David. While the two characters just seem to be in the film as spectators to the events that occur in THE TINGLER, they seem to have a relationship that represents what the previous two were supposedly like prior to Warren's and Ollie's change towards their wives. Lucy is understanding of Warren's and David's experiments, yet she's worried that David will be as obsessed as Warren is. David wants to help Warren and sort of idolizes him, but both Warren and Lucy try to make him live a more normal life. Warren seems to really like and trust these two, almost as if they have the life he's been wanting with his own wife.
I think my main issue with the story may have to do with the ending. It just feels tacked on and really doesn't make a whole lick of sense. I won't spoil what it is if you haven't seen THE TINGLER, but I guess it's supposed to be some "shock ending" that would leave audiences sort of freaked out as they leave the theater. I'm sure it worked back in 1959, but it ends up feeling pretty corny and lame in 2012. I know this ending was added in due to the Hays Code, which was enforced in 1934 and ended in 1968 when the rating system was finally in place. The Hays Code was this morality guideline where the villain of the story had to be punished in the end no matter what. Every ending had to be happy. So while the ending doesn't really do the story that took place before it justice, it satisfied the Hays Code at the time. I think there could have been another way around punishing Martha's murderer, but it is what it is. I'm not a big fan.
I also felt certain scenes don't work now due to the fact that there's no gimmick attached to THE TINGLER when watched at home. The final act, where the picture goes to black as Vincent Price yells everyone to scream to stop the Tingler from hurting them, probably works a lot better if my seat was shocking me in the spine. Nowadays, it's just a black screen with Price yelling. The Percept-O gimmick was a gift and a curse for THE TINGLER. I'm sure Castle and White didn't think of this when they created the film, but this portion of the film ruins the flow and pacing for me. Still, the rest of the film works on a story level besides these two issues.
The direction by William Castle is very good here, as THE TINGLER is definitely one of his high points as a director. The editing is sharp. I think the picture quality is very nice. It's paced really well and builds up nicely towards the Tingler's first appearance in silhouette. I thought the final act inside the theater, besides those stop moments where the gimmick probably would have been performed, had some nice tension throughout. We also get to see the first acid trip ever done on film, where Vincent Price drops LSD and sees things blurry, swirling, and his laboratory skeleton moving towards him. I think my favorite visual piece is where Martha dies. She starts seeing things move inside of her room, such as the windows opening and closing, as well as some deformed looking man with a weapon wanting to stab her. The visual highlight is the bathroom scene. The film was shot in black and white, but Castle bought some red tint and used it for this scene. As the sink is running, we see the water as red, symbolizing blood. Then her bathtub is full of red blood as a hand rises to the surface, scaring her to death. It's such a fantastic scene and so innovative for its time. Out of all the things that I had remembered from THE TINGLER since first seeing it during my childhood, it was this scene with the blood, not the monster, that stuck with me the most. Just a great horror moment. This may be William Castle's finest moment behind the lens.
THINGS I'VE LEARNED WHILE GETTING ARRESTED FOR EXPOSING MY TINGLER
- Certain people who feel a tingly sensation should scream to protect themselves. Judging by the lack of screaming in the bedroom, no wonder many women end their relationships unsatisfied.
- Martha Higgins is a germaphobe. If this was today, she'd be a perfect host for America's Got Talent.
- Warren's wife, Isabel, has other suitors besides him. Apparently his Tingler doesn't hit the spot like it used to.
- Warren took 100mg of LSD to experience te effects, hoping he can feel fear to test the Tingler. Hey, it worked for The Beatles! Oh wait...
- Martha was frightened to death by a hand coming out of a bloody bathtub. When they told Carrie White to "plug it up", I don't think they meant her bath water!
- A lady in the theater screamed at the sight of The Tingler. Or maybe it was because she paid full price to see BATTLEFIELD EARTH. That'll make me shit my pants!
THE FINAL HOWL
3.5 Howls Outta 4