I, like practically everyone on the planet, have my vices. Aside from my deeply unsettling addiction to Italian post-apocalyptic cinema, my biggest vice would have to be the purchasing of DVDs and VHS tapes en mass. "But Brian," you say, "everybody buys movies!" Silence lemmings! The difference is that I tend to buy movies I haven't seen based on the smallest of positive word-of-mouth. So I have quite a few titles languishing on my shelf that not only have not yet been viewed, but in many cases are still confined to their shrink-wrapped gulags. In an effort to be proactive, and quell my wife's urge to kill me, I will not buy another DVD or VHS until I watch every unviewed film I currently own.
Today's Fare: The Tingler. Why Did I Buy It?
Two years ago, at Fantastic Fest IV, there was a retrospective screening of a 35mm print of this film. At the time, I was a William Castle virgin but I thought it was cool that they were actually going to try and recreate the in-theater gimmick to which audiences in the 1950's were treated. Later I watched House on Haunted Hill and 13 Ghosts and found them both incredibly entertaining despite being a bit dated. When I saw a used copy of The Tingler for less than what it would cost to rent it, I made the wholly reasonable choice to purchase it...and let it sit on my shelf for six months.
The Tingler is the story of Dr. Warren Chapin (Vincent Price), a coroner fascinated with the subject of fear and its physical effects on the body. More specifically, Dr. Chapin is convinced that fear has the capacity to kill, and those who die of fear display shocking biological alterations. In the course of his work, he meets a movie house proprietor and his deaf-mute wife. When the conversation turns to her malady, Chapin ponders whether she would make an ideal subject for his fear study. The results of a subsequent experiment prove disastrous and threaten more than just the lives of our central characters.
If you didn't understand the mad genius of William Castle before, The Tingler certainly cement his brilliance into your skulls. His ability to turn a movie theater into a carnival ride with the simplest of tricks is quite impressive. Seriously, the guy was the P.T. Barnum of horror films. His modus operandi for all his films was to appear at the beginning and warn the audience of the inherent risks of laying witness to the unspeakable terror contained within. For The Tingler, Castle went a step beyond by actually attaching buzzers to the underside of certain seats in the theaters that would jolt those unlucky audience members at pivotal moments. He introduced the film and informed the audience that they would experience the same sensations as the characters in the film in a process he called Percepto. He also assured them that a good scream would alleviate these sensations.
As inventive and devious were his in-theater strategies to scare the bejesus out of patrons, the effect is complemented by the plot of the film in a truly ingenious design. At one point during the film, a creature is loose in a movie theater and the lights in that theater go out. So if you were watching this film in a theater in 1959, you would have effectively been sitting in complete darkness. Then Vincent Price's character shouted instructions to the patrons of the theater in the film to scream as loud as they could to subdue the creature, Couple that with the buzzers shocking actual theater-goers and you can understand the meta experience of The Tingler.
On top of that, the film itself is surprisingly adept. I love the exploration of being scared to death as it perfectly parallels both the careers of Vincent Price and William Castle. The discoveries they make through their nefarious research are often quite shocking and effectively creepy given the time period in which the film was made. Price is as off-putting as ever; exuding ookiness even in his regular Joe moments. I also love how fiery, combative relationships with wives is apparently a theme for Vincent Price's characters (seen both here and in House on Haunted Hill). There were also elements that reminded me of one of my favorite horror films of all time, Clouzot's Les diaboliques; the intrigue and supernatural swindle pulled on the wife characler.
Definitely! This is by far the best William Castle film I've seen. The concept is outstanding and the execution is exceptional. More than a film however, The Tingler is a piece of documented cinema history that not only gives us a sense of the showmanship of a 50's b-movie auteur, but also a very tangible idea of what it used to mean to see a movie in a theater. There was a certain degree of spectacle and grandeur to going to the movies that has been almost completely erased by the advent of home video. We still have a handful of theaters across the country that strive to regain this magic, but the sad fact is that seeing a film in a multiplex is more of a chore than the event that it once was.