It Came from the ’50s: The Tingler

Gimmicks present unique problems when it comes to film, or art, or anything. Gimmicks may be useful for an initial draw, but people tire of them. Gimmicks are also used to disguise, or make up for, a lack of funds or competence. That is why William Castle, despite throwing some interesting gimmicks into his films, is remembered for being a shitty movie director as much as an innovator.

The Tingler, from 1959, was Castle’s most ambitious foray into gimmickry. Besides producing, Castle directed, from a screenplay by Robb White.

The Tingler follows Vincent Price as Dr. Warren Chapin, a physician. When the film opens, we see Chapin performing an autopsy on an executed prisoner. But cutting up the corpses of criminals is not Chapin’s ambition. He, along with his assistant, David Morris (Darryl Hickman), are studying the effects of fear on the human body. This research leads to the discovery of a parasitic organism that appears on the spine of people when they feel fear. It grows from microscopic to macroscopic size as a person’s terror increases. The creatures, which Chapin has dubbed “tinglers,” would kill their host organisms as they continue to grow in size, were it not for one thing. All people, with few exceptions, eventually scream when their fear grows strong enough, and these screams cause the tingler to shrink and go back to its hiding place in the human body. It’s pretty shitty science, but that’s never mattered in Hollywood.

The screams are the important thing. They tie in with Castle’s gimmicks for this flick.

Hailing from a time when movies were only available on the big screen, Castle integrated The Tingler into the theaters in which it was shown, attaching electric buzzers to some seats to simulate a tingler crawling up a viewer’s spine, and hiring actors to The Tinglerplay out a short sequence during the film’s climax. A prologue with Castle himself instructs the audience to scream should they feel the tingler, because that is all that will save their lives. It’s a participatory experience that doesn’t translate at all to current viewing, but it made Castle a bundle at the time.

The good news is, this stuff doesn’t take up too much running time, and doesn’t distract too much from the rest of the film. As for that remainder, The Tingler is both compelling and directionless.

Chapin doesn’t spend all his time in his lab performing autopsies and looking for tinglers. He also has a confrontational relationship with his wife, Isabel (Patricia Cutts). Isabel is wealthy, and it’s never made clear if Chapin really loves her or if he married her for her money. Either way, he gets very jealous at Isabel’s blatant adultery.

Meanwhile, Morris, Chapin’s assistant, and Isabel’s sister, Lucy (Pamela Lincoln), wish to get married, but Isabel is Lucy’s legal guardian, and won’t allow it. All this family drama sets off something of a war between Chapin and Isabel, and Castle uses this to pad the running time as much as flesh out the plot.

The interplay between Chapin and Isabel is reminiscent of the outright hostility between husband and wife in another Castle film, The House on Haunted Hill. Castle must have had a happy marriage.

Back in the realm of tingler research, Chapin has lucked upon a deafmute, Martha Higgins (Judith Evelyn), who also has an anxiety problem. He has found someone prone to feelings of fear, who cannot scream. Without going into detail, Ms. Higgins and her husband, Ollie (Philip Coolidge), are key to bringing the tinglers out of the human body and into the movie.

Then Castle just kind of wraps things up. The films resolves in unrealistic and nonsensical fashion, both.

There were a couple of different plot threads in this movie, but Castle never weaved them together in a convincing fashion. Unfortunately, it appears that this was a gimmick in search of a movie, rather than the other way around. Everything revolves around Castle’s trickery on the other side of the fourth wall, and it leaves the plot rather thin. That’s too bad, because there was a better movie, here. The budget Castle provided was miniscule enough to be embarrassing, and it shows in the sets and effects, but otherwise the film is very professional. It reminds me of some of the older Hitchcock films, which had strong resemblances to stage plays. For The Tingler, this probably had more to do with budget than any particular style of filmmaking, but I have seen shitty movies made with far less competence.

To be sure, there is plenty of shittiness to satisfy the connoisseur. The banter between the Chapins is murderous, but laughable. And the tingler is such a precious little beastie, especially when the strings pulling it along are visible.

Despite some engaging moments scattered here and there, The Tingler is a shitty movie. But, a viewer can do worse. It lands in the bottom half of the Watchability Index at #154, pushing down Growth.

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