The Tingler (1959)

A b-movie far better than the stories of its "gimmick" give it credit. William Castle (director and producer) and Vincent Price combine to make a memorable little gem.

I am William Castle, the director of this motion picture you are about to see. I feel obligated to inform you that some of the sensations, some of the physical reactions that the actors on the screen will feel will also be experienced for the first time in motion picture history by certain members of the audience.

Castle (real last name: Schloss) rarely worked outside of b-movie genre work (crime and horror). Yes, he was associate producer on Orson Welles' classic The Lady from Shanghai (1948) and he had the foresight to purchase the rights to Ira Levin's novel Rosemary's Baby (1967). Even with the latter, the studio would not green light the project as long as he insisted on directing it. It would be released in 1968 with Roman Polanski directing (Castle appears unbilled as a man at a pay phone).

In what might have been a fairly forgotten career—at least by most people who aren't fans of horror films of the period—Castle carved out a place in cinematic history for being a showman and self-promoter. The P.T. Barnum of the b-movie. Many more films were released back then and a lot of them were low budget b-movies to fill out second and third spots for multiple feature showings and at drive-ins, which were in their heyday and some nightly programs ran almost until dawn. Releases often only played for a few weeks at the regular theaters and the need to drum up business and interest was key for the success of a picture. Castle was a master at that.

I say 'certain members' because some people are more sensitive to the mysterious electronic pulses than others. These...uh...unfortunate sensitive people will at times feel a strange tingling sensation. Others will feel it less strongly.

Though he was not the only one who turned to gimmicks to "sell" his films to audience, he was certainly one of the—if not the—best. His 1958 movie Macabre used a stunt where he bought $1,000 "Fright Insurance" policies for the audience members, lest they die of fright. The next year, his House on Haunted Hill had plastic skeletons on wires that would travel over the heads of theatergoers at certain times (he called it "Emergo"). For 13 Ghosts people were handed cardboard with one red and one blue lens (yeah, like 3-D glasses). You could look through one and see ghosts on the screen. If you were scared, you could look through the other. This was dubbed "Illusion-O."

Castle had two endings for his Mr. Sardonicus and the movie would pause for the audience to vote thumbs up or thumbs down (the "Punishment Poll"). Actually there was only one ending—the vote always went thumbs down. Bloody axes were handed out as souvenirs (Strait-Jacket, 1964), a "Fright Break" was introduced in another so the audience had a chance to get their money back because they couldn't handle the fear (Homicidal, 1961), and he had seat belts provided for frightened movie fans (I Saw What You Did, 1965).

But the best was "Percepto." The one he used for The Tingler.

But don't be alarmed. You can protect yourself. At any time you are conscious of a tingling sensation you may obtain immediate relief by screaming. Don't be embarrassed about opening your mouth and letting rip with all you've got because the person in the seat right next to you will probably be screaming too. And remember this: a scream at the right moment may save your life.

For a b-movie, The Tingler is really well done. The acting more than adequate and the cinematography crisp. Even the admittedly cheap effects are quite good. While Castle was instrumental in getting people into the seats (the gimmick also brought them back for repeat showings), it is Vincent Price who sells the story. Price, though best known for deliciously hammy performances in horror movies, did many non-horror films and was an accomplished and very professional actor (he was in Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 The Ten Commandments and the 1944 mystery Laura). It is that professionalism that allows him to sell the rather absurd premise of Castle's film.

Price is a doctor who does autopsies on executed (by electric chair, of course) criminals at the prison. He is speaking to the brother-in-law of one of the dead, pondering some of his "theories." His area of interest is "fear." He holds that the "force of fear" can be enough to shatter a spine and wonders about how "many people die in fear, I wonder how many die of fear." (He claims to have observed the shattered spine in others who have been extremely frightened at the time of death) The other man (Ollie) suggests that "maybe it's the force that makes your spine tingle when you're scared." Yes, we have a title.

Turns out Ollie and his wife run a silent movie theater. His wife is "deaf and dumb" (this having been made back when that was an acceptable description). During the visit, Price cuts his hand on a broken saucer. Ollie's wife, who has a terrible fear of blood, opens her mouth but cannot scream. She faints. This is a revelation to Price who hypothesizes that it is the act of screaming that allows the "fear tensions" to subside. Since she cannot let out the tension, it grows until "she can't endure it."

As most scientists, good or bad, he sets out to test his hypothesis. Enter his assistant Dave and his girlfriend Lucy (who happens to be Price's openly cuckolding wife's sister—pick up the scorecard outside the theater). He has Dave "catch" a cat for the experiment. Yeah: "catch." Presumably sending his young assistant out to kidnap strays is perfectly ethical. In a later scene he shows up with a dog in his car—as per the good doctor's instructions (it isn't seen on screen and when he's told a dog is no longer needed they both go into the house—leaving the animal locked in the car or trunk).

The next step is a personal experiment. Since he cannot scare himself ("too grown up") he plans to take something. About the drug, Lucy asks, "That drug you brought..." answered by Dave with "It's not a drug, it's an acid." Yes, it is. One that can "produce really weird effects." Price has read about it in the literature—in fact he's seen reading a book entitled:



(The cover is on the wrong side, but it's easier for the audience to read it.) This is apparently the earliest reference to the drug in motion picture history. Interestingly, the man who played Dave (Darryl Hickman) did not realize what the drug was LSD until asked about it years later for a documentary that was added to the DVD.

But before he tries out the new drug, another subject becomes available: his wife (who never hides her contempt for him and deliberately flaunts her cheating). She is tricked into thinking he will kill her and fake it as a suicide (by "rearranging things"). Even "shoots" her. All this is done without obviously telegraphing whether his attempt to make her scared to death is fully a trick or killing two birds with one stone. After she has fainted in fear, he x-rays her. In those x-rays he sees it: the tingler.

It is an insectoid, many-legged creature with horn-like appendages. Like an elongated pill bug, the tingler is attached to the spine of people, legs slipping between vertebrae. He thinks that they are actually microscopic in size and grow because of the fear. It's denseness and near indestructibility (they later take a blow torch to it) make it a formidable foe. Feeding on fear, the tingler becomes "arched and rigid" and tenses up, bending the spine. He thinks screaming may paralyze it or even dissolve or kill it.

He then tries the drug in order to scare himself, vowing not to scream. After some hamming it up and looking frightened in the lab, he finally screams. Price's interpretation of what an acid trip looks like plays fairly well and even better than most of the anti-drug films (and pro-drug ones) of the 1960s. Still, it's probably nothing like the real thing (those who "know" can judge for themselves). The drug was still legal at the time and there was less of a stigma and sense of some inherent and unquestioned danger. Which is why it is used simply as a plot device and no attempt made to suggest "consequences" or to put it into some sort of ethical framework.

Since he screamed, the experiment was a failure. It seems that the only way to proceed in the study is for someone to endure the fear—without screaming—to the point of death, after which an autopsy will get Price a specimen. If only a suitable victim can present himself. Or herself.

That leads up to two interesting things in the movie. One is the first or two unexpected twists and the other is the "color sequence" (actually a short scene). The obvious victim is Ollie's wife Martha. If she is frightened to death the tingler will be available for close study. Price heads over. Since she is still shaken from the sight of blood the other day, he gives her an injection that he tells her will help her sleep then sends Ollie to go a prescription of sedatives. After he leaves she begins seeing terrible things: hairy monster arms holding axes, chairs rocking on their own, a knife flung through the air at her. The bathroom door beckons and she is locked in. Water is running and she sees it: bright red blood, thickly pouring and draining in the sink. Then the tub, full to the brim with crimson. A hand slowly reaches out grasping and clutching at the air. Her back is becoming rigid and a death certificate on the door to the medicine cabinet saying she died of fright pushes her over the edge. She collapses dead.

He's the twist. Price isn't as responsible as he appears to be. That is revealed later. As for the color (only the water/blood in the sink and tub—the color is missing in some prints that are all black and white), it is striking and makes what she sees even more surreal and creepy. Thick red stuff that clings to the arm as it reaches up. Quite effective and the apparent cheapness of the film source for the red (which is grainy) in contrast to the nice clear black and white photography enhances the eeriness of the scene.

She is found by her husband and Price is able to extract a real live tingler. He keeps it in a travel case that one might use for a small cat rather than keeping it locked up. Not a good idea. Other events complicate things. The wife tries to do away with her husband using drugs and the tingler. After that brush with the tingler, Price decides the best way to handle things is to put it back where it came from (right: inside the victim). Perhaps that'll even kill it. He goes to Ollie's to see what funeral parlor Martha has been sent to. While there, the tingler escapes the cheap wire mesh of the case.

Of course, Ollie's apartment is above the theater.

Ladies and gentlemen. There is no cause for alarm. A young lady has fainted. She is being attended to by a doctor and is quite all right. So please remain seated the movie will begin again right away. I repeat: there is no cause for alarm

The end of the movie becomes an interactive experience for the (real) audience. Before the first announcement you see a woman about to be attacked. She screams and shortly after the lights go out (of course when left in the dark, the audience is sure to feel at least a little alarm—which is intentional). Castle would usually have a plant in the theater to scream at the right time. She would then be taken out. This would get the audience on edge even if they are simply playing along with the performance they've become a part of.

The lights go up and the movie restarts. The creature makes its way to the projection booth where it attacks of the projectionist. Then the film goes off its reel and there is only the bright light on the screen. Suddenly a wiggling, rubbery mass penetrates the edge of the screen and begins to crawl across it (not the screen itself, it's a shadowy silhouette). At that point the house lights are up again before plunging the audience onscreen and the offscreen into darkness. (The sound track features crowd murmurs soon to be replaced by a wholly different audience noise.)

Ladies and gentlemen. Please do not panic but scream for your lives! The tingler is loose in this theater and if you don't scream it may kill you. Scream, scream! Keep screaming, scream for your life!

About that time, there would possibly be a few screams in the real audience (the one on film would be going at it). This is where Percepto came in. Before the movie began its run at the theater, Castle and crew would rig up several randomly placed seats with an electric vibrating device underneath the cushion. They would be activated off and on throughout the theater. This was totally unexpected (for those seeing it for the first time) and startled (though sometimes angered or upset) viewers and made some cry out—at least in surprise.

Then the genius of the idea kicks in. The psychology of the crowd once they have become participants in the spectacle (aided by a certain anonymity of the darkness) goes to work for Castle. People start screaming and it begins to spread like a virus throughout the audience. All of this is coaxed along by people screaming and crying out for help on the soundtrack—sometimes shouting out they think they see it or know where it is. Sure the film audience knew it was a gimmick for the most part and many weren't really scared at all but they were now part of the movie and playing along. It made them into unpaid (moneywise, anyway) actors in their own entertainment.

There are stories of how the people were all hyped up when they left the movie theater, laughing and excited. It made many of them want to come back. Some because they hadn't gotten personally introduced to the Percepto, others who wanted to try it out again. Like a slot machine, if you lose you want to keep trying—if you win, you want to win again. By the time people would lose interest, Castle had raked in a good deal of money.

Ladies and gentlemen. The tingler has been paralyzed by your screaming. There is no more danger. We will now resume the showing of the movie.

The ending flattens out a bit as the wall between moviegoer and participant is erected again. Price reinserts the tingler into Martha. But Castle does have a few tricks left to play (onscreen). He gives the audience a second unexpected twist. One that we never saw coming. After playing that card, the screen goes black again.

Ladies in gentlemen. If you're still not convinced you have a tingler of your own, the next time you're frightened in the dark, don't scream.

So, that was the gimmick. That was Percepto. But that aside, the movie still holds up on its own. The acting was solid, the effects weren't that bad, and the script (Robb White who worked on several Castle films) economically simple except when Price needed to make a speech—which he was able to make plausible no matter how nutty it was. The dialogue even sounds a bit like an old film noir at times: short, clipped sentences delivered fairly quick—no Howard Hawks but it keeps the pace moving along. This is not a film that drags or leaves time for the audience to get bored. That's a good thing. The good cinematography and lighting make the sometimes spare sets creepy enough and lend atmosphere to the movie. It's fun even without the gimmick.

Unfortunately Percepto is one of those things that can only be poorly described. It had to be experienced (without knowing what would happen) for one to really "know" what it was like. Watching the movie on television, video, or DVD just won't cut it. Nor could seeing a revival in an actual theater with eager and active participants. No doubt it'd be fun but the surprise and novelty are long gone except in the memories of the fortunate ones who attended the original shows. I envy them.

Assorted left over trivia. Price does the voice-overs (except for the opening one when Castle appears before the empty screen and addresses the audience directly). There was another version of the voice-overs done for the drive-in theater crowd that Castle did himself. In addition to exhorting them to scream, they were asked to turn on their headlights until the "danger" passed. The silent movie that is shown in the theater is a real movie: Tol'able David (1921). There seems no real connection plotwise or thematically to The Tingler.

(Sources: personal copy of the DVD and the documentary included; facts, trivia, dates checked with the Internet Movie Database; details on Castle's other gimmicks from

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