During the late 1950s a Hollywood director who specialised predominantly in spooky movies came up with an audience-participation gimmick that to this day remains a true oddity. Mark Fraser finds himself totally amused by it all.
Joe Dante’s succinct description of the plot for William Castle’s horror opus The Tingler (1959) hits the proverbial nail on the head.
“In what is surely one of the most preposterous plots ever conceived, Vincent Price discovers that fear causes a lobster-like creature that looks like something from Naked Lunch to grow in the vertebrae and kill you unless you scream,” the director of 1981’s The Howling explains.
“So deaf mute Judith Evelyn can’t scream, and so when she dies Price operates and The Tingler is loose.”
This outline – which appears in the Trailers from Hell series and is included in the extras of the recent Powerhouse Films Ltd Blu-ray release of the Castle black and white movie – is a close-to-perfect broad summary of what the whole thing is about.
It doesn’t, however, include a few of the finer details which make the gimmick-laden narrative as far-fetched as it is funny.
The story (as opposed to the film, which begins with an appearance by the director as he – in typical fashion – breaks the fourth wall while trying to set the scene for his audience) starts with the unseen electric chair execution of the hysterically screaming convict Ryerson (a distressingly hilarious cameo by Bob Gunderson, whose distorted facial expressions suggest he once could have given Jim Carrey a good run for his money), after which his brother-in-law Oliver “Ollie” Higgins (Philip Coolidge) sits in on the obligatory autopsy being conducted by workaholic pathologist Dr Warren Chapman (Price). During the procedure, Chapman discovers the man’s vertebrae has been crushed and postulates to the stranger standing in his morgue that this may have been caused by fear.
“I’ve seen this phenomenon many times before in people who were badly frightened just before they died,” he observes.
“There’s a force in all of us that science knows nothing about – the force of fear. That it’s strong enough to shatter the spinal column we know. And what it is – what causes it to appear and disappear – we don’t know. Someday I hope to find out.”
“Maybe it’s a force that makes your spine tingle when you’re scared?” Ollie helpfully suggests.
Chapman chuckles. “Exactly,” he replies. “Tingle? It can do a great deal more than that.”
Nevertheless the doctor eventually decides to call it The Tingler, and it’s this kind of fuzzy logic which not only prevails throughout the rest of the movie’s dialogue, but also the narrative itself.
At the conclusion of the Ryerson autopsy, Ollie asks Chapman if he can give him a lift downtown, the ride ending at an unnamed cinema that is owned by his deaf-mute wife Martha (Evelyn) and specialises in the screening of silent films.
The doctor accepts an invitation to the couple’s upstairs apartment for a cup of coffee, but when he accidently cuts himself on a broken saucer, Martha collapses from a “psychosomatic escape” (she faints) after the sight of blood freaks her out. Upon recovering from her blackout, it also becomes apparent the frantic woman is obsessed with a cash-filled house safe containing the theatre’s box office takings.
Chapman then goes home to his luxurious double story abode, where it turns out his domestic situation is nowhere near as blissful as it could be. His cuckolding wife Isabel (Patricia Cutts) not only holds him in complete contempt but, as her family’s heiress, she is also holding back some inheritance monies from her younger sister Lucy (Pamela Lincoln) who, it just so happens, is in love with Chapman’s research partner Dave Morris (Darryl Hickman).
(This breeding ground for sibling dysfunction isn’t the strangest thing about the household – what seems more implausible is the fact there is an autopsy room/mini-laboratory on the ground floor of the premises.)
It’s at this point some further unlikely intrigue starts to set in. After Chapman tries to convince Isabel to hand over more funds to Lucy so her sister and Dave can get married, he seriously scares her with a death threat so he can x-ray her spine to see if he can locate her tingler as she feigns unconsciousness.
Later, in a scene which seems specifically designed to exploit Price’s proclivity for theatrical histrionics, the pathologist injects himself with a healthy dose of LSD in a bid to locate his own manifestation of the (for want of a better description) fear-induced parasite. Needless to say the plan doesn’t work.
After a quick recovery from his bad trip, Chapman receives a phone call from Ollie, who tells him Martha isn’t well. Now playing the family physician (as opposed to a government pathologist), he visits his new patient and injects her with a sedative before sending her husband off to the drugstore with a scrip.
Given he has just threatened his wife with a pistol a few scenes before, it’s possible the medical scientist may have injected the woman with some LSD. But if so, why? Is he planning to find her tingler too? Or does he have his eye on the cash-filled safe? The fact she wakes up in what appears to be a death-inducing nightmarish hallucination merely consolidates the viewer’s suspicions that Chapman is perhaps up to something dastardly as the movie enters its second half.
As wildly ludicrous as the whole story becomes, it’s not the plot twists that make The Tingler stand out as memorable B-grade horror movie fare. As mentioned above, it also includes an interesting gimmick which – while not fully appreciable by those who purchase this Powerhouse Blu-ray – would nevertheless have literally tickled some filmgoers of the day.
Called “Percepto”, it involved the attachment of vibrating military aircraft wing de-icers to certain seats within the theatres screening the film. These were then buzzed during the movie’s finale as the Tingler is set loose in Martha’s silent movie cinema, the cue being Price’s instructions to the audience to: “Scream! Scream for your lives!”
Looking back, this trick was really kind of preposterous. But as far-fetched as it seems, it was actually a precursor to the more ambitious Sensurround that was developed by Universal Pictures and first used in theatres some 15 years later.
Involving “a sound system add-on which would generate a low frequency ‘rumble’ at just the right time during a movie’s action” (Muir, 2016), this audio manipulation made its debut with Mark Robson’s disaster epic Earthquake in 1974 and was subsequently utilised in Midway (released during 1976 and directed by Jack Smight), James Gladstone’s forgettable Rollercoaster (1977) and the 1979 theatrical cut of part of the television series Battlestar: Galactica (directed by Richard A Colla)* before going out of fashion due to side effects involving noise pollution, in house damage and audience sickness.
Interestingly, during 1981, independent writer/director John Waters – a self-confessed fan of Castle, whose raping Lobstora creation in 1970’s Multiple Maniacs was obviously influenced by the lobster-esque Tingler – went a step to the side by using the just-as-gimmicky Smellorama (which saw viewers issued with scratch and sniff cards to be used at selected times) for the comedy Polyester.
After all of this, one can only wonder if cinephile Quentin Tarantino, by setting the climax of Inglourious Basterds (2009) in a cinema showing black and white movies, was also tipping his hat to the B-grade Hollywood horror auteur.
Regardless of whether or not one has experienced Percepto while watching The Tingler, there’s simply no denying this movie is a lot of fun.
Aside from the fact it’s totally ridiculous, Price is nothing short of a comic genius as he keeps a straight face amongst all of the bogus mayhem, while Castle’s direction is just as assured. Make no bones about it – while this may not be high-brow material, it is still a modest cinematic gem.
However, don’t take this reviewer’s word for it.
One of the great things about the Powerhouse Blu-ray release is the inclusion of a joint spoken commentary by English writers Kevin Lyons and Jonathan Rigby, whose comprehensively detailed, well informed, perfectly timed and erudite reaction to what is being shown on the screen is – put simply – an absolute joy to behold.
To hear these two talk about such an off-the-wall movie with genuine affection is worth the purchase price alone.
According to the website in70mm.com, Mission Galactica was the fifth Sensurround release. While not wanting to sound unduly parochial, as far as I know it was never released theatrically in Australia; furthermore there’s not much information about it on the Internet, so it’s not mentioned on this list.
“William Castle”, Wikipedia
John Kenneth Muir: “Remembering ‘Sensurround’: A startling ‘new multi-dimension’ of ‘super reality’”, Flashbak.com, July 15, 2016
Words by Mark Fraser
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The Tingler was reviewed as part of Powerhouse Films’ WILLIAM CASTLE AT COLUMBIA, VOLUME ONE (Limited Edition) box set.