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Schlock & Awe: THE TINGLER

It’s hard to imagine now, with home viewing at its peak, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime hooked up to big hi-def televisions, but there was a time when going to the movie theater actually was an experience you couldn’t get anywhere else. Everybody went to the movies back in the proverbial “day” and much like today producers moguls tried to ensure the masses would see their picture over any others. There was added spectacle to the filmgoing beyond just going to a film. The analog today would be IMAX or 3D, things which can’t truly be replicated at home. In the 1950s, one of these showmen filmmakers would make going to the cinema an event and seeing his horror pictures was something you couldn’t get anywhere else. That man was William Castle and arguably his most huckstery film was just screened at L.A.’s Cinefamily in as close to the way Castle mandated it be shown at the time. I’d never seen The Tingler before, but I don’t think seeing it in any other fashion would be worth it at all.

Oh, what a trailer. Anyone who’s seen Joe Dante’s fabulous send-up Matinee well recognize the William Castle type of filmmaker. He brought people to the movies by involving them in his horror films as much as possible, making the theaters interactive and the experience singular. For The Tingler, Caslte invented a process called “Percepto,” which was meant to allow certain members of the audience to physically feel what the characters on the screen were feeling, specifically the twinge of unbridled fright. In actuality, Percepto was just a series of large joy buzzers affixed to the bottom of some of the theater seats that would zap at the designated part of the film. And they didn’t all buzz at once; the Percepto seats would each buzz in a seemingly random sequence as the particular section commenced.

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At the beginning of the film, Castle himself, much like in the above trailer, stepped onto the screen to tell the audience that there is one particular way to keep from dying of fright (something he would often attest to happening at his films) was to scream as loudly as possible. That, he says, is the only way to make sure you’re not a victim of “The Tingler,” which at that point we lack any sense of what it could be. When he leaves the screen, we get several black frames to bring the theater into perfect darkness, and that’s when the Percepto seats begin to buzz while shrieks of horror blast out of the speakers and images of disembodied heads looking horrified begin to scream at us. This is to encourage the audience to scream as well. It’s sufficiently effective and Castle knew it, which is why the Percepto seats, which felt like little more than someone’s phone vibrating slightly more fervently than usual, aren’t used again until the final act of the movie.

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The storyline of the movie is completely absurd and exists only to play in tandem with Percepto. Vincent Price plays Dr. Warren Chapin, a pathologist who conducts autopsies on prisoners after being executed by electric chair. Evidently, that’s the law, to have an autopsy done on the body of the executed. Who knew? He’s about to do an autopsy on the latest victim when a man comes in saying he’s the condemned man’s brother-in-law and could he stay and watch the autopsy. This man is Ollie Higgins (Philip Coolidge) and he’s a huge weirdo. During the autopsy, Chapin sees that the executed man’s spine has been shattered. He has a theory that it’s not the electricity that does it, but fear itself. The fear of being executed causes something to stir in the spine (“Everyone knows fear is derived from the spinal cord.” Oh do we?!?) and it’s so strong that it shatters. Chapin has taken to calling this… The Tingler, and the only way to release the tension is to scream.

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Ollie is co-owner of a silent movie theater along with his deaf mute wife Martha (Judith Evelyn). Ollie invites Chapin over for some coffee as a repayment for the ride home and Chapin accidentally cuts his hand. Martha is petrified of blood and passes out. Chapin believes this was not regular fainting, but a psychosomatic escape caused by fear. Chapin returns to his home, a huge house paid for by his philandering wife. Chapin gets along great with her pretty and kind sister, though, and his lab assistant is dating her. But Chapin hates his wife and the best scene in the film involves him threatening her with a gun, then firing the gun, the audience believing she’s dead but then we find out she’s just passed out from fear and he x-rays her back to get a look at The Tingler, which looks sort of like a giant centipede on the spine.

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Chapin decides he wants to attempt to make himself afraid to record what the Tingler does, but he fears nothing. So he SHOOTS LSD INTO HIS VEINS in order to make him hallucinate horrifying things. This is the first instance on film of LSD being used, fun fact. But, this doesn’t work exactly how he hopes because, try as he might, he can’t help but scream. The only kind of person who wouldn’t scream for sure is a deaf mute…waaaaaaait! Apparently, Martha Higgins has been unable to sleep and Ollie calls Chapin to help. He comes over and gives her a shot of something and tells Ollie she’ll be out for a few hours. But she doesn’t sleep that long and when she wakes up, she sees horrible things, like a monster person. She goes into the bathroom and the bathtub is full of blood (in color!) and eventually she dies of fright.

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Ollie takes her dead body over to Chapin’s and he performs and autopsy after her body sits straight up and then goes back down. Chapin removes from her spine the Tingler, which is at this point over a foot long. Chapin decides to keep it in a box while Ollie takes his dead wife home, which again is super weird. Chapin’s shrew of a wife decides to get revenge on Chapin by knocking her husband out and sicking the Tingler on him. He very nearly dies until the sister comes in, screaming, and thus incapacitating the Tingler. Chapin decides to return the Tingler to Ollie’s wife’s spine to hopefully make it die, but when he arrives he finds out that Ollie is actually the one who scared his wife to death in order to get at her money.

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The Tingler, meanwhile, escapes and goes down the vent into the silent movie theater below, which brings us to the best and most hokey section of the film. The Tingler begins to crawl around the theater while people watch some old silent film. At a certain point, a girl in the movie stands up and screams and this is accompanied by the lights in the theater I was in turning on and a person screaming so that a woman dressed up like a nurse could come out and attend to her while Vincent Price tells us all to be calm. Then, later, Vincent Price turns the lights off on the movie and then everybody’s seat begins to vibrate intermittently for a good couple of minutes while everybody screamed and laughed. The lights eventually come back on, Percepto stops, and the movie commences, but it’s never as good again, and really it just needs to wrap up.

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The Tingler is a movie that was made entirely to house a gimmick and for that reason, watching it on DVD wouldn’t do it justice at all. It’s like watching those old 3-D films on your regular 2-D TV. Stuff just pokes toward the screen without anything actually happening. You lose a lot of the whole point of the film. The Tingler is also, aside from the gimmicks, so full of insane lines and notions that watching it by yourself would not nearly be as fun. Vincent Price is typically great and as always commits himself fully to the proceedings, even if it’s utterly absurd. That’s what made him such a star.

If you get a chance to see The Tingler at a theater in Percepto, I would highly, highly recommend going. Otherwise, go watch House on Haunted Hill instead.

Images: Columbia Pictures

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  1. Brandon says:

    The Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA showed THE TINGLER with Percepto this week as part of our centennial tribute to William Castleā€¦ check out a video of the audience reaction on our Facebook page: