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"Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic. But scream scream for your lives!"
Director William Castle was an ambitious journeyman looking for his breakout film when he hit upon his winning formula with Macabre, a low-budget 1958 thriller that sold its onscreen shock effects with promotional ballyhoo. In a brainstorm of publicity ingenuity, Castle issued an insurance policy (backed by Lloyds of London) to cover all ticket buyers against "death by fright." The campaign was a success, the film was a hit, and Castle found his new persona: a B-movie P.T. Barnum by way of Alfred Hitchcock. He launched a new gimmick with each succeeding horror film and took to personally promoting and introducing his films, just like Hitchcock was doing on television. In fact, for The Tingler (1959), Castle's third feature in this vein, composer Von Dexter's score borrows from the Hitchcock sound with the distinctive harp glissandos of Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo (1958) theme.
The Tingler was Castle's second and final film with Vincent Price, whose silky voice and acting grace had brought a little class to Castle's previous film, the gleefully disreputable House on Haunted Hill (1959). Price plays Dr. Warren Chapin, a part-time coroner and full time scientist pursuing a private inquiry into the power of fear in the human body. "There's a force in all of us which science knows nothing about," he explains. "That it's strong enough to shatter the spinal column we know, but what it is what causes it to appear and disappear that we don't know." With a few simple scares and some timely X-rays, Chapin proves that the human body hosts a parasite that feeds on fear (quick, rewrite the medical texts!). He theorizes that screaming is the only thing that can stop it (becoming an early champion of primal scream therapy in the process) and names it the "tingler," after the tingles one feels in a state of terror.
It's not long before he extracts one of these things from a victim literally scared to death (too bad she didn't have her Lloyds of London insurance policy), revealing one of the cheapest of any of Castle's special effects. His tingler is a cheap rubber model that looks like a lobster crossbred with a centipede. When it moves through a faux animal skin rug, the fur ruffling past the otherwise stiff extremities creates an illusion of the legs actually moving, but for the rest of the film Castle is content to show the thing wobble across floors and over potential victims, yanked by unconcealed strings at times.
"In a controlled experiment with my own fear, perhaps I can find out all the things we have to know," Chapin muses to his assistant. "Only nothing scares me." That sounds like a challenge, and Chapin faces it with a movie first: he shoots himself up with an experimental chemical called LSD and has the first acid-trip freak-out on American screens. Price hams it up with gusto, but apparently no one on the production had any actual experience to draw from, and his histrionics make the scene endearingly square in retrospect.
"I gotta tell you something, neither Bill nor Vincent nor I took any of this too seriously," recalls co-star Darryl Hickman (brother of Dwayne "Dobie Gillis" Hickman). You can't blame them. Screenwriter Robb White, Castle's loyal partner in high-concept schlock, is more concerned with the gimmicks than with the story or the suspense. There were plenty of complications, to be sure; Chapin hates his socialite wife (Patricia Cutts), a millionaire tramp who doesn't bother to hide her affairs or apologize for blocking her younger sister's marriage to Chapin's handsome young assistant (Hickman). There are even a couple of murder attempts, but the main storyline is not very compelling.
A subplot concerning a deaf-mute woman (Judith Evelyn) who owns a silent movie theater is used to greater effect. At one point she finds herself in a waking nightmare of macabre threats (including a sink and bathtub running with blood-red fluid, the sole shocks of color in the black and white film), unable to scream and thus stop the tingler before it kills her. Castle takes credit for casting Evelyn, though it was actually Price who suggested her for the role, and she adds the right touch of eeriness to her part, a character right out of the silent films she shows in her theater.
Ultimately, however, it's all about the gimmick. In House on Haunted Hill, Castle had theaters rig skeletons to glide over the heads of the audience at a certain point in the film. For the climax of The Tingler, where the creature gets loose in a movie theater, Castle had theater owners hire a plant in the audience to faint on cue and get carried out by doctors (not real ones, of course). But that was just the appetizer. For the main course he unleashed "Percepto," a fancy name for a small, motorized vibrator placed under selected theater seats and wired to the projection booth. It was carefully timed to a key scene where the tingler crawls across the projector lens just before the screen goes black and the booming voice of Vincent Price entreats audiences not to panic, but to "Scream - scream for your lives!" Cue Percepto, which goosed the audience into playing along. "In the final count, I think we must have buzzed 20,000,000 behinds," writes Castle in his biography, a possibly inflated number, but then would you expect any different from a born self-promoter?
There is no doubt that William Castle could mount an effective B-movie thriller with an offbeat sensibility. The Tingler is more gimmick than movie and it lacks the level of tension and terror of other productions, but the showmanship is still a lot of fun.
"Ladies and gentlemen, just a word of warning. If any of you are not convinced that you have a tingler of your own, the next time you're frightened in the dark...don't scream."
Producer: William Castle
Director: William Castle
Screenplay: Robb White
Cinematography: Wilfred M. Cline
Film Editing: Chester W. Schaeffer
Art Direction: Phillip Bennett
Music: Von Dexter
Cast: Vincent Price (Dr. Warren Chapin), Judith Evelyn (Martha Higgins), Darryl Hickman (David Morris), Patricia Cutts (Isabel Stevens Chapin), Pamela Lincoln (Lucy Stevens), Philip Coolidge (Oliver Higgins).
by Sean Axmaker