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Written by Robb White
Directed by William Castle
Vincent Price: Dr. Warren Chapin
Patricia Cutts: Isabel Stevens Chapin
Pamela Lincoln: Lucy Stevens
Darryl Hickman: David Morris
Judith Evelyn: Mrs. Martha Ryerson Higgins
Philip Coolidge: Oliver "Ollie" Higgins
We're back with the King of the Gimmicks, William Castle his own damn self. And this film probably has his best-known value added feature other than Emergo!, the "skeleton on a wire flies over the audience" surprise from House on Haunted Hill. For this movie, Castle would have some of the theater seats wired to deliver low-level electric shocks to patrons--at one point in the movie where a monster is loose in a movie theater, some of the patrons would have a simulated monster attack at the base of the spine courtesy of the buzzers they were unwittingly sitting on.
I deeply regret that in 2005 when the Detroit Institute of Arts showed a triple feature of William Castle films along with their gimmicks, I wasn't able to talk anyone into going with me to watch them. I mean, what's the point of going to a movie where some demented gimmick is going to pop out at you if you aren't with a friend or two so you can share the experience? Visions of liability insurance undoubtedly dancing in their heads, the Detroit Film Theater bigwigs refrained from showing this movie, but I sure would have liked to see that skeleton creakily flying above the audience courtesy of Emergo!.
And this one's another wonderfully entertaining collaboration between Castle and genre all-star Vincent Price. The script is frankly a mess and huge parts of the film don't make any sense at all. But with Price as the lead the audience follows along completely. He sells the premise of the movie, which is frankly gibberish, without apparent effort. Plus he's charismatic enough that even though his experiments are horrifically unethical you kind of want to see where he goes with them (and he's also one of those mad scientists that experiments on himself, so the danger isn't just faced by other people). Not only that, but The Tingler is a footnote to cinema history for another reason; it's the first movie to mention LSD. So buckle up, kids, because things are going to be getting weird.
The film starts with William Castle himself coming out on screen to warn the audience that some of them will be experiencing the same tingling sensation as the characters on the screen (he says it's because his movie is just so awesome rather than the presence of joy buzzers in some of the seats in the theater), and that if you do feel that tingling sensation you can stop it by screaming as loud as you possibly can. Those screams, he says, could be literal life-savers for members of the audience.
Then he fills the screen with one screaming face after another and dissolves to a man in a prison cell being walked to the electric chair; if nothing else, the man knows how to get an audience's full attention. Vincent Price gets top billing, which should be the case for every movie ever (including ones he did not actually appear in). Price is a coroner in this one named Dr. Chapin, working at the prison and confirming that the executed prisoners are actually dead--an unnecessary legality that Chapin performs even though he doesn't agree with it. Easy and steady work if you can get it, especially in the hazily realized America that you get in B movies.
A gaunt-faced man comes in to watch Chapin at work, and it turns out he's the executed man's brother-in-law. He's also got a visitor's pass for the autopsy (!), so he's allowed to stay and watch (and says he won't faint, which is probably a concern when people see their first human dissection). He's got some questions about whether or not people are hurt when they're electrocuted, but for obvious reasons he isn't getting any usable answers from anyone who could tell him.
During the procedure (realized by keeping Price's head and shoulders in frame while he moves his hands around on the gurney; 1959's a bit early and the budget's a bit low to show a convincing autopsy), Dr. Chapin finds that the prisoner's spine was fractured, which is not a thing electricity would have done. He says that people who were extraordinarily terrified at the moment of their deaths have shown similar injuries, and that it's currently a mystery to science. But he's seen enough of them--always on the spine, never anywhere else--that he sees it as a repeating phenomenon. With enough time and effort to perform research, he may even find what this mystery force is. The observer at the autopsy points out that people's spines tingle when they're afraid, so maybe mortal terror is simply that phenomenon carried to an extreme orders of magnitude beyond a little tingle. Which gives Dr. Chapin a name for the thing he's looking for.
Dr. Chapin, as county coroner, has found plenty of bits and pieces to bolster his theory and has been working in his spare time to learn as much about fear and its effects on the human body as he can. The current working hypothesis is that if too much fear builds up without some way of releasing it, the overcharge is capable of causing death. Well, he's a scientist, so I guess I'll believe him for now. He also points out that whatever's been shattering vertebrae has to be a physical force rather than simply an emotional one. Lecture and autopsy finished, Dr. Chapin fills out the death certificate and winds up giving the spectator, who provides his name as Ollie Higgins, a ride back to town from the prison.
Higgins turns out to run a revival theater that specializes in old silent movies; his wife owns the theater and they live above it in a little apartment. She turns out to be deaf, which the audience learns when Ollie gets her attention by waving in the ticket booth and she notices his shadow, and then the conversation is carried out in sign language. I thought that might have been a novelty for 1959 audiences, but I see from a bit of research that the precursor to ASL was developed as far back as 1817, so perhaps not so much. Ollie gripes in a good-natured way about the effort that it takes to keep the theater tidy for his devoted patrons while making coffee and also probably lets Castle's feelings about being in competition with Technicolor and Cinemascope known when he says some of the vintage movies he shows are just as good as the ones in color with giant wide screens and huge production values.
Ollie's wife Martha joins the men and Dr. Chapin (and the audience) learn that she's deaf and mute, but reads lips capably well. Without Ollie translating her signing, though, the audience doesn't have a clue what she's saying, which is probably pretty realistic. As coffee is served, Dr. Chapin manages to drop his saucer and cut his hand on a shard of ceramic; when Martha sees the blood she has a bug-eyes terror seizure and eventually collapses. Good thing there's a doctor there, although I take it usually Dr. Chapin isn't used to working on people that are expected to pull through. It's when he's helping Martha recover that a piece of his fear research drops into place--Martha isn't able to scream to release tension when she feels terror, so it builds up until her brain pulls the ripcord and she loses consciousness for a while. Turns out that being a germophobic hemophobic isn't the best thing in the world for her.
After Martha wakes up it's time to open up the theater box office, so Dr. Chapin takes his leave (Ollie's wife won't let anyone stay in the apartment with the safe that holds the theater's take when she isn't there) and goes home to one of those palatial houses that rich people owned in Fifties movies. His sister-in-law Lucy is waiting there for Dr. Chapin's unseen-till-now assistant David to show up and take her out on a date. While waiting for her beau to arrive, Lucy and Dr. Chapin throw a little exposition out there for the audience; Dr. Chapin's wife Isabel is pretty much openly cheating on him, which he takes in stride because he's not really cut out for high society life. She owns the house and has been funding his research into fear, which is the kind of thing that a devoted mad scientist can't overlook when weighing the positives and negatives of seeking a divorce.
Isabel turns out to be Lucy's legal guardian, and uses the continual threat of cutting her out of an inheritance to keep her in line as well. She doesn't approve of David and Lucy seeing each other, and won't let them get married for the time being because Lucy's too young to start a family and David's too broke. Of course, Isabel could fix one of those issues by disbursing funds to her sister, but she's much too happy keeping Lucy under her thumb to do it. As the most cynical description of the Golden Rule has it, the people with the gold get to make the rules. When David shows up it turns out he was late because he was catching a stray cat as some ill-defined part of the fear experiments ("Cat terrified. Details later."). He also drops off a small vial of a prescription drug and warns Dr. Chapin not to use it on his own. David also turns out to be quite the mad-scientist-in-training; when he hears about Martha Higgins' intense reaction to fear and the mental shutdown it caused, the first thing he thinks of is putting her under an fluoroscope machine and showing her some blood in order to induce a terror seizure that can be viewed as a real-time X-ray of her reactions.
Lucy declares that this is just about the worst pre-dinner conversation of all time and steers David off for their date. And Dr. Chapin promises not to stay up too late in the house laboratory while those two crazy kids are off having fun. Instead he stays up reading Fright Effects Induced By Injection of Lysergic Acid LSD25, which is a book title much more significant to audiences who watched this movie after the Age of Aquarius than ones in 1959. The title is printed on the back of the book, incidentally, so that the prop faces the camera while Vincent Price is holding it. I'm not sure why that was necessary; surely the camera could have been moved four feet to the right and the lens pointed at the front cover while Dr. Chapin was reading up on hallucinatory fear effects. My guess is the prop maker screwed up and put the title on the back cover of the book and there wasn't money or time to get another one printed up, so they just filmed it the way they did.
Isabel shows up after her husband's gotten a decent grip on what injecting himself with liquid LSD-25 is going to do. We get a classic noir-style "husband looking out the front window as a strange man drives up to drop his wife off and they embrace where all the neighbors are sure to notice" shot. Which makes this two movies out of two that Vincent Price and William Castle made together with horrifically dysfunctional marriages. I'm not sure if that actually means anything or if it's just that a mad scientist with a fulfilling relationship doesn't help move the story along.
Speaking of noir-style shots, the next thing we see is Dr. Chapin pulling an automatic pistol from a desk drawer and sticking it in his pocket before turning some lights off in the main room. Isabel slinks in and gets confronted by her husband; he looks miserable and hangdog as he talks to his wife. She taunts her husband by saying he only cares about corpses now, not living people ("There's a word for you." "There's several for you." Nice zinger, doc!). Dr. Chapin says that Dave, Lucy and he (for that matter) are tired of Isabel sneaking around on him and even less enthusiastic that she's doing it so openly. She says that Dave and Lucy are only getting married over her dead body, which leads to another beautiful and underplayed line reading from Price: "Unconventional, but not impossible,".
Reasonable conversation doesn't convince Isabel to change her mind, so Dr. Chapin decides to go with the plan that his wife just mentioned. He says to leave Dave and Lucy alone to decide whatever they want to do with their lives, and to sign half of her family fortune over to her younger sister. That's Plan A. When Isabel calls her husband insane for forgetting that she has total control over everyone's lives in her sphere of influence thanks to the money she inherited from her late father. Her late father who died very suddenly. Her late father, who died very suddenly, and who could be exhumed on the order of a coroner to check for poisons that might well still be in his system in one form or another.
If hearing that her husband might prove she murdered her father has Isabel stunned, watching him pull a gun on her has the poor woman utterly flabbergasted. And when Dr. Chapin tells her that it'll be easiest to stage her "suicide" in his lab she goes into full-blown panic. Dr. Chapin gives his wife a choice between dropping her attempts to ruin her sister's life (and giving up half her fortune), or being murdered and having her pathologist husband arrange the scene to make it look like she killed herself. It's the perfectly calm demeanor from Dr. Chapin that brings Isabel to total despair, but when he pulls the trigger and she collapses the audience starts to figure things out. Why would Chapin want to X-ray his wife's body after killing her? Because the gun was loaded with blanks, and he wanted to see if there was any evidence of the Tingler on her spine after she fell unconscious out of sheer panicky terror.
When Isabel comes to, Dr. Chapin gives her the least calming explanation of anything ever and then goes to feed the stray cat that Dave brought over. Isabel vows to kill her husband for what he just put her through, and frankly she has a point. But Vincent Price is the protagonist, so I'm on his side. And when David drops by the next day (with a dog that he's told they no longer need), he sees the developed X-ray films with some sort of creature on it; the thing is denser than bone and occupies the entirety of Isabel's spine at its largest size. But after she was unconscious (and therefore not feeding the Tingler with her fear), it shrank back down to a more reasonable size for something about as long as one's forearm and grappling with one's backbone.
David notices the lack of skeletal structure in the centipede-looking beast and the two scientists put their heads together to list all the traits they know the Tingler has: It's a physical entity, fear makes it grow, and there's a very good chance that every single human being has one living in their spines. Then it's time to hypothesize: screaming paralyzes the Tinglers--or possibly could even kill them--and it's possible that each one is a parasite living in a human body rather than something produced as a natural part of it. Then it's time for the duo to plan the next step: If there could be some way to find a body from a person that died of fright without the ability to release their pent-up terror, an autopsy on that person's remains would give Chapin and his assistant a full-sized and possibly still- living Tingler to work with.
Dave decides that he's not quite willing to sacrifice his life for science, and his boss tells him that eventually they'll get someone or other. There's nothing quite so terrifying from Vincent Price as the times he tries to be reassuring and placid.
The next day, Dr. Chapin decides that he's got to frighten himself in order to take his work to the next level, but unfortunately he's too grown-up and sensible to be able to terrify himself without doing something suicidal like jump off a building. He knows plenty about the Tingler academically, but by viscerally going through full-bore terror he'll know more about it emotionally and possibly know what avenues of Tingler-related research to follow next. Immediately after he tells Judy and David about this, he gives his assistant the night off and locks himself in the laboratory. As David peeks over the transom of the laboratory door, Dr. Chapin dictates into a tape recorder--he's going to take twice the effective dose of the drug and then hopefully retain enough rationality to take further notes. Since I'm a square from a right-wing hick town, I've never dropped acid myself but I have watched plenty of bad movies, and The Tingler has the first LSD freakout ever filmed. Since the stereotypical acid casualty hippie was not a part of the pop culture pantheon in 1959, it's just Vincent Price alone in a room speaking into a microphone that looks like an electric razor and bugging his eyes out as The Fear starts to hit him.
If this movie had been made in 1969 instead, I'm certain that there would be plenty of shots from Dr. Chapin's point of view with prismatic effects and superimposed creepy weirdness going on everywhere. But we don't quite get that; instead, it's Vincent Price trying to hold the walls apart as they close in on him and yelling about how the window he just opened won't open. But when he bonks into the inevitable anatomy-model skeleton the terror hits him in full, he screams for his life and passes out. When he wakes up he just remembers pain and fear, and how nobody with vocal cords would be able to avoid screaming. Then he goes off for the evening, seemingly none the worse for wear.
Where's he going? Well, he's dropping by that silent-movie theater and talking to Ollie Higgins about his wife (without her being anywhere near either of them). Dr. Chapin offers a free checkup after he hears that Martha's been consumed with anxiety after seeing his blood and finds out where the nearest drug store is located before he examines her (hmmmmmm...). He startles the heck out of her when he goes to the upstairs apartment, which is probably not the best way to start helping someone prone to panic attacks. He says sleep and rest will do the trick for Martha after the exam, and shoots her up with what he says is a sedative. Martha lies down to go to sleep and Dr. Chapin leaves, dropping off a prescription for barbituates with Ollie on the way out.
I'm not really sure how to interpret the sequence when Martha wakes up next--she sees things in the apartment moving on their own (doors closing themselves, a rocking chair in motion with nobody in it) and a pop-up corpse in her husband's bed that sits up and stalks towards her with a butcher knife in hand (!); she runs for the living room and the lights go out on their own as well. A hairy monster arm throws a hatchet at her from another, barely missing. And when she runs into the bathroom she finds blood pouring out of the sink taps (which is bright crimson in an otherwise black and white movie, as William Castle had the entire bathroom set painted in various shades of grey with black and white objects in there as well, and then shot on color film where the blood would be the only thing actually in color). The bathtub is filled with blood as well, and when a hand rises up out of it and reaches for Martha she has a fatal attack of apoplexy.
So that bright red blood was supposed to signify that Martha was hallucinating, right? Because Dr. Chapin needed someone who died of fright or Tingler-induced spinal trauma in order to capture a full-sized Tingler for his researches, which we all saw coming because of the way the screenplay was constructed. You don't have a mute character in a film where the monster is stunned by screaming without bringing some kind of sequence like Martha's death about. And they already acknowledged that the LSD made Dr. Chapin see things when he injected it into himself, and that's how he administered the "sedative" to Martha. I'm not entirely sure that's how things are supposed to be playing out, though, because of a later plot point. And also because even though he's being played by Vincent Price and is a scientist obsessed with finding out what makes the Tingler tick, I'm not sure Dr. Chapin is evil and heartless enough to kill someone just so he can get a mature Tingler specimen to dissect (or possibly keep as the world's ugliest Neopet).
When the doctor goes home, he hears the back door close and finds a pair of partially full liquor glasses in the parlor next to a golden tie clip that doesn't belong to him; Isabel walks in, pinning an earring back into place (and the innuendo readings in this scene are just about off the charts--I'm amazed that Castle got away with so many under-the-radar references to infidelity). Before even the mildest of arguments can take place, the front door rings. I was expecting whoever it was that owned the tie clip to be there, but it's Ollie Higgins. He says his wife is horribly sick and possibly dying--he drove her over to the Chapin residence to see if there's anything the doctor can do to save her.
In the lab--which is better set up for medical practice than the front foyer--Dr. Chapin confirms that Martha has died and draws a sheet over her body. The doctor takes notes for the eventual inquest or death certificate, and while he's talking about the expression of terror on Martha's face and wondering what could have put it there, her body sits up, still covered with the sheet. Ollie understandably flips out, and Dr. Chapin checks her pulse again only to confirm that something frightened Martha to death over an hour ago. He asks Ollie for permission to perform an autopsy and gets right to work.
In a sequence shown in shadow on a fabric screen, Dr. Chapin extracts a super-sized Tingler from Martha's spine. It looks sort of like a massive centipede with earworm jaws, and the prop Tingler, when not moving, looks just about as cool as was possible for the late Fifties. Then it crawls up the doctor's arm and bites the living shit out of his elbow. When Chapin screams in pain it stuns the Tingler and he places it in a sturdy locked box for safekeeping. Isabel, wondering what the fuss is, sees the creature, makes her excuses to leave, and fixes a drink with Totally Obvious Poison(tm) so she can get rid of her husband before he does her in (either via a monster attack or a more prosaic method).
Then Ollie offers to take Martha back to their apartment before calling the police and a hospital; how the heck is he planning to explain away the massive damage to her back to them? Also, the sheet-wrapped dummy that the actor carries out obviously weighs about ten or twelve pounds. Even for a movie about fear parasites that live in people's spines that doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense. Isabel offers to fix a celebratory drink to commemorate his discovery and either out of self-preservation, the perverse pleasure of getting Isabel to do something she doesn't want to do or his stated desire to get more liquor, Dr. Chapin requests the glass that he hadn't been offered. For as a doctor, he learned in his studies that man is mortal, and he can clearly not choose the drink in front of him.
The phone rings before Dr. Chapin can explain exactly what he wants to do with that Tingler now that he's got it stuck in a box, and it's Ollie telling him that he's back at the apartment and everything's cool. The doctor passes out partway through the brief call, as he choose poorly about which booze glass to drink from (or Isabel poisoned both and just didn't drink any of hers). Once Isabel hangs up the phone we see Ollie packing up all the weird-ass props he used to scare his wife to death, so maybe there wasn't LSD in the sedative syringe? It's a plot point that I can't reconcile unless there were two murder attempts on Martha that collided together but the movie never says that's the case, and one would assume that the screenwriter would want to point that out if it happened.
Back at Chapin Haus, Isabel takes the locked box with the Tingler in it over to the couch and lets the beast free so it can strangle or bite her husband to death. Regrettably, the Tingler is pretty obviously just being pulled forward on a fishing line; its legs aren't articulated so it just gets dragged forward in a big inert lump rather than scuttling as a proper giant centipede looking thing should do. It tries to crush Dr. Chapin's throat with its mandibles but the coincidental arrival of Lucy after her date and her piercing scream stuns the thing to the point where Dr. Chapin survives the attack.
In the lab, Dr. Chapin tries to kill the Tingler with a blowtorch and the creature is completely unharmed. He realizes now that having a homicidal, invulnerable monster around is just too dangerous of a thing to deal with. There will be no conference presentations about the Tingler, no papers published and no photo spreads in the National Geographic magazine. Instead it's time to put the Tingler back in Martha's spine; Dr. Chapin theorizes that placing it back in her body will cause the organism to either shrink down to its usual minute size or possibly even die when put back in its original host.
A call to the police to find out where Martha's body was stored reveals that Ollie never made any arrangements to deal with her death (!). That makes three duplicitous characters (Dr. Chapin, Isabel and Ollie) and three honest ones (Lucy, Martha, David). When Dr. Chapin gets to the theater he just misses seeing Ollie taking all the money out of the safe and getting ready to flee the county. Ollie folds after about thirty seconds of moderate questioning from the doctor; turns out her body was in her bed (with a gaping surgical wound in her spine thanks to the Tingler removal; wonder how anyone was going to explain that to the police?). Ollie claims his wife tried to kill him a few times but we can safely describe him as an unreliable narrator at this point and discount that statement.
Meanwhile, the Tingler-in-a-box that Dr. Chapin brought to the theater breaks its way out of confinement before it can be surgically reattached to Martha's spine. It sneaks its way down into the movie theater and gets irritated that it can't see the screen because of all the ankles and shins in the way. There's a silent interlude here (intercut with the footage of the movie playing for the audience in the theater) of a woman who gets tired of her boyfriend trying to cuddle up while the film's playing before the Tingler grabs her by the ankle. Her shriek stuns the thing, which flees while Dr. Chapin kills the house lights and reports that everything is fine. The screen remains solid black until the projectionist restarts the film-within-a-film, and then gets attacked by the creature while Dr. Chapin and Ollie look for the Tingler in the theater.
Which leads to the film breaking and the creature wriggling across the camera lens in the projection booth and another stark black screen where Vincent Price exhorts the audience to scream for their lives if they don't want the Tingler to get them. I was sick the year this film played B Fest, unfortunately, so I missed out on hearing the entire audience screaming like they were in danger of getting Tingled to death. And this is, of course, the moment where the seat buzzers went off and the miracle of Percepto hit some but not all of the people in the audience in 1959. Once the Tingler is stunned into catatonia by the audience's screams the movie starts back up and Dr. Chapin can recapture the momentarily inert Tingler.
He goes back to Ollie's apartment and surgically reimplants the Tingler into Martha's body, where it will go inert and pose no further risk to anyone. Ollie pulls a gun on Dr. Chapin but lets him leave rather than shoot him; he'll face his murder rap in time but he'd rather run than meekly submit to the forces of law and order. At least that's his plan, but Martha's body rises up after the apartment door closes itself and a supernaturally perfect denouement hits Ollie as he dies of fright himself (which makes less than zero sense even in a movie about spinal centipedes causing spine fractures because of fear).
What a lovely, lovely mess of a film. Cheap, gruesome, nonsensical and with a speedy run time of a mere 81 minutes it does what it intended to do and gets out of town. And it's proof of Vincent Price's talents that you believe him as a mad-scientist coroner with a poisonous wife and devoted assistant who becomes obsessed with fear...and is the voice of reason over the second and third acts as well. He's the mortar that keeps the entire movie together and I honestly don't think anyone else could have come close to delivering the performance that The Tingler needed in order to succeed on its own terms instead of as a vehicle to deliver a seat-buzzer gimmick.
"I think I figured out another method of taking care of an escaped Tingler. Science marches on."