Throwback Thursday: The Tingler (1959)

Posted: February 4, 2010 by Rebecca in Horror Movies, Throwback Thursday
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Directed by William Castle

“Amazing NEW TERROR device makes you a living participant in the FLESH-CRAWLING ACTION!  PERCEPTO!”

In The Tingler, Vincent Price plays a scientist named Dr. Warren Chapin, who is obsessed with a people’s reactions to fear.  He has performed a number of autopsies, and has noticed interesting things relating to a person’s vertebrae when they die in great fear.  He thinks that there is some type of creature that causes this to happen when one is afraid.  The movie begins with a man being executed, with Dr. Chapin performing the autopsy after the execution.  The brother-in-law of the executed man, named Oliver “Ollie” Higgins (Philip Coolidge), has come to watch, and Dr. Chapin tells the Ollie about his hypothesis.  Ollie speaks of the tingling of the spine that happens when one is afraid, and this is what gives Dr. Chapin the idea to name this supposed creature, “the tingler”.

Dr. Chapin brings Ollie home, and we meet his wife, a deaf-mute, Mrs. Martha Higgins (Judith Evelyn).  She and Ollie own a silent-movie theater.  Ollie invites Dr. Chapin in, and Martha comes up soon later.  It seems she has some quirks about her.  She constantly checks the safe in the apartment, she washes her hands very often, she won’t shake hands, and she has a sever fear of blood.  Unfortunately for her, Dr. Chapin cuts her hand while he is there, and she faints.  Dr. Chapin later explains to his research assistant, David Morris (Darryl Hickman), that this was not a regular fainting spell.  Apparently, because she has no outlet to release her fear with a scream, the reaction builds up in her, causing her to faint as an outlet for her fear.

Dr. Chapin soon goes home, where we meet his sister-in-law, Lucy (Pamela Lincoln), who is waiting for Dr. Chapin’s assistant to return, as he is her fiancé.  We also learn that Dr. Chapin’s wife Isabel (Patricia Cutts) is a controlling, mean-spirited, unfaithful woman, who cheats on Dr. Chapin, stays out late every night with different men, and also is very controlling of Lucy, and will not allow her to have her share of their inheritance.  She is also getting in the way of Lucy and David’s engagement.

When she gets home that night, Dr. Chapin confronts her, and scares her into a faint, pretending to shoot her.  As soon as she faints, he x-rays her back.  The next day we learn that he was trying to get x-rays of her back to see if he could find proof of this tingler, as it needs to be caught in the moment of fear.  It seems that when a person is very fearful, this organism, which lives in everyone, is able to take hold of the spine, but a normal reaction to fear (screaming), is what kills it.  What would happen though if a person could not scream??!! Dr. Chapin performs some more experiments, he even experiments with LSD so that he can be fearful, and feel the tingler himself.

Later on, Ollie appears at Dr. Chapin’s, concerned for his wife because she is having trouble sleeping.  Dr. Chapin goes over to Ollie’s and injects her with something that will help her sleep.  He leaves, and Martha starts seeing strange things- windows, and doors close by themselves, a monster-like creature comes out of the closet, and when she enters the bathroom, the sink and bathtub are filled with what looks to be blood.  This is the only use of color in the movie, the blood is bright red, when everything else around it is still black and white.  I thought it looked quite beautiful, and was really interesting to use just one color in the movie, for that one scene.  Pretty soon she is scared to death.  When Ollie discovers that his wife is dead, he brings her to Dr. Chapin, gives him permission to do a quick autopsy and Dr. Chapin discovers the tingler, still alive, and attached to Martha’s spine!!!!  He removes it of course, and this is where the trouble begins….there are a few twists and turns which I won’t spoil here, but I will say that the tingler escapes at one point!!

William Castle was known for his gimmicks, and The Tingler was no exception.  He employed the use of what he called PERCEPTO.  Small electric buzzers would be placed under certain audience members seats so that they could be jolted at certain times in the movie.  Fainters were also hired, and they would scream and faint during the movie, and be taken out by ambulance, only to return for the next screening.  When the tingler escapes into the movie theater in the film, the screen goes pitch black, and a voice-over by Vincent Price was heard, saying that the tingler had escaped into the audience, and encouraged people to scream for their lives. So going to his movies would be an interactive experience, something like some of the shows at Universal studios, or Disney.  I think it sounds like a lot of fun!!  I think more movies these days should use gimmicks to make it more of an interactive experience.  Although movies already cost an arm and a leg, so it may not be too cost effective.  But think of what fun it would be!!

I thought this movie was a very fun experience, and it would have been awesome to see this in the theater.  Some of the movie is somewhat silly, and unrealistic, at least in this day and age.  I’m not sure what it was like in the 50’s, but today a doctor wouldn’t just be able to cut someone’s back open after they died, even with the permission of the husband or wife.  Also, when Dr. Chapin takes out the tingler, he then tells Ollie either to notify the police and morgue that night, or he can wait until the morning, ummmm, I’m pretty sure that they’d want to be notified immediately in a case like this.  The design of the tingler was also a bit silly.  It’s not too realistic, and in certain scenes you can quite obviously see the string/wire that was attached to it to make it move.  I have to say though, it was a much better looking design than the creeping terror!!

Some quick facts and tidbits

–        This was the earliest film to show an LSD trip, and this movie was made when LSD was still legal.

–        Pamela Lincoln (Lucy) and Darryl Hickman (David) were engaged in real life.  Darryl Hickman only agreed to be in the film when he was convinced that it would help his fiancée’s career.  He was so convinced that he did the film for no salary.

–        Darryl Hickman had to wear lifts in his shoes to off-set the difference in height between him and Vincent Price.  Darryl Hickman was 5’10”, whereas Vincent Price was 6’4”

–        The Tingler was Vincent Price’s second appearance in a William Castle film, and his last.  The first was The House on Haunted Hill.

–        The cost of the electric buzzers used in the theaters added another $250,000 to the budget of the movie.

–        An alternate warning from Vincent Price was recorded for Drive-In theaters, where he would warn the audience that the tingler was loose in the Drive-In instead of the theater.

–        In the scene in the bathroom with the bright red blood, William Castle filmed the scene with color film, and the set and actress were painted with monochromatic paint, and make-up to get the desired effect.

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