Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Last week we watched The Tingler (1959), directed by William Castle and staring Vincent Price. It was crazy amounts of fun! I’m not saying that it was a perfect movie. But for pure entertainment value you could do worse than watching one of the creepiest actors in the history of film doing battle with a parasite that feeds on pure terror. Yes, that’s the plot of the film. Oh, it gets worse. And so much better. Let this be your warning: This Review Contains Spoilers!
We’ll start with the plot. It isn’t the movie’s strong point. Vincent Price is Dr. Warren Chapin, who performs autopsies at the State Prison on inmates who have been executed. He’s been noticing that victims in the electric chair who die often have cracked spines. He believes that he sees this especially in cases where the deceased was extremely frightened prior to death. Therefore, he reaches the logical conclusion that there is some physical manifestation of fear that wraps itself around the spinal cord and cracks the spine. He mentions this research in passing to the brother-in-law of the most recently executed inmate. This brother-in-law, Ollie, is played by Philip Coolidge, in what is perhaps the worst performance in the film. Anyway, Ollie does what any one of us would do if a deranged 6’4″ medical examiner with a pencil-thin mustache told us about their creepy experiments on corpses and fear. He invites Dr. Chapin to coffee at his house. There, Chapin meets Ollie’s wife (Judith Evelyn), a deaf mute who Ollie doesn’t get along with well. Dr. Chapin goes home, where he talks with his Sister-in-Law, Lucy, about his Wife (her guardian) who is out on the town getting laid. Dr. Chapin doesn’t seem too upset about the fact that his wife is cheating, but does seem upset at the way she treats Lucy who is, of course, in love with Chapin’s lab assistant, David. The weird inner-workings of Dr. and Mrs. Chapin’s love lives are intensely important up until about two-thirds of the way through the movie. Once they’ve served to help the Doc finally discover “The Tingler” (a parasite that lives in every human and feeds on pure fear) they become less important. After the cheating-wife subplot serves it’s final purpose of allowing the monster to get loose, well… at that point, Mrs. Chapin’s character disappears entirely, and we’re simply told she’s going to leave Lucy and David alone. The Tingler gets loose, is captured, and gets loose again. Though it turns out, in the end, the real monster was mankind.
This movie does have a twist. I’ve read reviews that don’t think too highly of it, but I disagree. As I said, the plot isn’t the movie’s strong point, but I think this comes off wonderfully. Throughout the movie, it’s established that Price’s character is cold and ruthless in his pursuit of science, and specifically his pursuit of finding the Tingler. He often jokes darkly about finding someone who is willing to “die for science.” He tricks his wife into submitting to an experiment in fright. And by “tricks,” I mean “pretends to murder her.” Later, he drops acid and has hallucinations – in pursuit of science! Finally, he goes on a rant about how he’ll never really discover the Tingler because (according to him) our ability to scream to release our fright causes it to diminish into nothing. Then, luckily, he’s called to check up on Ollie’s wife, the deaf mute, a woman who cannot scream. He gives her a shot of something, claiming it’s a sedative, and leaves. Ollie’s wife has what appears to be a bad, LSD induced trip. Monsters come out of closets, doors open and close, all sorts of stuff. She can’t scream, and she dies of fright. We’re led to believe that Price’s character submitted this woman to a drug and caused her death.
But it was Ollie. After the audience has already drawn their conclusions about what a terrible human Dr. Chapin is, we see Ollie carrying away the props that he used to scare his wife. I didn’t see it coming. Maybe that makes me naïve, but I was impressed.
Okay, so, plenty of schlock science, some massive plot holes, and a bunch of threads so loose they just should have been pulled out. What about the effects? Let’s give some allowance for the fact that this was 1959, and some for the fact that I wasn’t in a theater with joy-buzzers on the seats (a gimmick called “Percepto” that Director William Castle used to make the audience “feel” the Tingler). All that said, the effects range from truly terrible (the Tingler itself, whenever it is on-screen) to decent. But there is one mind-blowingly wonderful and subtle move by the director that made both my wife and I sit up straight in our seats and scream “no way!” William Castle is known for being gimmicky, and this schlocky film is no exception. What I didn’t expect, what I couldn’t see coming, was an exercise in restraint. The film is done in black and white. It keeps the budget down, of course. But when Ollie’s wife is on her bad trip, she walks into the bathroom, looks at the sink, and it is running with blood. Red blood. She turns to the bathtub, and it’s filled with thick, bright red blood. It’s the only color used in the whole film, it’s only used in one scene, and it took us entirely by surprise.
I gave this movie 3.5 out of 5 stars because it was fun, because of the color effect that comes out of nowhere, and because, even with all the bad science and the lame monster effects (and the audience participation gimmicks), there’s a pretty chilling idea here that stays with you. Fear is tension, and you really do feel it in your spine. When you get up after the movie, and your spine is tight from all the tense moments in the film, you really do ask yourself: could I die of fright? Is there a Tingler inside me?
Of course there isn’t. Of course there isn’t. Of course there isn’t.