If you’re unfamiliar with the works of William Castle here’s what you need to know. Castle was a producer/director famous for his novelty special effects and showmanship. He produced films like 13 Ghosts, House on Haunted Hill, and Zotz! Equal parts hustler, filmmaker, a pioneer; Castle’s probably most famous for providing audiences with uniquely novel theater experiences. From wearing special glasses that allowed patrons to ‘see’ ghosts on screen or rigging theater seats with large vibrators that shook people out of their chairs there was no gimmick Castle wouldn’t try.
The gimmick he created for The Tingler were seat-vibrators AKA Percepto! Castle bought hundreds of vibrating machines and installed them in theaters across the country and at the appropriate moment a theater employee would flip the switch shaking audience members right out of their seats. What a time for movies. The time of Smell-O-Vision and 3D movies. People were begging to be wowed in the theaters and Castle was the man for the job.
Even if it didn’t have any of Castle’s patented (probably literally patented) gimmicks, The Tingler would still be an odd movie. An unhappily married scientist (Vincent Price) discovers that people can be literally scared to death. His research reveals that every human has a small symbiotic centipede-like creature at the base of our skulls that feed off our fear. He calls this creature the tingler. When the host experiences great fear the tingler swells or seizes that puts enough strain on the spine to kill its host… unless they scream. Yes, humans evolved to scream when frightened as a way to survive the concussions of these invisible spine-bugs we’ve all got in our necks.
Price’s character is friends with a silent film theater owner that shows exclusively silent films partially because his wife is deaf and mute. That seems sweet right? Theater owner only plays silent films because his wife can’t enjoy talkies, that’s so romantic! No. No it isn’t. It’s a ruse. He wants her dead! What a twist! The theater owner Oliver Higgins (played by Phillip Coolidge) scares his wife to death because, as a mute, she cannot scream when frightened to release the pressure of the feeding tingler!
How exactly do you frighten someone to death? What could be scary enough to make someone go full fainting-goat and fall over dead? In The Tingler it’s a bad LSD trip. Price gives the poor theater owners wife a dose of LSD that gives her waking nightmares of a hatchet wielding monster chasing her around her apartment until she finds herself in the bathroom where the sink runs red with blood. Turning away from the sink she finds the tub full of blood as a human hand claws out from under the surface grasping towards her face. She dies of fright on the cold tile.
To determine the cause of death Price extracts the tingler from the dead woman’s body. Of course the tingler escapes and runs through the silent film theater downstairs. This is a monster movie after all. Enter Percepto! Price runs into the theater and demands the projector be shut off so no-one will be frightened by the sight of the tingler and the screen goes black. Not just the screen in The Tingler but the screen you’re watching goes black too. Now in 1959 you’d be sitting in a dark theater. That’s when the Percepto! operator strikes! Activating the vibrating seats and giving the audience a rattle all while Price instructs everyone in the theater to scream lest they die of fright! I hope it worked. I really hope that somewhere in 1959 people stood up from their vibrating seats in a dark theater and screamed for their lives. Eventually the lights come back on and the tingler is pacified and put back into the dead woman’s body. Grisly, I know.
It’s easy to dismiss Castle as a filmmaker because his work is campy and that’s not in vogue but imagine where theme park rides would be without innovators like Castle. I keep seeing videos online of this Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: BREAKOUT! ride at Disney parks where the guests are put into a Tower of Terror style elevator ride that drops you from floor to floor and bombards you with loud music while videos of the superheroes fighting aliens and doing slapstick comedy play between falls. I see this and think it’s exactly what Castle was suited for. He should’ve been an imagineer and if he’d been born 50 years later maybe he would’ve.
I think Castle set out to make The Tingler a unique experience. Even watching it at home 60 years later it was a fun wild ride. I haven’t mentioned it yet but the film was shot in black and white which meant that even tho I couldn’t experience Percepto! I got the full effect of the blood red sink/tub combo in glorious HD. The Tingler isn’t as famous for it’s enduring relevance like The Wizard of Oz or Citizen Kane but in my experience it’s still effective and enjoyable.