Ominous October: The Tingler (1959)
It’s October, which means that as the leaves change colors and there is a chill in the air, we here at the Picture Show conjure a chill up our spines. Join us as we take fresh looks at a series of spooky films from the past. This week, Samantha and Rodney turn the focus on The Tingler.
RODNEY BOWCOCK: Vincent Price stars as Dr, Warren Chapin. He’s a pathologist/coroner that has been conducting a study (mostly via criminals that die in the electric chair, it seems). Through this study, he discovers that a parasite attaches to the human spine when we are frightened called a tingler. (It is also explained that we cannot have a Latin name for it because no-one is certain what it is.) The only way to weaken the grip that this crustacean-like creature has on the spine is to scream.
Chapin is disdained at home by his wife (Patricia Cutts), who openly cheats on him with other men. He vaguely threatens to murder her several times, but she is nonplussed by this sort of behavior.
Have you two met? In the same alley perhaps?
Curiously, Chapin is beloved by his sister-in-law (Pamela Lincoln) who seems to dote on him. He is also enabled in his research by her fiancé, played by Darryl Hickman, who does little to move these proceedings along at all.
Coincidentally, Chapin meets up with Oliver Higgins (Philip Coolidge) who runs a movie theater with his deaf and dumb wife that only shows silent films.
SAMANTHA GLASSER: I always love to see a movie marquee in an old movie, especially for a revival house. This one delivers both exterior and interior scenes as well as footage from Tol'able David.
RB: Inspired by Chapin’s research, Higgins, bored with the movie business and presumably wanting to spend more time drinking beer, takes it upon himself to frighten his wife to death knowing that she cannot scream, and will be overtaken by the tingler. After bringing her body to Chapin’s lab for an autopsy, he inexplicably insists on taking her back home with him to their apartment over the theater, and that’s when the tingler escapes and the spectacle that the film is best known for kicks into high gear.
SG: Although he seems to feel completely innocent in the matter, Chapin assists Higgins in his dastardly deed. It is really awful to see Martha subjected to these truly terrifying scenes. A body slowly emerges from her husband's bed, revealing itself to be a nightmarish ghoul with a knife and ill intentions. She escapes to the bathroom to see the tap on and blood running down the drain; we have established that she routinely faints at the sight of blood so it is a wonder this scene goes on, but it does. This is a brilliant use of color on the part of the filmmakers. A tub full of deep dark red blood hides a hand that slowly rises up from the thick liquid. This bathroom scene reminds me of the one in The Shining which came about twenty years later, a slow methodical reveal of terror after terror in what should be a clean, sterile setting but isn't.
The rest of the movie, unfortunately, isn't as successfully done. The transitions between scenes are awkward. Price's performance in the scene where he is artificially terrified is tremendously broad and laugh-inducing, which to be fair is part of the fun of this movie. If you can laugh at it, you'll get more enjoyment from it than if you take it 100% seriously. Check out the featurette on the DVD where Hickman spends the majority of his clips laughing at the absurdity of the movie and the fact that its reputation has endured for all these years.
RB: The details of how the Percepto gimmick, which involves lightly electrified theater seats has been well documented, but less so was an additional gimmick employed by Castle. Each theater screening the film was to hire a woman to sit in the first 3-4 rows of the theater. At a certain time in the picture (right around the time of the seats being electrified) the woman was to scream at the top of her lungs, and appear to faint. At this point, two ushers dressed as nurses were to go down the hall carrying a stretcher and carry the woman out. The pandemonium that must’ve ensued in theaters with all of this madness going on must’ve really been something to see. And that, I suppose, is part of the problem.
Until this final reel unspools and all hell breaks loose, nothing much really happens in this movie. I was shocked at what a slog it was, especially early on. I appreciated the details of a silent movie theater being used, and it reminded me of the legendary Silent Movie Theater in Hollywood, which was home to real life terrors that couldn’t be imagined in this film (I saw some Laurel and Hardy silents there with a packed house. Great fun!), but nothing much was done with it. Likewise the use of LSD in the film (for the first time ever in a movie) and I thought there was potential in the domestic troubles. None of those things really went anywhere.
SG: I've been trying to puzzle together the reason for the troubled relationship between Chapin and his wife. Was it to make us sympathetic to the unsympathetic doctor who preyed upon disabled and doomed people to study the tingler? Was it to draw a parallel between the doctor and Higgins, one who wanted to murder his wife and one who went through with it? As it stands, her rampant infidelity is a red herring, though I think had more care been put into the story, it could have been an interesting subplot.
Let's talk about the tingler. This bug-like creature is creepy for a couple of reasons. Who isn't a little bit unnerved by creatures with many legs? Even a tree-hugger like me who catches bugs from inside the house and releases them outside will inadvertently scream when I see a centipede, so the design of the tingler is a very good one to trigger a negative response from a movie audience. It also reminds me of an especially creepy episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer called "Bad Eggs" about a scorpion-like parasite that attached itself to its host's spine and controlled their behavior. Of course contemporary audiences wouldn't have had that reference to draw upon, but it made my viewing experience better. The tingler design isn't sophisticated the way a modern version might be, but Price's acting shows us that its grip is strong and painful, and the way its body pulsates is enough to make me feel repulsed.
RB: The last ten minutes really are epic, and I always enjoy the opportunity to see Vincent Price chew the scenery, which he does often in this movie, but overall, I wound up feeling let down and disappointed. Two and a half stars.
SG: I liked the clunkiness of this movie, the alternating moments of extreme ridiculousness and brilliance. If I had been a part of the original audience where hysterical audience members were screaming and I was getting buzzed in my seat, I might have enjoyed it even more. As it stands, this is a three star movie in my book.