A scientist (played by Vincent Price with his usual aplomb) discovers an organism that attaches itself to the human spine and feeds on the feeling of fear from the host person. The parasite is known to be present as it makes the spine of the person feel a tingling sensation. For this reason its known as a Tingler.
Add into this premise a plot line involving a couple who own a small cinema, one of whom is deaf and mute and another story strand involving the wife of Price’s character and her potential infidelity.
I was obsessed with the film’s director William Castle as a boy as I had read so much about the gimmicks he dreamt up to make the audience’s moviegoing experience something out of the ordinary and in keeping with a ‘roll up, roll up’ circus host as well as a filmmaker.
The gimmick for The Tingler was for some of the seats in the larger cinemas to have an electrical device attached underneath so that some audience members really did feel a tingling sensation at the end of the film when Price’s character has to announce to the cinema audience within the film that The Tingler is loose in the theater somewhere. Castle also employed planted screamers in the audience and people who were told to faint at specific points. A young John Waters famously went to see this film on its original release time after time but only after checking under every seat until he found a seat that had the device attached.
As I had read plenty about Castle and his brilliant brand of showmanship it was almost as if this overshadowed the actual films. His films weren’t available in England when I first read about his work and so there was an agonising wait before I could see any of his filmography.
And here in lies his greatest gimmick. For all of the pranks and hoopla, his film’s are actually amazingly made, beautiful to look at and constantly achieve just the balance of terror, kitsch and camp.
The Tingler is no exception. It captures the opulence and majesty of 50’s American living in some scenes (check out the set design) but also a kind of affectionate simplicity of small town life symbolised by the gorgeous little moviehouse.
But then theres the pure hilarity of The Tingler which is obviously a large rubber bug. Its one of the funniest scenes in the movie when Price tries to convince fellow characters that The Tingler could in fact kill a man effortlessly and quickly. But then thats the magic of Price- a camp knowingness and deadpan delivery. A raised eyebrow from him says more than a hundred lines from an inferior actor.
Even the introduction from Castle could be evaluated as high art if it was viewed merely as a short film rather than as an intro to his movie. The filmmaker warns people of what is to come and that they should scream for their lives if they experience what is being played out to them on the screen.
High art. C’mon Criterion- release a William Castle boxset already.