I had something else in mind for this weekend (I'm not saying what, in case I end up watching it later), but when I saw The Tingler would be playing on Turner Classic Movies, I knew that I didn't have it in me to pass up my only chance to review a William Castle picture in my tour of the 1000 greatest movies of all time. More than anything, I just really wanted to write a sentence including the phrases "William Castle" and "greatest movies of all time."
And who, one might ask in these weary post-ironic days, is William Castle? Only the greatest huckster in the history of the cinematic arts - the man who perfected the art of incorporating the audience into his cheap little matinee shockers through everything from tinted glasses that revealed "ghosts" on the film to skeletons falling on the audience from above to the evergreen "death insurance" for anyone who died of fright during the movie. It was in The Tingler that Castle created his most famous gimmick: Percepto. At a certain point in the film, "especially sensitive" members of the audience would feel the film's creature who killed by sheer terror, with just a little bit of help from the buzzers Castle had installed in some of the seats at theatres showing his film.
But that's getting ahead of things just a little bit. Besides, all the theoretical knowledge in the world isn't much use to a modern viewer watching The Tingler from the comfort of his or her non-Percepto-enabled living room. That doesn't really matter, because the film is a pure candy-covered delight of earnest goofiness.
The film opens with the director himself coming out to inform us that we might just feel a certain tingling, and if we do, the only thing that can save us is to scream loudly. With that, he steps aside and the picture begins, but we've already learned a couple things about Mr. Castle: he's not a very good actor, and he loves the hell out of his job. Though he may speak in stern tones, and though he may hold his mouth very seriously, there's no way he can stop his eyes from smiling the widest damn smile you have ever seen. For William Castle, Percepto wasn't a marketing trick (not just a marketing trick, anyhow), it was a way of having fun, and of giving the audience a chance to have fun, and as long as everybody's having so much fun, let's just go and make The Tingler as much fan as we possibly can, shall we? This is what that opening shot with that twinkle-eyed middle-aged man tells me. That he is very happy that I'm going to have fun watching his movie.
And you know something? It is fun. It is as much fun - deliberate, campy, tongue-in-cheek fun - as any movie from that grand era of drive-ins and Saturday matinees. It is a very silly movie, but a movie that has no desire to be thought of as serious. It is very possibly the most fun of all the William Castle films I have seen (though House on Haunted Hill might surpass it, and I can't help but notice that both films share the same lead actor), and though I am tempted to call it a good bad movie, there's nothing really bad about something so good-natured, a film that laughs along with us at its ludicrous science and rubbery monster and combustive melodrama.
So here's what happens: Dr. Warren Chapin is a pathologist whose official job is studying causes of death, and whose unofficial job, financed by his wealthy wife who is a psychotic bitch, is studying the physical effects of fear on the human body, and who is played by Vincent Price. If you're any kind of fan of B-pictures, you know it's this last fact that is actually important. We don't care about Vincent Price's characters because of who they are, but because of what they allow the actor to do: is Vincent going to take over the world with a giant machine in this film? or hunt vampires? or trap people in a haunted house? or match wills with a giant fear-eating worm?
Yes! The Tingler, at first Warren's name for the unnamed force that crushes the spines of those who die of fright, turns out to be a two-foot proto-arthropod beastie, and a fine piece of low-budget effects it turns out to be, even it moves suspiciously like a puppet being pulled on a string. However, that comes much later in the film. First, we get to meet the incredibly messed-up cast of loonies Castle has lined up for us: Warren's vicious wife Isabel, played by the minor character actress Patricia Cutts, who gets to toss around bile-laden quips with Price that would have done Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee proud; her sister Lucy (Pamela Lincoln) who lives with the couple on her wealthy sister's dime; Lucy's boyfriend and Warren's assistant David (Darryl Hickman), a feckless, penniless little man; Ollie Higgins (Philip Coolidge), the uncomfortably laconic operator of a silent film theatre; and Ollie's deaf-mute wife Martha (Judith Evelyn), who suffers from a literally crippling phobia of germs and blood: when Warren accidentally cuts himself on a broken cup, the sight of his little wound sends her into a catatonic seizure.
I'd never dream of spoiling the waves of psuedo-science that Warren uncovers as his investigations unspool, save that I must give the highest of accolades to Price for the incredibly straight-laced manner in which he delivers the increasingly senseless dialogue. I've called Vincent Price the greatest of bad actors, but that's not right: he's honestly straight-up great, it's just that he felt that his talents were not needed for Shakespeare or historical epics, but for playing reanimated corpses, witchfinders general and madmen out of Poe. In The Tingler, he plays virtually an entirely film as straight as straight could be, coasting on all the baggage we in the audience carry with us in any Vincent Price movie, and only unloading his gonzo hamminess in one giant whoosh midway through.
You see, Warren Chapin cannot feel fear, probably because he lives with a woman that he's been expecting will murder him any day now for their whole married life. So in order to understand terror, he takes a large dose of an experimental drug called lysergic acid.
Vincent Price, ladies and gentlemen, had the rare honor of starring in the cinema's first-ever acid trip, and it's a magnificent doozy of overwrought histrionics. I would dream of spoiling this part either, but how any red-blooded American could hear "Vincent Price's acid trip," and not fall over themselves rushing to find a copy of the movie is beyond my comprehension.
The movie keeps on cranking, including one amazing color sequence which was shot on color stock with almost everything designed and costumed and made-up in black and white except for the most lurid blood you've ever seen on film (a sequence that falls apart on a close narrative analysis, but by that point you're either totally under the film's spell, or you're even more of a mirthless crank than I am, and God help you), and eventually comes to the reason, boys and girls, that we plunked down our pocket change to see this fine motion picture on a sunny Saturday morning. As such things will, the Tingler escapes into a crowded movie theater (showing the 1921 feature Tol'able David), and Price wisely decides that the best way to deal with this will be to shut off all the lights and command the audience to scream. Which they do, with admirable force. And then a few minutes later, it happens again - except this time, ohmigod, it's our theatre! The film stops, and Percepto kicks in as Price begs us to scream for our lives, the rigged chairs buzz merrily away, Castle's hired shills scream and faint dead away in the auditorium and piped-in screams on the soundtrack tells us that it's here! no it's over here! There's obviously no way that this can be recreated, ever, but that is why we have imaginations, and there's something exceptionally marvelous about Castle's art that 50 years later, sitting on my couch, I got to play pretend while I was watching a cheap sci-fi horror flick on expanded cable. It's all incredibly silly, but it's a very particular kind of silly that would take a steel-clad grouch to fault. Maybe that makes it one of the 1000 greatest films of all time, I don't know. It's unquestionably one of the 1000 most enjoyable.