William Castle is the greatest showman the horror film has ever known. Not a particularly talented filmmaker, Castle made up for his flaws by coming up with gimmicks that made his movies events. The Tingler was his greatest achievement, not as a movie, but as a piece of pure showmanship and gimmickry.
The plot sounds high concept, but it’s just an excuse for Vincent Price’s scientist to spout some of the most outrageous dialogue ever put to film. While doing an autopsy on a convict killed in the electric chair, Dr. Warren Chapin pontificates on his theory about how fear can physically manifest itself and kill a man. He strikes a quick friendship with the convict’s brother-in-law Ollie, and they go to have coffee with Ollie’s deaf-mute wife. His connection with the couple guides him to his discovery of the Tingler, a rubber toy pulled with a visible string across the floor in certain scenes. His findings lead to a number of over-the-top scenes: in a show stopping performance, Price ingests LSD and takes filmdom’s very first acid trip ; a murder scene in the black-and-white film provides a bathtub of full color blood; Price and his wife have several exchanges about killing each other (writer Robb White has some real issues with marriage); and then there’s the famous climax in the movie theatre. I won’t ruin anything, but Castle pulls out all the stops for what is a memorable, if hard to take seriously, climax.
Things such as ridiculous dialogue, outlandish plotting and an obviously phony monster almost always serve to detract from a movie. In fact, in many of my reviews, I’ve slammed films for containing these very faults. But I have to praise Castle here. Before you go calling me a hypocrite, let me explain. Castle never meant for The Tingler to be a good movie. For him, it wasn’t about the product; it was about the event. Castle made better films in his career, including Strait-Jacket and House on Haunted Hill, but The Tingler is the one everybody remembers, and with good reason. Sure, it’s a dumb film. But it’s dumb in the best possible way. Taken as intended, these flaws actually improve the movie.
A goofy plot and a silly monster were not enough for Castle, though. As The Tingler traveled from theatre to theatre, Castle prepped certain seats with Percepto, a vibrator that would shake the viewer at key moments. Though I’ve seen the movie several times, I’ve never had the privilege of the Percepto experience. So somehow, I feel I’ve never gotten the full effect, and that’s a shame.
Though Columbia Pictures didn’t include Percepto with the DVD, the company does supply a small group of extras that are in the vein of the film. The major special feature is “Scream for Your Lives,” a 16 minute featurette with interviews of several people. Actor Darryl Hickman discusses how he didn’t want to be in the film, but he gets a kick out of Castle, and Vincent Price. Hollywood collector Bob Burns talks about promoting the film when Castle came to town; and hey, he got to strap a Percepto to a seat! Price biographer Lucy Chase Williams provides unintentional humor as she tries to explain the film’s plot. And horror film historian David Skal gives some history. It’s a short piece, but all these people appreciate The Tingler in some way, which makes it a good piece. One minor quibble, though. Whoever shot it should’ve adjusted the color, because everyone looks bleached out. The disc also includes a voice over from Castle that replaced Price’s voice at one point in drive-in theatres. For some reason, there’s also the Price voice over as a separate feature, but this is totally unnecessary. Some talent files and trailers for The Tingler and Night of the Living Dead round out the disc. The Tingler trailer is neat, because Castle talks directly to the audience. It’s worth a watch.
William Castle was never going to be a great director, but he was always a great entertainer. His gimmicks and promotional ploys are legendary stuff among horror fans who love schlock. The Tingler is not my favorite of Castle’s films, but it deserves its place as his crowning glory. It’s not a great movie by any means, but it is most certainly great fun.
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