The Tingler (1959)

Our host introduced this movie as “camp” but on watching it, I disagree. One of the charming things about low-budget movies from this era—the better ones, anyway—is that they try to compensate for lack of money with tons of heart. Some of them are overwhelmed by incompetence or just crushingly low budgets (like Plan 9 or Cat Women) so that you end up just smiling at the audacity of it all, but The Tingler is genuinely and conventionally good if you can suspend disbelief enough.

Mostly.

It’s mostly black-and-white.

The plot is grandly audacious: Vincent Price plays a doctor, a mad scientist of a sort, who has an outré theory that the tingling caused in the base of your spine by fear (does anyone get that?) is caused by an actual creature, the titular tingler, and the only thing that keeps it at bay is screaming. And so he posits that if he could just get someone who couldn’t scream, that tingler would actually snap his spine. Well, in our opening scene at the electric chair, he meets the executed’s brother-in-law (?) Ollie (character actor Philip Coolidge, seen in Alfred Hitchcock stuff like North by Northwest) and ol’ Ollie just happens to have a wife that is mute.

In traditional William Castle form, there’s a set up for a murder, a mystery, a twist, some very hokey haunted-house level—’50s haunted-house level—horror effects, and then an actual tingler, which in these days of high-resolution is so clearly pulled along by a string that it makes you go “Awwwwww”. It’s fun.

Tingle with me!

The tingler attacks the projectionist IN YOUR VERY THEATER!

Castle knocks the audacity up a notch by coming out at the beginning of the movie to warn everyone of the dangers of not screaming, and in the climactic scene the tingler runs (squirms? is dragged?) through a darkened movie theater where the patrons must scream to scare it off. There’s literally about five minutes of people screaming, and I guess when people watch it these days, they scream, too, though our showing was relatively low-key.

A little less charming is the fact that the end of the film is grossly padded out with scenes from the silent movie playing in the theater, 1921’s Tol’able David, which was also made on a shoestring budget. It’s a poor choice besides all the obvious reasons because it’s not scary. I’m sure Nosferatu and several other spooky silents were in the public domain, but if I had to guess I’d say this is the movie Castle had cans of lying around. It is a little surreal the way it’s spliced in, but it steals the hard-won momentum provided by a suitably hammy Vincent Price.

Price’s wife (Patricia Cutts, who also had a small role in North By Northwest) is a harridan in this, much like Price’s wife (Carol Ohmert) in Castle’s other big picture in ’59, House on Haunted Hill. I’m not saying Castle had issues, but he sure loved the wife-harridan trope as much as he loved the pure-as-driven-snow-ingenue trope.

Our host thought the premise of the “preposterous”, but good horror premises are preposterous, and I thought it was an idea that could be done well, even if none of the other Castle remakes went over that well. But as I said: It’s fun, and charming, and at 82 minutes, did not disappoint.

Maybe a lot.

OK, maybe it’s a little campy.

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