San Diego Classic Film Calendar

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The Tingler

In honor of it being October, I am going to review my all-time favorite horror movie, The Tingler (1959), starring Vincent Price. Producer/director William Castle was known for the gimmicks associated with his horror films, and The Tingler had possibly the best of them all. When released, larger theaters were outfitted with buzzers, which caused certain seats in the theater to vibrate when the monster, the tingler, was supposedly loose in the theater.

This review does contain mild spoilers, but bear in mind that the plot of The Tingler is laughably stupid, so there really isn't that much to spoil. Vincent Price plays a pathologist. While performing an autopsy on a prisoner executed in the electric chair, he notices that something had caused the prisoner's vertebrae to crack, a phenomenon he had seen before. He surmises that when a person is in complete terror, a force within the body is unleashed along the spine. This is what causes the hair on the back of your neck to stand up when you are frightened. This force is dubbed the tingler, and it can only be kept at bay when the person in question screams. Well, it turns out if a person is unable to scream, the tingler can actually leave the body and cause all sorts of mayhem.


There are a number of things that make the The Tingler great:

  • The film opens with a disclaimer with the feel of a 1950s educational film. William Castle warns that people in the audience may feel a strange sensation, and that some will feel it stronger than others, but all will feel it to some degree, and when you do feel it, you just need to scream. It may just save your life.
  • The film is shot in black and white, all except for one scene, where really lurid color is used to great effect. Even now, I still find this scene incredibly creepy.
  • The Tingler is also the first depiction of LSD in a major motion picture. Vincent Price's character takes it to induce a state of terror in order to study the tingler. Writer  of The Tingler Robb White had experimented with LSD at UCLA after hearing about it from Aldous Huxley. In 1959 when the film was made, Timothy Leary hadn't even begun to experiment with the drug. Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was published almost a full decade after The Tingler was made.
  • The tingler itself is this worm-looking creature, basically a big rubber centipede that is pulled along the floor with most of the time visible strings. But what is kind of cool about it is that this it had such an effect on works that followed:
Alien from The Hidden (1987)
Neural parasite from Star Trek TNG, "Conspiracy"
 (Season 1, Episode 24, 1988)
The tingler
Medical scan of neural parasite from "Conspiracy"
X-ray Vincent Price makes of the tingler
Any of these things taken by themselves would make The Tingler worth watching, but for me, what makes The Tingler work is that Castle and in particular Vincent Price treat it completely straight. Rather than being camp and going for laughs, they completely sell it. Don't get me wrong, camp is fun. I love camp, but camp works because it embraces the schlockiness.

The Tingler works not because it is a bad idea, but because it never acknowledges its badness. It is the perfect example of a really stupid idea executed absolutely as well as possibly could be. They don't just hit the nail on the head. They knock it out of the park. They hit it so hard it went into orbit and gave Sputnik a run for its money.

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