|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 07 September 1999|
William Castle, who directed "The Tingler," for many years was a journeyman director in Hollywood. He did series movies ("Voice of the Whistler," "The Crime Doctor's Warning"), many B movies ("Johnny Stool Pigeon), independents, lower-grade As, 3D movies ("Fort Ti"), and in the fifties, spear-and-sandal mini-epics ("Slaves of Babylon") and lots of Westerns ("Jesse James Vs. the Daltons," "The Law Vs. Billy the Kid"). But early on, he'd shown some flair for thrillers; his "When Strangers Marry" in 1944 was considered the model of a low-budget mystery. He also had an eye for exploitation; he wrote and directed "It's a Small World," about the trouble a midget had in a world of bigger people.
But things changed for Castle in the late 1950s. As mentioned in our review of his "House on Haunted Hill," he jumped aboard the horror movie bandwagon with "Macabre," a mediocre thriller that didn't scare much of anybody. But Castle shrewdly joined with Lloyd's of London to insure every member of the audience against death by fright; just by attending the movie, you were insured. No one died, of course, but the insurance policy gimmick turned "Macabre" into a genuine hit.
Castle saw the writing on the wall, and immediately turned all his energies to making horror movies. His next film, "House on Haunted Hill," was considerably better than "Macabre," benefiting greatly from the presence of Vincent Price. It had a flashier gimmick, too: in bigger cities, audiences were treated to the occasional sight of a big inflated plastic skeleton floating on wires overhead. Castle continued with his gimmicks; it's a toss-up whether Emergo, the name given the "Haunted Hill" gimmick, or Percepto, the "innovation" he dreamed up for "The Tingler," was his crowning achievement. Maybe he had two crowns.
Percepto is usually mis-described, even by Castle in his autobiography (probably ghost-written). Although most sources claim it electrically shocked the butts of selected customers, actually little war-surplus motors on the underside of some seats whirred, causing unexpected vibrations. Again, this was only in major cities, and, alas, no one has found a way to make Percepto work at home.
But with this DVD of "The Tingler," you almost don't need Percepto. The movie's other major gimmick is preserved intact: when one character staggers into a bathroom, frightened by bizarre stuff that's been happening elsewhere in the apartment, she's horrified to see the basin faucets running red blood. The bathtub is not only filled with vivid red blood, but a grasping arms rises out of the congealing mess. This was a stunning effect (it's hard to figure out how it was done) in theaters, and it works just as well on this DVD.
The story of "The Tingler" is particularly absurd, even for Castle and his frequent writer Robb White. Coroner Vincent Price is researching the effects of fear on the human body, wondering what causes that tingling we all feel in our spines when we're well and truly terrified. He has concluded that it's a living creature, a cockroach-like segmented bug that rapidly grows, starting to crush the spine. Only a human scream reduces it to its normal near-microscopic size. This ludicrous idea is presented with calm -- well, relatively calm -- authority; it's a wonder how the cast got through the scenes without collapsing in fits of giggles.
Price tries to activate his own Tingler by taking LSD -- the first movie ever to even mention the drug. Castle cheats on the effects (just ripples), but Price becomes impressively terrified, screaming at just the last moment. Rats, no Tingler. But then a greedy, mute woman (Judith Evelyn) whose husband runs her silent movie theater (the word "contrived" may come to mind here) goes through the terror described above, collapsing to the floor while clutching her spine.
Her husband (Phillip Coolidge) rushes her body to Price, who removes her Tingler. His wife uses it to try to kill him (and gets away scot-free), but he screams in the nick of time. He then takes it back to the silent movie theater (you're following all this, right?), where it gets loose in the audience. And this is where Percepto came into play.
The DVD includes a pristine print of this timeless classic, as well as isolating the sequence in which the movie blacked out and Price's voice came from the back of the theater, exhorting us all to scream for our lives, because the Tingler is loose in the theater! Eeek! There's even the sound clip Castle himself did for drive-ins. And there is his sober, serious trailer for the movie, some talent biographies, scene selections and the like.
A highlight is a funny, well-produced little documentary about the movie, featuring an interview with co-star Darryl Hickman, who can't seem to stop laughing. Also horror movie expert and collector Bob Burns talks about how he helped Castle promote the film in one town, and David J. Skal adds some comments as well. Lucy Chase Williams, who wrote the respectable The Films of Vincent Price, is also interviewed.
The documentary is very good, but it's "The Tingler" itself that makes this DVD so entertaining. It's only an okay movie, but Price is great (although none of the efforts to make him seem like the villain work at all), and the story itself is a kind of glorious, one-of-a-kind absurdity. We could do with more Percepto movies today.