The Tingler (1959)

D: William Castle
S: Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn

The follow up to The House on Haunted Hill is less ingenious but almost as entertaining, another curious fusion of film noir and science fiction with a preposterous premise worked through some unusual choices by director William Castle. Scientist/coroner/researcher Vincent Price speculates that the tingling sensation we get in our spines when frightened is the result of an actual creature which materialises in moments of extreme distress and dissolves only when we scream. When deaf mute Judith Evelyn meets her untimely demise for reasons best left to actual viewing, Price manages to isolate one of them. At the climax of the film, it gets loose in a movie theatre, at which point, during the original release, certain seats rigged with electrical equipment would deliver a mild shock to unfortunate patrons (including, in one case, patrons at another movie in the same theatre).

Arguably, the gimmick (called 'percepto') is the main point of historical interest here, and it certainly tells us something about the environment in which the film was made. It also raises questions about interactivity and the attempt to save cinema from television by expanding the parameters of the experience. But at the end of the day it was just a marketing gimmick, and the film is best appreciated as the low budget big studio schlock that it is. That said, the direction and photography is relatively crisp and Price does a nice job as always of keeping our attention focused on the mood rather than the script. Curiously though, it's not as clichéd as you'd expect. The set up is incredibly strange and the inclusion of a sub-plot revolving around the owner of a silent movie theatre and his wife lends itself to some very unusual touches (such as the extensive featuring of sign language and a self-reflexive climax where viewers watch substantial clips from Tol'able David). Judith Evelyn gives a most odd performance as the deaf mute and the central premise is just so bizarre that you don't have time to get bored, though it takes quite a long time for the monster to appear. There's even the big screen's first LSD trip and a striking sequence filmed in partial colour, all of which has the feel of an 'everything but the kitchen sink' approach, but which is never dull. The only loose strand of plot is the noirish marital tension between Price and his unfaithful wife which calls to mind The House on Haunted Hill. It tends to slow things down too frequently, but it gets out of the way in time for the big finale with its cryptic ending and hilarious final line.

For all its flaws, The Tingler is very watchable and has been put together with enough canniness to be enjoyable on its own terms ("not just to make fun" as one character observes). Ed Wood struggled hard to make films even as technically competent as this, and seeing Castle (not exactly a great cineaste) manage it with such cheap ease is a salutary lesson in the age of multi-million dollar SFX blockbusters. It's no classic (though it's certainly a cult item), but it's fun if you're in the mood and well disposed to its charms.

Note: The Region 1 DVD of The Tingler features a very entertaining documentary and some rare footage of alternative versions of the climactic 'scream' scene which are certainly worth the rental price alone.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.