The Bad Movie Report

The Tingler

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I may have finally made up for lost time with this, my third Vincent Price movie in a row. A couple of months ago, ofttimes correspondent George Greaney sent me an extremely cool letter, which I did not post to the Mail section, but instead selfishly put aside for just this occasion:

An amazing thing happened to me last night, almost revelatory - I was scared witless by a 1950's black-and-white B movie!

Impossible you say? Could such a level of fear be induced by bad acting and rubbery appendages? Well ordinarily yes. But allow me to explain.

I had settled down for the night in bed, and not particularly sleepy, I decided to watch a film from my library. Recently I had watched the Vincent Price/Roger Corman movies, so I was inspired to watch one of Price's movies made by William Castle. I selected - The Tingler.

Now I am sure you have, at some point, seen this one as have I, many times. As the story unfolded, this time around I was impressed with Price's masterful handling of mediocre dialog (compared to the Poe movies) and how well he worked within the low-budget constraints of the film. (One point: at the beginning of the film, after Price does the autopsy on the executed convict, he leaves and turns out the light, leaving the cadaver on the examining table - shouldn't he put the body in a locker for storage - surely it hadn't yet been embalmed. Even Whit Bissel put Gary Conway away after working on him). The other point was that Price's youthful assistant was Darryl Hickman, brother of Dobie Gillis (whom Price would work with in the first Dr. Goldfoot movie).

Anyway, as the movie wound on, up to the scene where Price tries to return the Tingler to the dead body of the theater owner's wife but loses it, I caught something out of the corner of my eye. Looking down at the bedsheet, I saw, not inches from my face, and creeping up on my steadily was - the Tingler itself!

The Tingler - the posterNeedless to say, I jumped out of bed (upsetting my cat who had been sleeping happily next to me) in fright. I broke in a cold sweat and then looked back at the bed to see what the hell that thing was...

[Explanatory interlude:] The is a lesser known Poe story, "The Sphinx" about a guy who is staying with a friend in upstate New York, who spies a giant, weird creature crossing the grounds of his friend's house while looking out of an upper window. This happens several times, until the friend points out the "thing" is a tiny bug crawling on the window 1/16 of an inch from the narrator eye. It is the mistaken perception of distance that made this thing appear to be monstrous. Oddly enough, there is a TV film of Vincent Price telling just very story that I saw many years ago. [now back to my story]

Upon inspection, I found the "Tingler" I thought I saw was a little bug, maybe a fourth of inch long that bore an uncanny resemblance to the "Tingler" in the movie - lot of little legs, two large antenna on its head and two smaller one on its rear (Not to surprising a resemblance though, certainly something similar was used as a model for the movie creature).

Like the Poe story, the fact that it was a few inches from my eye, that I looked at while my eye was still focused on the TV some ten feet away, and that I was sleepy (by this point) was enough to magnify this minute bug into the monster from the movie. (Of course, that such a bug should be crawling anywhere in my house is alarming enough - the cat is slacking off in her job, I guess).

Other than the bizarre coincidence that  I should be watching a movie with a monster that resembles a "bed bug" that I discover in bed with me at the same time, and that the whole thing imitates the last scene of the movie, where the people in the theater are watching a movie (in this case a silent Western - it would have been really cool if they were watching another Vincent Price movie, like the end of Targets) while the Tingler creeps up on them, was for a brief moment, I remembered what it was like to see these creatures as creatures, not foam rubber and wires, like I did when I was a kid. When I would see a preview of Gamera the Invincible (on at a time, waaaay past my bedtime - in an era waaaay before vcrs, so I would never see the movie, just the previews)and not think - "It's a guy in a rubber turtle suit" or even "If it were real, it wouldn't be able to support its own weight" - but just be both frightened and curious, thinking "Invincible? That means it can't be stopped! How does the movie end?". In short (after having read all this!) I recalled, for one brief moment, why these movies are so fun to watch...

If only this would happen more often.

And there we have this week's review. Good night, everybody. Drive safely.

What? You want more? *sigh*.

After William Castle himself gives a curtain speech, explaining how some people are more more sensitive than others to No.... not 'La Vida Loca" AGAIN!!!! NOOOOOOO!certain "electronic impulses" (snicker), and that we should all let out a good, healthy scream if necessary, we are treated to not one, but three William Castle Floating Heads™, each of which is screaming its, er, fool... head... off.... (Man, clichés are dangerous!)

This segues into a terrified convict making the last walk (in this case, drag) to the electric chair. Vinnie is Dr. Warren Chapin, a pathologist who is conducting research into the nature of fear (note to self: e-mail Liz and ask her if there is a name for this discipline), and as a sideline, performing autopsies for the state. While checking over the body of the convict, he meets the dead man's brother-in-law, Ollie (Philip Coolidge), a fellow who doesn't faint at the sight of a corpse opened up like a can of beans. Warren also finds that the convict's vertebrae are cracked, as if from some great pressure. It isn't the first time he's seen that, he tells Ollie; fear possesses great power, and his research aims to discover the nature of that power.

"And when I put my hands together like this, they make this flatulent sound, and I... what?  What's wrong?"Warren gives Ollie a ride home. Home, in this case is a movie theater Ollie runs, along with his wife Martha, a deaf-mute. As the building and all the money is owned by Martha, the theater only shows silent movies. When Warren accidentally cuts himself, we also find out that Martha has a blood phobia; unable to scream, she stiffens and faints. Warren identifies this not as a faint, but a psychosomatic retreat from consciousness - unable to scream and release the tension, Martha has put herself into a mini-coma.

After reviving the unfortunate woman (her first act upon regaining consciousness is opening the nearby safe and making sure all her money is still there - this lady has issues), Warren returns home. We find that once again Vinnie plays a man trapped in a loveless marriage with a murderous blonde, in this case Isabel (Patricia Cutts). It is intimated that Isabel poisoned her father for his fortune; she is now not only philandering quite openly on Warren, but also conspiring to make life miserable for her much more likable sister, Lucy (Pamela Lincoln) and her beau David (Darryl Hickman, the above-mentioned bro to Dobie Gillis), who just happens to be Warren's assistant.

Okay, now that we have the dramatis personae of our little Peyton Place (and Harper Valley hypocrites), we can get on with"To tell the truth, I haven't quite recovered from my LAST relationship." our plot. Warren, after spying Isabel sucking face on the street with her latest boytoy, spends some time threatening his feckless wife on Lucy's behalf, then shoots her; he then places her on an examining table and exposes a few X-ray plates. Surprise, surprise, the gun was filled with blanks and this was merely Warren's latest experiment. Isabel warns him that when it comes her turn, "it won't be an experiment".

The next day, Warren shows David the X-rays - they show a bizarre, insectoid creature that grew along Isobel's spine at the moment of greatest fear, then shrank back to microscopic size as the fear decreased while its host was unconscious. This is the factor that Warren has worked most of his life to isolate, and dubbed the Tingler: apparently present in all people, this organism feeds on fear, growing along the spinal column. Its growth causes the tingling sensation associated with a good scare (so take that, kid in The Sixth Sense: it ain't dead people, it's a bug that lives in our tailbone).

Wait... are they playing 'La Vida Loca'?With at least photographic evidence to narrow down the search, Warren tries to scare himself to feel the power of the Tingler. Finding himself "too grown up" to accomplish this, he turns to science, locking himself in his lab and injecting himself with a new experimental drug - lysergic acid diethylimide 25, better known to the rest of us as LSD. Yes, if nothing else, The Tingler is important historically as the very first acid film. Warren doses himself with double the suggested norm, 100 micrograms. (100 mikes! In college, we used to speak with hushed reverence of rumored doses of 300 mikes, and envisioned one rock star in particular, sitting in his hotel room, hair blowing in a non-existent wind. Even at one-third this dosage, 100 mikes is a bit... extreme). This means that Vinnie gets to do the first recorded acid freakout, and it's a good'un. Although he reminds himself not to scream, he eventually does, and passes out.

Admitting failure afterwards, Warren visits Ollie and Martha to check on the woman; after all, she probably represents his Woman in spa tragedy!  Film at eleven!best chance at further experiments. Finding her suffering from a severe case of nerves, he gives her an injection to make her sleep, and hands Ollie a scrip for sleeping pills. After making sure that Martha will stay out long enough for him to have a beer, Ollie traipses off to the corner drug store for the pills.

When Martha wakes up, she finds a lot of unwelcome phenomena occurring, like doors and windows closing themselves. Trying to rouse the sleeping Ollie, she instead finds a knife-wielding monster in his bed. Retreating to the bathroom, she finds the sink and bathtub full of blood (and a sequence in color, just for that scene). A bloody hand reaches out from the tub for her; she tries to scream, fails; her back stiffens, and she falls, dead.

I don't HAVE any Tingler treats!  Get down!  Bad Tingler!  Bad boy!Ollie brings her to Warren's home lab, worried that his earlier injection may have caused her collapse. Though Ollie felt her move in his arms, and her sheet-covered body sits up, Martha has been dead for over an hour. Quickly performing an impromptu autopsy, Warren pulls from her body an enormous, still-living Tingler (and just as George pointed out, it looks like a giant silverfish). Isabel comes in to see what the commotion is, as the Tingler wraps its pincers around Warren's arm until he screams in pain. The scream knocks the Tingler out, just as it would, apparently, were it still inside its host.

Ollie takes his wife's body back home, to alert the funeral home and the police. Isabel suggests she and Warren celebrate his discovery, and her discovery that she's been a bad widdle wife. Warren switches drinks with her, just in case... of course the wily murderess counted on this, and her drink was the drugged one. Isabel releases the Tingler on the unconscious Warren, and he is saved from strangulation only by the "Is this where your neck hurts?  Down here?"well-timed arrival of Lucy and her startled scream.

Warren and David attempt to find a way to destroy the Tingler, to no avail - it's apparently invulnerable. Warren decides he's tampered in God's domain and has to replace the Tingler in Martha's body, where hopefully nature will take its course and the Tingler will shrink and die. Finding that Ollie has not contacted a mortician or the police, Warren realizes what's going on, and interrupts Ollie in his packing, finding the equipment he used to scare his wife to death. After the recriminations and Ollie's revelation that Martha had tried to kill him several times ("You don't know what it was like!" "Yes, Ollie, I'm afraid I do."), the two men make the harrowing discovery that the Tingler has broken out of its steel cage and escaped into the theater.

The Tingler crawls up one audience member's leg, is subdued by her scream, then wriggles into the projection booth. The "Are you my mommy?"film breaks, then the silhouette of the Tingler crawls across the now-white screen. Everything goes black. In the darkness, we hear Price's voice: "The Tingler is loose in the theater! Scream! Scream for your lives!!!" followed by a chorus of screams and ad libs, such as "Look out! It's on your shoulder!" This was the cue for the Castle's gimmick for this film: PERCEPTO (though it could be argued the color segment is also part of it): certain chairs were wired with very low amounts of electricity, to provide a tingling sensation - the "electronic impulses" Castle spoke of earlier. A cheaper version utilized that standard of magic acts, paid shills in the audience, who screamed and acted up at this point, adding a more immediate dimension to the jiggery-pokery onscreen.

The projectionist, attacked by the Tingler, screams and knocks it out (unlike that girly scream in the auditorium, I suppose). Warren places the wormy thing back in Martha's body, and leaves to get the cops. Ollie tries to make his escape, but the door and windows again slam shut, trapping him, and the shrouded corpse of his victim rises from the bed, dead eyes staring at him. Ollie retreats to the corner, the corpse advancing on him. He would scream, but he's too scared....

The end.

The Tingler is yet another of William Castle's kid-friendly horror films from the late 50's (House on Haunted Hill and 13 Ghosts being the others), and I believe this is how most of the fans of this movie first encountered it: as children, either in the theater or on TV. In the 60's, Castle would try to move into more mature fare with the likes of The Night Walker and Project X with mixed results (and we're not even going to look at the instances where he attempted comedy... shudder). Up to the point of his first gimmicked horror film, Macabre, Castle was responsible mainly for a string of undistinguished westerns and actioners. It was when his streak for the fantastic - and the Barnum-esque showpieces like Percepto and Emergo - could be indulged that he came into his own.

It would be shamefully easy to tear The Tingler apart - after all, consistency and plausibility were never exactly the pillars of writer Robb White's career. Starting with the very beginning, and the convict's trip down the Last Mile, where witnesses to the Execution are forced to stand in the same hallway the condemned man is being dragged down - and Warren's assertion that the dead man's vertebrae are cracked, implying that for purposes of the autopsy, he went in through the back of the corpse.

I came to realize a few viewings ago that there is a subplot that I missed the first few hundred times I watched this movie: Hey... wanna hear 'La Vida Loca'?ideally, we should suspect (for a while anyway) that Warren, when he says he is giving Martha an injection to help her sleep, is actually dosing her up with LSD, and the nightmare that kills her is a result of this ill-considered experiment. I don't feel this is played up enough - most of it is accomplished with Vincent's eye-acting (if that's not a word, then it should be). Or maybe it's just so damned obvious that Ollie did it, that the filmmakers just threw up their hands and decided to stop fighting it.

Then there's the Tingler itself. Past the risibility of the concept, there's the fact that the Tingler can grow so exponentially... where is this additional mass coming from? Certainly not the host - perhaps the fifth dimension? Why does a scream, which releases the pent-up tension of the host, still render the Tingler inert even outside of its host? A central tenet of biology, whether you are an evolutionist or a creationist, is that everything has a function, a purpose. What exactly is the purpose of the Tingler? Why does it exist? The very fact that it can harm or kill its host ranks it as a failure as either a symbiote or a parasite. Aaaah! Bad science!

Oh, well. As I said, it's easy to pick apart. The point is, I'm not particularly interested in completely destroying The Tingler for the reasons given by George, above - the movie serves as a link back to a simpler me, a me uninterested in story mechanics and lighting and backstory, a me interested only in the experience, and that younger me really enjoyed the movie.

It is best to approach The Tingler by first placing your Willing Suspension of Disbelief into a shoebox where it can't hurt itself. Though the central concept is laughable, the movie is well enough made and the cast talented enough to provide a pleasurable experience. Price, as usual, pulls off a nicely complicated character in a rickety framework. The young lovers are pretty and likable, Isabel is pretty and hateful. Martha for some reason reminds me of Agnes Moorehead in that Twilight Zone episode, and Ollie is oddly sympathetic, even for a killer. The actors are, perhaps, too good - for most of the picture, I found myself thinking, "Man, what a screwed-up bunch of people!"

If nothing else, the movie is original. We've seen original done badly enough before (The Vampire Beast Craves Blood, anyone?), that when something is original and entertaining,... well, it becomes easy to understand its status as a bit of a classic. Just tell the left side of your brain to shut up and pass the popcorn.


The Tingler is loose in the Web site! Scream! Scream for your lives!

- October 31, 1999