In 1958, director William Castle delivered to the world a film that has been chilling the collective backbones of horror buffs for over half a century now: House on Haunted Hill. And the following year, in one of the greatest one-two punches in horror history, Castle came up with a film that is certainly every bit as good, and perhaps, arguably, even better. In The Tingler, Castle brought back much of his team from the previous picture — leading man Vincent Price, screenwriter Robb White, composer Von Dexter — and again shot his production in uber-creepy B&W (with the notable exception of one scene, in which the color red features prominently). The result was another horror masterpiece (this one with some decided sci-fi overtones), another compact chiller for the ages, and another film in which Castle’s gift for gimmickry was memorably on display. But whereas House works well on both the big screen and at home on television (I have seen it many times, at this stage, in both settings), The Tingler is very much a big-screen experience. I will explain why in a moment.
In the film, the viewer meets a pathologist researcher named Dr. Warren Chapin, endearingly portrayed, as always, by Uncle Vinny. Chapin has discovered the presence of a centipede-like creature that arises on the spinal cords of people who are in the throes of fright. Screaming causes the creature, which he dubs “the Tingler,” to dissolve and vanish, but those who are unable to scream will inevitably be killed as the creature crushes their spinal cord to bits. After a deaf mute woman, Martha Higgins (supremely well played by Judith Evelyn, who had starred with Price on Broadway in 1941 in a show called Angel Street, and who had previously performed another memorable nonspeaking role, Miss Lonelyheart, in Hitchcock’s Rear Window five years earlier), the wife of Chapin’s acquaintance Oliver (Philip Coolidge), is frightened to death, Chapin performs an autopsy on her and manages to prove his theory by removing a Tingler from her lifeless body. But problems arise when the doctor’s scheming wife, Isabel (Patricia Cutts, sinking her teeth into the part as Carol Ohmart had done in her similar role in House), attempts to kill him with the creature, and later, when the Tingler is accidentally released into the audience of the Higgins’ silent-picture theater…
Just as a film such as Lawrence of Arabia must be seen in a movie house for full appreciation, so, too, must The Tingler. But whereas Lawrence cost $15 million to produce and must be seen on as large a screen as possible to capture its epic scope and pictorial grandeur, The Tingler, budgeted at $250,000, must be seen in a theater for different reasons. This viewer happens to be a member of NYC’s Film Forum, a repertory house that has shown The Tingler often over the years, so I know whereof I speak. First, an enterprising theater such as Film Forum will rig selected seats with vibratory devices, as Castle had done back in 1958 — the gimmick known as “Percepto” — to give lucky audience members a jolt at a certain point in the film; the home viewer, of course, will never experience this. But there are even better reasons why The Tingler must be seen with an audience. When the creature is loose in the Higgins’ movie house, it attacks the projectionist and causes a breakdown of the film in progress (1921’s Tol’able David); when The Tingler is watched in a theater, it looks and feels as if the creature has attacked the projectionist of the theater THAT YOU’RE IN! And when the voice of Vincent Price exhorts the audience to “Scream, scream for your lives” … well, I can think of nothing more fun to do in a movie house than screaming at the top of your lungs with 150 others! This shared, simultaneous, participatory, primal scream catharsis is one of the great experiences of cinema; you have to trust me on this one. Home viewing, sadly, just cannot duplicate it.
Of course, The Tingler, besides its gimmicks, is known principally today as the first film in history to depict an LSD trip. One hundred “mikes” of acid — which was legal in 1959 and used experimentally in psychoanalysis — are taken intravenously by Chapin midway through the film as a means of engendering fear in himself. (Chapin had earlier been shown reading a book entitled Fright Effects Induced by Injection of Lysergic Acid LSD25 — A Preliminary Report.) His assistant, played by Darryl Hickman, had mentioned that “it can produce pretty weird effects” and cause nightmares, and indeed, Chapin’s trip is certainly a bad one; the viewer can only wonder how his trip would have proceeded if he’d had access to the Grateful Dead’s Aoxomoxoa album, which was released 10 years later! Price hams it up deliciously in this classic sequence, and his performance overall is another one to cherish amongst many in his remarkable career. Interestingly, Castle twice misdirects his audience into thinking that Chapin has perpetrated a heinous act, while Vinny plays it marvelously ambiguous. All told, The Tingler is just about as entertaining an experience as can be had in a movie theater. Castle would go on to direct many other solid horror films — such as 13 Ghosts, Homicidal, Mr. Sardonicus, Strait-Jacket and The Night Walker — but House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler, for my money, are his two best. The first will make you scream in fear; the second, as its promotional poster put it, will make you scream “if you value your life!”