Tuesday, October 15, 2019

The Tingler (1959)

Along with House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler is probably the best known of William Castle's series of gimmicky black and white horror pictures he made during the late fifties and early sixties.  The two films have much in common, including a star - Vincent Price - and a somewhat rickety publicity gimmick.  While House on Haunted Hill boasted 'Emergo', whereby a tatty fake skeleton was winched over the heads of the audience at an appropriate point in the film, in order to give the impression that it had 'emerged' from the screen, The Tingler had 'Percepto'.  This latter gimmick involved a vibrating device being rigged under some seats in theatres, to give audience members the 'sensation of fear' when the title monster appeared.  But the two films have much more in common than that: both feature plots which hinge around unhappily married couples plotting to kill each other.  In House on Haunted Hill, of course, the entire haunted house shennanigans is staged firstly by Price's wife and her lover as part of a plot to drive another guest mad enough to kill him, then secondly by Price himself, inn order to facilitate the disposal of the wife and her lover.  The Tingler doubles down on this idea, by presenting us with two warring couples: scientist Price and his wife, who tries to use his discovery against him and silent cinema owner Ollie (Philip Coolodge), who tries to use Price's discovery to kill his wife.

Unfortunately, these two intersecting plots ultimately work against the film, resulting in a fractured, episodic narrative and a deathly slow pace.  Worse, all too often, they divert attention away from the film's real asset: its truly lunatic central idea.  The central premise of The Tingler is that fear itself creates a parasitic creature on the human spinal cord - the Tingler.  A creature which, as the fear grows, gets larger and larger.  Screaming releases the tension and destroys the creature.  If the fear isn't relieved, the Tingler will kill its host.  As I said, a truly barking mad concept, but one which makes perfect sense within the film's own internal logic.  The problem is that regular William Castle screen writer Robb White hasn't a clue as to what to do with it.  Ordinarily, one would expect a film with such a premise to focus on scientist Price's attempts to prove his Tingler theory, but rather than do so in a straightforward manner, the movie instead keeps digressing into sub-plots surrounding Price's personal life and the goings on at a cinema showing old silent movies.  Indeed, these digressions start right from the film's outset, where Price's autopsy on a newly executed murderer is interrupted by Ollie, the prisoner's brother-in-law, insistence upon observing it, (apparently his pass to attend the execution also covers the autopsy).  The whole scene is utterly bizarre, with Price conducting the autopsy in what looks like an office, with Ollie lurking in the background in his street clothes.  In the course of the autopsy, Price outlines his Tingler theory to Ollie, as an explanation for why the subject's vertebrae are cracked, which, of course, sows the seeds in Ollie's mind for his own plot to kill his wife.

The weirdness continues as we find that Price has a laboratory (which, again, looks more like an office) where he conducts his research, not to mention a bitchy wife.  The film seems determined to keep throwing the audience off kilter, as Price apparently tries to kill his wife, threatening her with a gun before shooting her.  Except that it is only a blank round and he was just trying to scare her enough for a Tingler to form on her spine.  After she faints after being 'shot', he takes X-rays of her spine (yes, he has an X-ray machine in his home) before the Tingler vanishes, proving its existence.  The film then dissolves into series of episodes as Price goes on an acid trip in order to try and scare himself to further investigate the effects of the Tingler and Ollie tries to scare his wife to death (she's a deaf mute, unable to scream and destroy her Tingler before it kills her).  Actually, these sequences, involving baths full of blood (which is actually coloured red, contrasting shockingly with the rest of the monochrome photography), corpses rising from beds and hairy claw-like hands wielding axes, are probably the most effective and suspenseful in the film.  The plots cross over again, as Ollie takes his dead wife to Price who, after confirming she is dead, takes the opportunity to surgically remove the fully grown Tingler from her spine, (yes, he does surgery in his home).  Inevitably, Price's wife tries to use the Tingler to kill him, before he decides that it is so dangerous that he needs to replace it in Ollie's wife's body, (which is now back at the cinema).  Of course, before that can happen, it gets loose in the cinema and all sorts of mayhem ensues.

While enjoyable bizarre, the film does seem to take an age to reach this climax.  The constant digressions and over-plotting simply don't do full justice to its wonderfully bonkers premise.  Several severe lapses in logic don't help. most crucially, why isn't Price suspicious of Ollie, an man who likes to hang out at autopsies, from the outset?  Various plot strands are just left hanging - the whole back story of Ollie's murderous brother in law is barely touched upon and, bearing in mind that her husband has just been to see her brother executed, his wife never mentions the issue.  Castle directs the whole thing with his customary slickness, deftly conjuring up a slightly dream like feel as the bizarre events of the film unfold against a series of bland sets representing a typically underpopulated small town.  As with Castle's other films of the period, everything seems slightly disconnected and isolated from a wider 'real' world.  Von Dexter's sparse score, full of creepy piano notes, just adds to this off-kilter feeling.  Perhaps the only thing undermining the fim's enjoyment is the rubbery and unconvincing lobster-like Tingler.  As soon as it seen in this form, the air of menace conjured up by the idea of it is dissipated.  Over the years, The Tingler has gained something of a cult reputation, but this has mainly been on the basis of its crazy central concept.  Unfortunately, in execution, it is rather stodgy, slowed down by too much plot and several long talky scenes. It's still worth watching, though, as a prime example of William Castle in his pomp.



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