William Castle is one of those film-makers whose life and personal style were more interesting than his films. In some ways he was a throwback to the classic age of exploitation movies in the 30s and 40s, when exploitation movies were taken on the road by distributors who were mostly ex-carny or sideshow people, and when the art of showmanship took precedence over the actual movies. And William Castle was certainly a showman, coming up with a string of gimmicks to sell his low-budget horror films. The Tingler, made in 1959, is a typical example of the breed, and of Castle’s showmanship.
In this case the gimmick was to wire up the seats in the movie theatres so that during the scary moments the seats would start to shake. The gimmick as known, for no obvious reason, as Percepto.
The plot is insanely but engagingly silly even by low-budget horror movie standards. Vincent Price is a mad scientist doctor type who performs autopsies on executed criminals. He comes up with the theory that fear produces a physical entity in the region of the spine which he christens The Tingler. It gets bigger the more scared you get. When you scream, it gets smaller again. If you don’t scream, it can kill you. This of course opened up another promotional gimmick - encouraging the audience to scream to protect themselves from The Tingler!
Quite by accident this slightly deranged medico makes the acquaintance of a deaf-mute woman who runs a silent movie theatre with her husband. Being deaf-mute, she cannot scream, which naturally attracts his scientific interest.
The movie is also notable for being one of the very first to deal with LSD. LSD was of course still legal in 1959, and Vincent Price uses it in his experiments on fear. His
acid trip experience is memorably over-the-top! The Tingler itself looks like something made out of rubber that you could buy in a novelty shop for about 25 cents, but that’s one of the joys of low-budget horror flicks!
Apart from his drug trip Price avoids excessive scenery chewing in his performance, perhaps wisely deciding that the story line is hammy enough without his contributing any additional hamminess!
The main problem with this movie is that it just doesn’t deliver any real scares, or any genuine creepiness, or any worthwhile atmosphere. Seeing it at the time with Castle’s gimmicks in place was probably quite a fun experience, but it hasn’t aged all that well. It’s at best modestly entertaining for the sheer absurdity and oddness of the plot. It is competently made and it certainly has some camp value.
There’s a new boxed set of William Castle’s movies about to be released, although unfortunately it’s a mix of movies already available on DVD and others previously unreleased in this format. It seems to be to be rather overpriced.