By Jonathan Wojcik



ENTRY 25: THE TINGLER




Opening in 1959, William Castle's The Tingler is the oldest movie we'll have showcased so far, but we'll be reviewing one just barely older before we're finished! I've even discussed this movie once before, when I reviewed a selection of 1950's movie monsters all in one article.

Long before my time, the 50's were truly the age of the Creature Feature, occupying a sweet spot in American history when a whole lot of the general public still believed in the supernatural, the concept of the extraterrestrial was still tantalizingly fresh, and broader but highly limited knowledge of radiation even fresher still. It was a decade marked by a veritable monsoon of speculative sci-fi horror and so much monster media I'm still not familiar with all of it myself, and it's possible I never will be, but I can still guarantee there were few ideas - then or now - approaching the absurd imagination of The Tingler's premise.


The film begins with an introduction by director William Castle, who was already infamous for his interactive gimmicks. For his first horror movie, Macabre, every moviegoer was given a voucher for $1,000 in life insurance if they died from fear, even paying people to play emergency medical staff on standby at theaters with hearses parked out front. Later, during his House on Haunted Hill, he'd have a lighted skeleton actually float above the audience on wires just as a skeleton appeared on-screen.

Castle would continue with these gimmicks throughout his career, but The Tingler remains one of his best known, and we'll be explaining how when we get there...


Our (human) star is none other than Vincent Price as Dr. Warren Chapin, a pathologist and mortician assisted by the younger David Morris (Darryl Hickman). While working on the body of a death row inmate, Chapin explains how he's supposed to record the subject's death as heart failure by electrocution, but that he has found strange damage to the man's lower vertebrae; damage he has seen many times before, in bodies whose only commonality in his eyes is that they must have been died in a state of terror.

He believes there is an as-yet undocumented mechanism by which fear alone can kill, and for whatever reason, he has come to the conclusion that specifically screaming is what halts this process. If this doesn't make any sense for anybody to conclude, well, it's a horror movie from 1959. Roll with it.


We're then introduced to Warren's friend Oliver Higgins (Philip Coolidge) who runs a local theater, and his wife Martha (Judith Evelyn). Martha is an obsessive compulsive shut-in completely dependent on Oliver, who is visibly exhausted and frustrated by her presence. When the doctor gets a small cut on his hand, Martha recoils in horror, and Oliver explains that even the slightest drop of blood sends her into a panic, among many other intense phobias. In addition to living constantly on edge, she also happens to be both deaf and mute, and you can probably hear the gears turning in the doctor's head just reading this.


Warren heads home, and catches up with his sister-in-law, Lucy, a sweet girl dating Warren's assistant. The doctor seems pretty fond and a little protective of them both, almost a father figure...but he isn't nearly on such positive terms with his own wife, Lucy's older sister Isabel, whom he catches sneaking home late that night.


Isabel is a vain, wealthy and spoiled socialite who regards Warren as an insufferable bore, and doesn't bother hiding that she cheats on him with multiple younger men. Warren hardly cares, but depends on her fortune for his research, and he's apparently been sitting on a secret: he suspects she acquired her fortune by murdering her father, and that even his long buried body would still show traces of poison if he were to have it exhumed.

When she threatens to cut him off, he holds her at gunpoint, demands she give half her fortune to her sister, and finally shoots her in the stomach when she tries to leave...but it's all a ruse. It was a blank cartridge, and he simply wanted to test if he could get her to faint in a state of fear. He hauls her to an examination table and takes multiple x-rays before she awakens, screaming, and he admits that he was only using her as an experimental subject. She only keeps cool from there, insulting him and implying she'll get back at him when he least expects it, something he laughs off as if they routinely go through this kind of menacing banter.


Warren doesn't tell his assistant how he acquired the images, but shows David a shocking x-ray sequence in which an unidentified object appears to manifest and grow in size up the subject's spinal column; an elongated shape gripping the spine with many small protruberances. They both observe that this object, or organism, or whatever it is must be made of something even denser than bone to show up as such a solid mass, and Warren has already named it the tingler, as in something "spine-tingling."

How in the world has no one, anywhere, ever noticed one of these things before? I suppose it is an awfully specific set of circumstances that someone's lower back would ever be x-rayed, or operated on, after they experienced intense fear without ever screaming. Warren even posits that any loud enough noise reverses the growth or outright destroys the object. I suppose that helps suspend a little more disbelief.

Determined to get an intact specimen of a Tingler, Warren attempts to scare himself in what is interestingly enough the first use of LSD ever depicted in a mainstream film, but he ultimately fails to resist screaming. I suppose he gets some points for the attempted sacrifice, but he still puts into motion the much darker, crueler plan we've all suspected by now, offering to "help" Oliver with his wife Martha. He treats her with sleeping pills, or what he says are sleeping pills, only for her to reawaken that night to eerie hallucinations of lights flickering and doors opening on their own.


When she goes looking for her husband, Martha instead perceives a ghoulish figure in his bed, which slowly pursues her through the house with a hatchet until she's cornered in the bathroom.

There, she's met with what must have been a thrillingly grotesque surprise for the audience: while full color productions had existed for some time, it still wasn't the standard, and The Tingler's patrons by this point had spent about an hour watching what they thought was an ordinary, fully black and white picture.


Martha turns around to find her bathroom sink running red blood, and her bathtub filled with it completely. This is the only use of color in the entire movie, and at the time, it was likely also the most fake blood ever witnessed on-screen, let alone in full crimson glory. I can only imagine the shock some viewers had to have felt here, with mainstream horror seldom having dared more than a few dribbles of cherry syrup off a vampire's fangs.

As a blood-soaked arm and hand rises from the tub, grasping at Martha, she finally collapses, and is subsequently declared dead by Warren himself, when Oliver brings him her body for examination...though Oliver swears he felt movement while he carried her.


From the other side of a curtain, we watch Warren's shadow lift a writhing, wormlike shape from Martha's corpse, and comes out cradling the slimy, blackish creature like a baby...at least until its feelers wrap around his arm, and he needs assistance pulling it off before he locks it up in a tough, metal carrying case. The grip of those thin tentacles, according to Warren, was as strong as a metal vice and could have easily crushed bone.


That evening, even Isabel seems proud of Warren for finally finding proof of his theory, though maybe a bit too excited about it. She fawns over him, unbuttons his shirt a little and talks him into celebrating with drinks, one of which she is seen spiking with something that soon puts him to sleep on the couch.


Isabel releases the Tingler from its cage and leaves it in the room with Warren, obviously hoping it will do the dirty work for her. She almost gets her wish as it climbs onto the couch and begins to strangle the doctor, but Lucy arrives home just in time to paralyze the creature with her startled screaming.

We next cut to the following day, Warren in the midst of ambiguous experimentation with the creature. David and Lucy arrive to report that Isabel has skipped town, but that's not important anymore to the doctor; he's more concerned that the screaming only briefly stunned the Tingler, and apparently, nothing he has done has caused any apparent harm to it, as though it's now invincible and quite possibly growing in power. He no longer even wishes to share its existence with the scientific world, too disturbed by the possibility of an indestructible and violent creature loose upon the world.

He has decided that he wants to put the Tingler back where it came from; that perhaps it would die if returned to its original body, where the "fear" that created it has already faded. Somehow this still isn't the most insane guess this man has ever made.

Warren calls around to find out where Martha's body was taken after his examination...but discovers that her husband never relinquished a body or even reported her death at all.


In a surprise twist, it turns out that the doctor had no hand at all in the poor woman's death. He really did give her ordinary sleeping pills in an effort to help with her nerves, and was never our villain at all. Confronting Oliver, he discovers the man not only hiding Martha's body, but traces of what we thought were only her "hallucinations," including a monstrous rubber mask and a hatchet.

Oliver murdered his wife, having long considered her a burden and even feared that she might harm him first in her "madness." He even argues that he got to the idea to scare her to death from Warren's theory, and did it in part to help him. Warren is disgusted by the murder all the same, and intends to turn his friend in to the police after finishing one final operation on Martha's body. Unfortunately, the Tingler chooses this moment to escape its box and crawl down a ventilation duct to the lower floor.

As we mentioned earlier, Oliver runs a movie theater. It so happens that he also lives above it.


What follows is a clever and innovative blurring of reality as the Tingler creeps through the theater, stalking patrons from beneath their seats, and finally infiltrates the projection room. As we watch it crawl across the screen of Oliver's theater, the film finally breaks down and goes black.

Had you been watching this at the cinema yourself, of course, the scene would be visually indistinguishable from this movie, The Tingler, breaking for real. Finding yourself in pitch darkness, you would then hear the audio of various people shrieking and yelping, while Oliver and Warren burst in warning everyone to scream, loud as they can, to fight back against the monster!


Now this obviously sounds like it must have been fun as hell back in the day, especially for kids, first-time horror viewers and anyone who gets easily immersed enough, but this sequence alone still wasn't Warren Castle's big surprise. No, in select theaters playing The Tingler, random theater seats were discreetly rigged with small, whirling motors actually repurposed from airplane parts. During the Tingler's theater rampage, the projectionist was able to activate these whirling motors, using the same principle as a "joy buzzer" to deliver a jolt to the lower back of anyone lucky enough to get one of the rigged seats.

The immersive prank was met with mixed reception. Castle's introduction already warns people that they may feel a "tingling" sensation during the movie, which spoiled the shock for some if word of mouth already hadn't, and many reportedly found the prank underwhelming or obnoxious. I'm sure there must have been people with health issues that didn't play kindly with the funny joke, either, which is something we might have (rightfully) heard more about had it happened today. Still, there had to be plenty of people in that sweet spot to have an absolute blast, right? Engrossed enough to believe for at least one brief, unforgettable little moment, not only once in a lifetime but only once in human history, that a weird bug from a Vincent Price movie was really, actually attacking their spinal column. What a time to be alive!


The movie wraps up quickly from there, as Warren assures everyone that their screams have incapacitated the monster, and he is able to recapture it. Oliver assists him in returning the creature to the inside of his dead wife, still not the weirdest thing Vincent Price has ever done on-screen, but pulls a gun on Warren at the last minute, threatening to kill him before he can go to the police. He is, however, too gutless to pull the trigger as the unimpressed doctor only points out that another murder won't do him any good, and coldly bids his old friend goodbye.

But even after we've watched the doctor disappear down the street...the door and window to the room slam shut, locking Oliver inside with the corpse...









MONSTER ANALYSIS: THE TINGLER

This is a story I've told once before on this website, but most of my childhood was completely pre-internet, but even in the days before Wikipedia, IMDB, TVtropes, blogs and vlogs, you could still learn just as much about movies from printed literature alone. Not having immediate access to all that many films, I'd amassed quite a collection of books specifically on the subject of monster movies, ranging from dictionary-thick A-to-Z encyclopedias of sci-fi horror to colorful and gimmicky kid's books showcasing select creatures in pretty much the same spirit as this very website! If you've enjoyed reading these reviews with no ability (or in some cases intention) to actually watch these movies, then you know exactly what it was like for me to read synopses, reviews and trivia for cinematic works either too obscure for me to find or too grotesque for my tiny mind to dare fathom.

Many of these books brought up the Tingler at least in passing, especially for the theater seat gag, but none of them ever actually bothered to go into much detail or share any actual pictures of the titular creature. Only one book offered passing description of it, and to this day, I can't think of The Tingler without remembering that this book called it "spider-like." SPIDER-like!? Did this author ever actually see this movie? Did they ever actually see a spider? Alternatively did they never see anything other than a spider in their entire life until they watched this movie so they just assumed everything in the world is some kind of spider? Was that it? Was that what happened? I've decided that it was. What an incredible life. I'm kind of jealous now, actually. I wish I never saw anything but spiders until one day I saw "The Tingler" and was immediately paid to describe it in a book, and then maybe go on to have a more normal life but still mistake a whole lot of other things for spiders.


It really wouldn't be until the internet, many a year later, that I'd finally get to just look up this movie and see a picture of the Tingler, which was awesome, because I was set up to just expect a spider, which I've seen in plenty of movies, but what I got instead bears an almost uncanny resemblance to a fat velvet worm! I think that might just be coincidence, since the monster is clearly inspired first and foremost by a spinal column, but that simple two-pronged head and those adorable little footsies are almost the spitting image of a modern Onychophoran.

The whole concept of the monster is obviously built around the goofy question of what "really" causes the "spine-tingling" associated with fear, and it's not a big leap from there to come up with a creature that lives in or on the spine itself and kind of visually evokes one. The fact that it dies and disappears without a trace as soon as you scream sells the idea that we've never had the chance to discover it before, and the fact that it remains so small yet so dangerous powerful sells that it can sneak up behind you to creep up your back and potentially murder you even in a cramped little theater. So, was the entire idea borne out of Castle's seat-buzzer prank, or vice-versa? I lean towards the former, having played enough video games to feel like I can spot those creatures designed entirely around an oddly-specific gimmick.

Whatever the order of operations, the Tingler remains one of the most far-fetched creatures horror audiences were possibly ever asked to take even half-seriously from a "science fiction" angle, an idea that is arguably completely, utterly stupid for the same reasons that it's also ingeniously clever and even effectively disturbing, especially if you're willing to view that "stupidity" through more of a "tasteful surrealism" lens, which is another opportunity to cite Junji Ito as a frame of reference.




I'm also happy to say that I did not miss my chance to purchase a limited edition, fully painted, life-sized Tingler model when they were produced way, way back when they were first produced between, I think, 1999 and 2001, though I'm pretty sure the one in the film didn't really have this silly little face on it. I've had this one for over 20 years, decorating every single home I've had from my teens to today, and it's actually right behind my head while I write this:




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