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The Tingler
The Tingler starts with the projectionist

The Tingler

1959, Columbia. Produced and directed by William Castle. With Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn, Darryl Hickman


Right in the middle of the movie, the screen goes black. An amplified voice says, "Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic."

Which ladies and gentlemen are being addressed? Is it the on-screen audience, those small-town moviegoers who have the bad luck to be watching Tol'able David when the deadly Tingler gets loose among them? Or is the caution not to panic directed at us? We too have seen the film we were watching flutter and break, the image replaced by the silhouette of the Tingler crawling in front of the projector lamp, and we too have suddenly been plunged into darkness. Any movie that shows people watching a movie has a certain mirror-like quality, and in The Tingler the distance between that audience and us comes pretty close to dissolving.

The Tingler, according to this movie, is a creature that invades the spinal column of frightened people (where do you think that tingling sensation in the spine comes from?) and causes them to stiffen and die unless they "de-energize" it by screaming. The Tingler that pathologist Vincent Price removes from one of its victims (it looks like a horned lobster tail) also seems able to attack from outside the body, grabbing people s ankles or necks and doing them in that way. The horrible death of a deaf-mute woman ("no vocal cords") shows us what happens if you can t scream when the Tingler attacks. So when the theater lights go off and Price implores us to "Scream! Scream for your lives!", it's hard to resist. (I saw the movie at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, and the audience shrieked enthusiastically enough to de-energize all the Tinglers on the west coast.) You've probably heard that during the first-run of The Tingler, producer William Castle had theater seats wired to send an electric shock up the backs of selected audience members; it makes a great story, and I'll bet it really scared people too. I know that I lifted my feet off the floor just in case the Tingler was scurrying by.

While comedies don t usually show actors laughing, and while melodramas seem to work best without lots of on-screen sobbing, horror movies dwell insistently on people screaming. They seem to have perceived that scary situations are not enough to frighten audiences; we also have to see people in the movie widening their eyes in terror and stuffing the backs of their wrists in their mouths. I'm not sure why it is that in this genre in particularly we need a surrogate on screen to show us how we should be responding, but think about it: scary movies are less about monsters than about scared people.

Producer/director Castle has some fun with this: he appears before the opening credits to deliver one of those "I feel obligated to warn you..." speeches. He gleefully extolls the benefits of screaming. Then we see three disembodied heads against a black background, setting a good example by screaming their heads off, so to speak. At the very end of the picture, Vincent Price's voice offers a dare to those of us who don't believe in the power of the Tingler: "...the next time you're frightened in the dark, don't scream!"

There's a powerful spillover between watching and participating in the Tingler experience, though the preposterous plot and William Castle's reputation for Barnumesque showmanship disguise the issue. But it's no coincidence that the movie arranges for the Tingler to terrorize a movie theater (rather than, say, a department store or a classroom), and a revival theater devoted to silent pictures, at that. We watch a substantial chunk of the great Tol'able David along with the on-screen audience; so much, in fact, that we get caught up in that story, almost forgetting that the Tingler is about to strike some unsuspecting moviegoer. I wonder if this isn't a way of underlining the movie's main interest, which could be crudely summarized as "audience participation." Talking pictures never really found a way to involve audiences as actively and viscerally as did silents, and here, I think, William Castle is trying some new approaches to that old goal--address the audience directly, use extra-cinematic publicity to get them on edge, wire their seats, play with the house lights, and get them screaming along with the picture like an old-fashioned sing-along.

Consider in this light the scene where the deaf-mute woman gets frightened to death. On top of her lack of vocal cords, poor Mrs. Higgins suffers from a serious blood-phobia. One weird night she notices to her horror that blood is flowing from the taps of her sink and that her bathtub is filled with blood. (She immediately suffers a fatal heart-attack.) Now, though The Tingler is a black and white movie, in these few shots the blood shows up (through some sort of matte shot) bright red. It turns out that someone staged all this Grand Guignol stuff as part of a murder plot, but who staged that red-blood trick? And who is the this shock-effect aimed at? Not Mrs. Higgins—she presumably sees everything in color—but us spectators. It's silly and hardly scary in the heart-pounding sense, but there is something unsettling about the way that the movie keeps turning around and looking straight at us.

(10/20/1995)

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein