Column: The Vault of Secrets: The Tingler (1959)

The Tingler (1959). Directed by: William Castle. Starring: Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn, Darryl Hickman, Pamela Lincoln.

Happy Halloween from the Vault of Secrets, where we’ll be unearthing another classic (or not-so-classic) vintage horror film for your delectation. While House on Haunted Hill remains my favorite William Castle picture, The Tingler is probably his best one. It’s Castle’s third collaboration with writer Robb White, following on the heels of Macabre and House on Haunted Hill. Price is back, along with some of the plot mechanics and visual trademarks of House on Haunted Hill, although The Tingler is, in other ways, very much its own thing.

William Castle’s horror movies are famous for their gimmicks and The Tingler has by far the most famous gimmick of them all. Called “Percepto” in the film’s marketing, what this amounted to was an electronic buzzer installed in certain seats in select theaters, which would go off during the film’s climactic moments. It’s the sort of thing that you would only get from Castle. While it only happened in a few theaters across the country, it has gone down in history as probably the greatest movie gimmick of all time.

Castle didn’t stop there, though. During the film’s climax — which takes place inside a movie theater — there are moments when the screen goes black and Price’s voice is heard directly addressing the audience. During one of these, he says that a young woman has fainted and been taken to get medical treatment. In some showings of the movie, Castle actually hired shills to scream and faint during these sequences. Fake nurses were stationed out in the lobby to load the fainters into a fake ambulance and take them away, to return for the next screening.

Since today we have to watch The Tingler without either “Percepto” or planted fainters and fake nurses, the highlight of the film is probably the sequence in which a deaf-and-mute woman who can’t scream — and therefore can’t nullify the Tingler — is frightened to death. It’s a moment that echoes the frightening of Nora in House on Haunted Hill, being just as implausible but even more effective, featuring a deformed man with a knife (prefiguring the slasher villains of films to come?) and a monster hand wielding a hatchet. The most memorable part of the scene, however, comes when the woman — who has a phobia of blood — stumbles into the bathroom to find blood running from the sink and filling the tub. While the rest of the movie is in black-and-white, this sequence is in color — or rather, the blood is. The effect was achieved by filming the scene in color, but painting the set and applying makeup to the actress to make all of it look like it was still in black-and-white.

These spookhouse gimmicks may be what make the sequence memorable, but the performance of Judith Evelyn is what sells it. She’s like a character from a silent film who has stumbled into a sound movie, a fact that’s underscored by the silent film theater that she and her husband run, and where the film’s climax takes place. Price suggested Evelyn for the role, having worked with her previously on Broadway in a production of Angel Street in 1941. Hitchcock fans will also recognize her as Miss Lonelyhearts in Rear Window.

After the death of Judith Evelyn’s character, the titular Tingler makes its appearance. In spite of its relative immobility and the fact that you can pretty much always see the wires that make it move, there’s something very compelling about the Tingler itself. You can see its influence in many of the rubbery monsters that populate movies to come, especially in the filmography of Joe Dante.

Around the monsters and fright scenes, the movie accumulates all the hallmarks that we’ve come to associate with this period in Castle’s career, from an introduction by Castle himself followed by shots of screaming, disembodies heads, to a storyline that juxtaposes its abnormal trappings with human crime, greed, passion, and marital strife. We had seen it before in House on Haunted Hill and we would see it again in 13 Ghosts.

Here it takes the form of interlocking stories of marital disharmony. Vincent Price is reliant on the money of his wealthy-but-unfaithful wife for his experiments, while the husband of the mute woman murders her in order to take her money and escape his dreary life, claiming that she would have killed him if she could. There’s also a subplot about Price’s young assistant and his wife’s sister being in love. The young couple are played by real-life fiancés Darryl Hickman and Pamela Lincoln, and they’re fairly adorable together, with Hickman showing up late to a date with the lines, “Cut my head off! Boil me in oil!” Rumor has it that Hickman was convinced to work on the film because he was told it would help boost Lincoln’s career — so convinced, in fact, that he worked for free.

The Tingler is also famous — or maybe infamous — for being the first cinematic depiction of LSD use in a major motion picture. At the time, LSD was still legal. In one of the film’s early sequences, Price’s character attempts to frighten himself by taking some. The ensuing scene requires Price to do the heavy lifting of performing a bad trip with nothing much to work with besides an exaggerated performance and a fake skeleton. The story goes that the Robb White had previously experimented with LSD himself after hearing about it from Aldous Huxley and decided to work it into the story.

That’s it for tonight, but be sure to join us next time when we investigate a “ray from Andromeda.”