If there’s one oft-repeated phrase about movies I just can’t stand, it’s “They just don’t make ‘em like they used to.” As if the intersection of art and commerce should just remain static or something patently absurd like that. But there is one instance where I would concede that they just don’t make ‘em like they used to, and those are the films of producer-director William Castle. The history of cinema has its fair share of showmen, but none could compare to the outlandish hucksterism of William Castle. The producer and director who always had a big stogie clenched in his jaws sold his horror films with gimmicks that live on to this day in infamy.
Perhaps there was no greater William Castle gimmick than that for his 1959 horror film with Vincent Price, The Tingler, which was presented in “Percepto.” What was “Percepto?” It was a gimmick where random seats in the theaters were wired with buzzers that would go off during the film’s frenzied climax when the film’s creature gets loose in a movie theater. If you ever have the chance to see The Tingler in a revival screenings with the seats wired, don’t hesitate to do it. I’ve been fortunate enough to experience the film twice in spine-tingling Percepto, and it was one of the most fun times I’ve ever had in a movie theater. But The Tingler isn’t a great William Castle film for the gimmick alone, and that’ why it’s just great that Scream Factory, the horror imprint of Shout! Factory, has just issued the William Castle classic on Blu-ray. Wired or not, The Tingler is a singular cinematic experience, a film of high camp and goofy thrills that wildly entertains in every available format. Because The Tingler was revived by Scream Factory, it means there’s also an array of chilling special features that honors one of the most unique movies ever made.
The plot for frequent Castle collaborator Robb White’s screenplay has Dr. Warren Chapin (Price) as a pathologist who performs autopsies on those recently executed by the state. He has been working on a theory of a deadly creature that resides within us that comes to life when fear is pent up. The only release that quells the creature is screaming. If you can’t scream, the creature uses its immense strength to crush your spinal column and kills you. While performing an autopsy, Dr. Chapin meets Ollie Higgins (Phillip Coolidge), a local whose brother-in-law was just executed. Dr. Chapin mentions his theory and an offhand comment by Ollie gives the good doctor a name for his creature – The Tingler, named after that tingling sensation that runs down your spine when you’re scared.
There’s more to The Tingler than just unproven theories about creatures that spring to life when fear manifests itself. Dr. Chapin is trapped in loveless marriage with Isabel (Patricia Cutts), though Dr. Chapin has a pleasant relationship with her sister Lucy (Pamela Lincoln) who happens to be going out with his loyal assistant David Morris (Darryl Hickman). Elsewhere in the film, Ollie runs a silent movie theater with his deaf and dumb wife Martha (Judith Evelyn), which makes her dangerously prone to the deadly grasp of The Tingler. It’s not just a monster movie. There’s murder, betrayal, and a scene where Vincent Price’s character ingests L.S.D. That’s right, in 1959 this gimmicky flick by William Castle is the first major film in which a character takes acid.
While most of the attention paid to The Tingler focuses on Castle’s outlandish gimmickry, it sometimes overshadows just how efficiently made the film truly is. There’s no fat in Castle’s most infamous movie. The Tingler moves along at a brisk pace and each scene features something new and wild, unexpected twists and turns that nearly 60 years later still surprise. Vincent Price lends an air of credibility to the ludicrous subject matter, never once winking at the camera. He reads every line as if he was still working with Cecil B. DeMille. During one of the film’s forays into pure horror, Castle messes with the film’s black and white aesthetic to have a scene where the faucets ooze blood, red being the only color to appear within the otherwise black and white frame.
The clever filmmaking on display within The Tingler extends to Castle’s sense of humor. Like any great huckster, the director introduces his movie and warns the audience of the dangers that will soon greet them. He implores the audience to scream when the terror becomes too intense because “a scream at the right time may save your life.” Just before the climax when The Tingler is loose in the theater, Castle focuses on a young woman watching the silent Tol’able David as she’s engrossed in the movie and fending off the advances from her date. Then after The Tingler rubs against her leg and frightens her, the screen goes dark. Price’s voice assures the audience that everything is okay. This is the point that a nurse would enter the auditorium to escort out a plant in the audience. Then The Tingler makes his way to the projection booth and the silhouette of the creature appears on the blank screen. (Joe Dante, who made the Castle-inspired movie Matinee, riffed on this bit in Gremlins 2: The New Batch when the nefarious imps take control of the projection booth.) This is the moment that people are meant to scream for their lives. It’s an inspired bit and tons of fun. There’s simply nothing like it.
The Scream Factory edition of The Tingler has some new special features, including audio commentary with author and historian Steve Haberman. There are also two fun new interviews, one with Pamela Lincoln who plays Lucy and the other with publicist Barry Lorie. Both interviews are fun but it’s Lorie’s interview that stands out because his stories of trying to drum up press interest in Castle’s gimmicks are highly entertaining. The rest of the special features have been transported over from the previous DVD edition of the film, including a featurette on the movie and William Castle. The standouts from the batch of old special features are the alternate scene of The Tingler getting loose for drive-in theaters and the original 1959 theater lobby recording with a catchy, kitschy song.
There’s never been anything like The Tingler before or since. It’s not just a gimmick, though. Without Percepto, The Tingler is still a fun movie with big laughs and good chills. Scream Factory has done it again with another edition that brings a beloved cult oddity to Blu-ray with a crisp HD transfer and special features that honor this unique work of filmmaking. Vincent Price anchors The Tingler, but it’s William Castle’s show through and through. There aren’t many filmmakers that could upstage one of the screen’s great presences, but Castle and his big cigar could. Scream for joy! Scream for life! Scream Factory has unleashed The Tingler!
The Tingler may be a campy B-movie from famed huckster William Castle, but it’s a singular film that cannot be replicated and is one of the most fun I’ve ever had in a movie theater — that joyous experience even extends to the new Blu-ray edition from Scream Factory.