The Tingler (1959)

 “I know a wonderful psychiatrist with a perfectly divine strait jacket just your size.”

After reading that The Tingler is on director John Waters’ top film list, this made it a must-see for me, and I wasn’t disappointed. Campy and strange–nonetheless, The Tingler is a surprisingly good film. It’s from William Castle, perhaps cinema’s most eccentric director, and The Tingler is considered one of this cult director’s best. It would be so easy to dismiss this film as campy fun, but it’s really much more than this. It’s a very well crafted exercise in weirdness.

tinglerThere are only two normal people in the film, and their roles are kept to a minimum and serve as a contrast for the film’s collection of bizarre characters. Vincent Price as gently spoken, well-mannered pathologist William Chapin heads the cast. Chapin has theories of the “fear tensions” within the human body, and he’s long since come to the conclusion that the “force of fear” unleashed in the human body can result in the cracking of vertebrae. At the beginning of the film, he becomes convinced that there’s actually something physical living in the base of the spine–a parasitic creature known as The Tingler that grows with the host’s exposure to fear. Chapin’s theory is that screaming releases these tensions and ultimately this freezes or immobilizes the Tingler, thus saving humans from dying of fear. Obviously proving the Tingler’s existence by examining the spinal cords of people who are either paralyzed by fear or who die of it, is not an easy matter, but then again, Chapin is a pathologist….

The film begins with a terrified man being dragged screaming down a hallway to his execution by two prison guards. A few minutes later, a body on a gurney is wheeled into the autopsy room, and here pathologist Dr. Warren Chapin (Vincent Price) proceeds to conduct an autopsy on the dead man. And this is where the film begins to get bizarre–the dead man’s brother-in law, Ollie Higgins (Philip Coolidge) stands by and watches Chapin perform the autopsy. Now perhaps Chapin performs autopsies on a regular basis, but this must be a unique experience for Higgins, who owns a cinema that caters to silent film. But the two men have a nice calm chat while Chapin carves up the corpse, and by the time he’s done, Chapin and Higgins have established enough rapport for Higgins to ask for a lift home.

Higgins introduces Chapin to his wife Martha (Judith Evelyn) who just happens to be a deaf mute. When Chapin discovers that Martha also has a terror of blood, he realizes that he has the perfect subject–someone with a built in mechanism for terror who cannot release her “fear tension” through screaming…

The Tingler hits all the right notes to create a very strange tale with a very bizarre tone. Peculiar things take place in the film, but the characters all act as though these things are perfectly normal. Chapin’s assistant, for example, is running around town kidnapping animals to serve as guinea pigs for Chapin’s latest wacko experiments. All the characters in the film accept this as perfectly normal, and the film’s insistence on the normalcy of outrageously bizarre behaviour is a tactic that Castle uses within the film many times–Higgins attending the autopsy of his brother in law, for example. Higgins should express at least some distaste of the autopsy. He could turn away, vomit, or even faint. These reactions would all be within the range of normal for a person who’s attending the autopsy of a relative. But instead Higgins doesn’t even swallow hard–he’s perfectly at home in the autopsy room watching his brother-in-law get carved up. This presentation of the bizarre with the ho-hum reaction to an every day event creates the atmosphere of a lunatic asylum. As we watch the story unfold, we realize that what is happening is not normal, but it’s presented by the characters as perfectly acceptable. The dissonance between normal and abnormal created by the film forges a fascination between the audience and the film characters. Just how far off the deep end is Chapin prepared to go? Do his gentle, refined manners and voice mask the mind of a madman?

This acceptance of the abnormal as normal is also demonstrated in the two marriages depicted in the film. These marriages are pathological and laced with murderous intent, but this is masked by the politics of polite behaviour, so that leaves only two people in a ‘normal’ relationship–courting couple, Chapin’s sister-in-law, Lucy (Pamela Lincoln) and Chapin’s lab assistant David (Darryl Hickman). Chapin’s first appearance in the old homestead immediately establishes marital discord when he addresses Lucy with the heavily sarcastic question “where is my darling wife?” Isabel, who obviously doesn’t trouble herself with putting hot meals on the table for hubbie appears some time later. Isabel Chapin (Patricia Cutts) seems to be a very unsuitable partner for Chapin. Sexy, blonde Isabel has the naughty habit of floozing out on the town with a series of strange men.

Another tactic used by Castle is that most people (with a few notable exceptions) in the film remain perfectly calm–almost frustratingly so. They should be objecting, refusing, questioning, but they tend to very calmly go along with the action, accepting the nuttiness as everyday stuff.

The Tingler really is a very clever film. The first time I watched it, I loved it, but the second and third times, I began to really appreciate it. The first time through, for example, the film leads us to certain conclusions about Chapin’s character, and with subsequent viewing, I came to appreciate Castle’s manipulative skill a great deal more.

Anyway, thanks to John Waters for pointing me towards this gem of a film. The DVD is excellent quality, by the way–in black and white–except for one scene that contains…well, a lot of red. The picture is clear and crisp, but the whole package is so well put together with some interesting extras, including an introduction by William Castle. Well worth the purchase, but I still wish I could persuade someone to release a version of The Tingler with commentary from John Waters.

“Scream for your lives. The Tingler is loose in the theatre!”
“Don’t tell me you’ve abandoned corpses for peeping out of windows.”

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