Monday, April 20, 2009

"The Tingler" (1959, William Castle)

To call The Tingler (1959) elegant would be to insult its maker, William Castle, who couldn’t have cared less for stuff like that, and was too busy installing vibrating boxes under his viewers’ seats to shake them up a little. (This pioneering – and useless – device was called “Percepto”, with the expected “-vision”, or at least “-rama”, sadly missing).

And yet, there is grace to this film, even if we project part of it ourselves, out of sheer nostalgia. Vincent Price plays Warren, a surprisingly wholesome pathologist, discovering that fear is nothing less but a living creature dwelling in our guts and clutching at our spines. What defies the Tingler is scream; what strengthens it - is repression. Repressed fear, e. g. fear not released in the form of scream, is what makes the Tingler strong enough to kill a person. Conveniently enough, there is a deaf-mute in the movie, and since she cannot scream, she falls pray to what autopsy reveals as a big bug with rather sorry muscle coordination.

Now, the idea of something inside the human body that is “solid as steel” and shouldn’t be “repressed”, sends us straight to Freud. Of course the Tingler stands for erection. Duh. There’s even a masturbatory fantasy here, when Warren closes himself up in a room and tries to tackle the creature by himself. And it’s not surprising that once the Tingler gets successfully out in the open, Warren’s marriage is suddenly thriving again.

The Tingler is not the materialization of our fears, but our very fear materialized. It’s an emotion turned into matter. In that respect, I guess Ivan Reitman’s materialized hatred and spite (the pink goo in Ghostbusters II [1989]) owes something to Castle. There’s even a color scene in The Tingler, when a bathtub full of red liquid comes to life – that one made it to Reitman’s movie intact.

Since the sequence of a victim being frightened to death uses a bathtub and a complicated performance on the part of the killer, I wouldn’t be surprised if Castle had done his homework and watched Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les diaboliques (1955). Also, it’s kind of funny that Warren describes his ambition as follows:

WARREN: “To catch someone at the instance of complete terror – not before, not after”.

The very same year The Tingler was made, across the Atlantic, one Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm) was trying to do the same, only he used a knife-enhanced movie camera. What a great double feature that would be: William Castle’s stirring classic, and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960), huh?


  1. "Materialized hatred" -- wouldn't this connect TINGLER with Cronenberg's THE BROOD?

    This is a memorably crazy film. Too long since I've seen it. I seem to remember a twist at the end, though, which implied that *every* male is capable of adulterous murder, that it's part of the male condition. A provocative thought!

    I seem to remember thinking, too, that perhaps the most interesting notions to be found in these '60s Castle films came from screenwriter Robb White. Hence the dullness of non-White Castles like "The Busy Body." Not entirely convinced, but ... it's a thesis worth pondering.

  2. Thanks so much, Chris! Still haven't seen THE BROOD, I have some major catching up to do in the early-Cronenberg department.

    This was the very first William Castle movie I saw, but it made me eager to learn more about him and about his other movies.