© 1959 William Castle Productions

The Tingler (1959)

The Tingler has to have one of the most ridiculous plots ever committed to film. Vincent Price plays Dr. Warren Chapin, a researching scientist who is also the city medical examiner, performing all the autopsies on executed prisoners. The doctor and his young assistant are also researching the effects of fear. The doctor hypothesizes that fear acts as a physical force in peoples bodies, “strong enough to crush a man’s spine,” as he says. To test his little theory, he points a gun at his wife who has just caught having an affair and fires. The gun is loaded with blanks, but the fear makes her pass out. The doc takes a series of x-rays when she is unconscious and discovers “the Tingler”, a microscopic parasite that lives at the top of the spine which expands in size when the host is frightened, but shrinks again the person releases their “fear tensions” through screaming. The doctor has recently met a deaf and mute woman, the owner of a silent movie theater, and he wonders what would happen if she got very scared, as she can’t physically scream. Meanwhile, as a way to research his own reactions to fear, the doctor reads a book on LSD, shoots up, and freaks out. The mute woman’s husband schemes to literally scare her to death so he can get at a safe full of money she has. When she dies, the autopsy reveals a gigantic creepy crawly in the back of her neck. This escapes into the silent movie theater. “The Tingler is in the theater!” Price exclaims. At this point in screening, some theater seats wired with industrial-strength vibrators were set off, and shills planted in the audience fainted on cue. In addition to the outrageous plot and corny in-cinema gimmicks, the soundtrack borrow heavily from Bernard Herrmann’s score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo from the previous year.

But The Tingler is not a uniformly bad film. Vincent Price had long before developed a special talent for speaking even the most corny dialogue with elegance, making even the most ridiculous plots seem plausible. It is really Price who save the film, and the mute woman played by Judith Evelyn (who was “Miss Lonelyhearts” in Hitchcock’s Rear Window) at least does a good job of looking frighten, which is the only thing she really has to do on the screen.

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