Ah, William Castle, king of the late late night horror fest. Between Bill Cardille’s Chiller Theater on WIIC, Ghost Host on WPTT, Thing Theater on WPGH, and the film series they used to have at Pittsburgh Playhouse, I saw more than my fair share of William Castle flicks.
I’m not, however, extolling the virtues of Mr. Castle’s prodigious directorial career just now. Another time perhaps. I want to focus on just one of his countless visionary creations that spawned many upon many a slimy, parasitic creepy crawly to come.
Back before Night Of The Creeps ripped off Shivers, then Slither ripped off Night Of The Creeps, William Castle trotted out The Tingler. Yep, The Tingler, so named for the initial spine-tingling sensation fear has on us. Hey I didn’t say the writing was spectacular. Still, better than, I dunno, The Hidden.
Lemme be up front here. I love me some Hitchcock as a director, but he was also an A+ showman. Check out his tour of the house to promote Psycho, or just about any opening to Alfred Hitchcock Presents. But William Castle just piles it on with gimmickry and hucksterism up his sleeve to give P.T. Barnum a substantial run for his money.
Look at Castle’s monologues before The Tingler, Homicidal, or 13 Ghosts. Tell me he wasn’t ripping whole pages out of ol’ Phineas Taylor’s playbook.
Castle was no slouch as a director either, but to give you a sense of that, I’ll let John Waters do the talking, first because he’s yet another of my all time favorite directors, second because he himself talks about Castle’s influence on him, and third, because he sums things up better than I ever could.
“The Tingler is an organism that grows in your body and gets larger and larger when you’re frightened, and the only way you can kill it is to scream. Well, naturally there’s a mute in the film.” Not hard to see where that’s gonna go. More importantly, this may well be the original Slurpie Movie.
If you’re not familiar, you can read a Slurpie Movie overview here. The point is, the Slurpie “subgenre” slime trail leads back to The Tingler where all the hallmarks of The Slurpie Movie were arguably established. A slug, worm, mollusk, or slug/worm/mollusk-like creature, often alien, usually parasitic, infects a human body.
It then wreaks havoc as only a parasitic slug/worm/mollusk thing can.
The Tingler is a kind of centipede/earwig/rubberized lobster tail hybrid.
It’s better than it sounds. Trust me.
The nasty little sucker itself is not the issue. According to Dr. Warren Chapin (Vincent Price, so what’s not to love?) everyone has one of these things. It’s activated by fear but subdued by screaming.
This is where it gets, uh, interesting. There’s a noirish subplot involving Dr. Chapin, his wife, her sister, and an inheritance. Also, full marks for possibly the first onscreen depiction of LSD use (nice & legal back in good ol’ 1959).
But to return to Martha, the mute woman. Obviously she can’t scream. If you can’t scream, The Tingler crushes your spine. Martha’s husband, Ollie, learns this from Dr. Chapin and uses that knowledge to scare her literally to death.
Ollie calls the good doctor who then removes The Tingler. See, since she couldn’t scream, nothing shrank the thing back to its microscopic size. Trouble is, now it can’t be destroyed either. Well, Ollie and his now late wife live above the theater that they run.
It all culminates near the end of the film. Dr. Chapin turns out the theater lights (at this point the screen goes black) and says “Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic, but scream! Scream for your lives!”
It’s better than it sounds. Trust me. Why?
It’s all thanks to Percepto.
Here’s John Waters again.
“These little buzzers went off under the seat and gave you a little electric shock. It was so good. Y’know. When it finally came to the theater in my neighborhood, they only bothered to wire about two or three of the seats, so I’d go early and look under every seat until I found the Percepto buzzer and then just sit there and get my ass buzzed all day long.”
What could possibly be better?
And now, dear readers–
Available on Plex, Shudder, Tubi. For rent on Apple TV+, Google Play, Prime, Vudu, YouTube