Don’t Open That Door! #25: 'The Tingler' (1959)

Welcome to our weekly field guide to 1950s horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: Vincent Price gives us that fluttery feeling with The Tingler.

The Tingler

Director: William Castle
Cast: Vincent Price, Patricia Cutts, Phillip Coolidge
US theatrical: 1959-07-29

Alternative titles: Nothing to Fear But Fear Itself; Deaf Dumb and Dead


Great cast, terrific performances.

Classic dialogue between obsessive scientist and wayward wife—with sultry saxaphone in the background every time she's onscreen.

Funky splash of color is eerie and effective!

Trippy drug-trip sequences.

Hilarious climax in movie theater is campy good fun.


Huge logical flaws leave the viewer confused and severely undermine the story (see "Huh?", but this CONTAINS SPOILERS if you haven't seen the film)

SYNOPSIS: Vaguely effeminate Dr. Warren (you can tell he's a scientist by his accent, and besides, he looks—and sounds—a lot like Vincent Price) keeps himself busy by cutting people up during autopsies, looking for some physical sign of the fear response felt just before death. Not finding anything, he posits that the act of screaming must destroy this mysterious critter—which he has nicknamed "the tingler"—and so he despairs of ever getting his mitts on one. After all, everybody can scream, right? Soon afterward, he meets a guy named Ollie whose wife is deaf and dumb—that is, she can't hear or talk. Or, um, scream. Interested, Doctor?

Apparently not, because Doc has more pressing matters at hand. His slinky wife Isabel spends a lot of time smoking cigarettes with other guys, which is never a good thing, while lab apprentice David spends a his time looking squeaky clean. Doc plays a nasty trick on Isabel (who sort of deserves it, we think) and discovers via X-rays that, yes, "the tingler" does indeed exist. Now the only problem is to isolate one before it dissolves in a scream of terror. And that brings us to, yes, Ollie's wife, the soulful Martha. After trying LSD on himself, to no effect (because he screams), Warren tricks Martha into taking it. Are you confused yet? Don't worry—just enjoy the show. In any case, Martha can't scream, but she sure can trip. Creepiness ensues.

If you don't know what happens to Martha, I won't tell you here—but suffice it to say that a three-foot long, multi-legged creeping parasite subsequently escapes confinement to wreak havoc in a local movie theater. This is where the film's campiness—and fun—really ramps up a couple notches. The lights go out, then come back on, then go out; the film stops running, shadows flash across the screen, and the audience follows the manager’s instructions to scream. And scream. And scream. And a jolly time is had by all. Too bad there are several unresolved plot threads left hanging, because this lively but ultimately unsatisfying romp could've been a doozy.

Best line of dialogue: There’s much genuinely crackling stuff here, especially between Dr. Warren and his trampy wife Isabel. Highlights— Isabel: "There's a word for you." Warren: "There are several for you."

What gets terminally tingled: A condemned prisoner at the start of the movie, but not much else. There's an apparent tingling midway through, but even that's ambiguous. The ending's none too clear, either.

Gimmicks "R" Us: For the theatrical release of The Tingler, director William Castle arranged for movie theatres to be wired with low-level shock devices to give unsuspecting moviegoers a surprise jolt at various points in the movie. He hints at this in the trailer, but the effect must have been quite disconcerting at the time. Castle was a master of such cheesy but publicity-grabbing stunts.

Huh? Okay, explain this. We see Dr. Warren give Martha LSD, so she trips out. But later we learn that her "hallucinations" are actually Ollie's doing. Say what? How did Ollie know that Warren gave her drugs? Warren said he was giving her something to sleep. And how did Ollie manage the trick with the faucets? These are a major plot holes. Then at the end, Warren gets all self-righteous about how causing a death—any death—equals murder. But he was trying to scare Martha to death, wasn't he? If not, then what was he doing? At the very end, Ollie begins to hallucinate—windows and doors slamming shut—is he tripping now, too? If so, when did he take drugs? If not, then why are the doors and windows closing by themselves? And what's happening with Martha? And why can't Ollie scream? And in general, what the hell is going on?

Worth looking for: Vincent Price is both the subject and narrator of a hilarous animated short film directed by then-unknown Tim Burton, called Vincent (1982). Burton's later projects included Batman (1989) and Ed Wood (1994), among many other movies.

Somehow their careers survived: Vincent Price (Warren), best known for horror movies like House of Wax (1953), had a long and varied career; he appeared in everything from Biblical epics like The Ten Commandments (1956) to biopics (Wilson, 1944), cop thrillers such as Laura (1944), historical epics like Brigham Young: Frontiersman (1940), comedies (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, 1948), and swashbucklers such as Adventures of Captain Fabian (1951) with Errol Flynn. Judith Evelyn (Martha) had appeared in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) alongside James Stewart and Grace Kelly, while Phillip Coolidge (Ollie) would appear in 1960's Inherit the Wind with Spencer Tracy. Patricia Cutts (Isabel)'s other 1959 appearances included roles in Hitchcock's North By Northwest as well as Battle of the Coral Sea. Director William Castle had made 1958's outrageously entertaining House on Haunted Hill and would go on to further glory with 13 Ghosts (1960) and Mr. Sardonicus (1961), among others.

BOTTOM LINE: Logical flaws severely impair the enjoyability of what could have been a classic high-octane camp-horror movie.

NEXT WEEK: Curse of Frankenstein (1957)


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