The Tingler: So Bad It's Good or So Good It's Bad?
There are those directors whose films can be so bad that they are actually good. That is, they are so inept or so over the top that they are unintentionally funny. The epitome of this kind of director is Ed Wood, whose films are so badly made that, even though it appears he meant for them to be taken seriously, that they can be enjoyed as comedies. Even mainstream, big name directors sometimes had films that had moments that could be very funny, even though they were meant to be taken seriously. The perfect example of this is Cecil B. DeMille, whose 1956 version of The Ten Commandments (among his many other films) has moments that can be enjoyed as pure camp.
While it seems likely that Ed Wood was a director who meant for his bad films to be taken seriously, there were other directors whose intentions for their films were less clear. Chief among these is legendary producer, director, and showman William Castle. Mr. Castle's best known films fall in the horror and thriller genres, yet they are often so over the top that they can be appreciated as comedies. Unlike Ed Wood, however, it is unclear whether William Castle meant for them to be taken seriously. Quite simply, it seems possible that Mr. Castle meant for his films to be parodies of the horror and thriller genres, but played them so straight that it seems as if he meant for them to be taken seriously. In other words, William Castle may have pioneered the use of an intentionally camp aesthetic in his films years before the Sixties TV show Batman, the films of John Waters, or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In that case, it could be that William Castle's films are not so bad that they are good, but so good that they are bad.
Perhaps none of William Castle's films blur the line between "goodness" and "badness" as The Tingler (1959). The Tingler was the second and last film William Castle made with the legendary Vincent Price. It was also the third of five films Mr. Castle made with writer Robb White (the others being Macabre, House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, and Homicidal). The Tingler may also have been the most original film William Castle ever made. The Tingler centred on the titular parasite present in all human beings that feeds on fear and can even shatter the spinal column. It can only be stopped by screaming. Vincent Price played the the coroner and scientist Dr. Warren Chapin who discovered the Tingler.
Of course, William Castle was well known for his gimmicks, and his gimmick for The Tingler might well have been his most spectacular one. A bit of World War II surplus, small motors that had been attached to the wings of aircraft, were attached to the undersides of various seats in select theatres. At a point in the film when the Tingler had escaped into a cinema, the lights of the theatre would go dark as Vincent Price in the role of Dr. Chapin warned the audience (both in the movie and in the theatre), "Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic. But scream! Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in this theatre!" At that point the motors under the seats would be activated, their vibrations simulating the effects of the Tingler. William Castle termed this process "Percepto." While the nature of Percepto was not revealed in the film's advertising or trailers, it was highly touted nonetheless.
"Percepto" was not the only gimmick William Castle used on The Tingler. At select theatres he also planted individuals in the audience who would scream and faint at the proper time. The individual who had "fainted" would then leave the theatre by ambulance.
As to the film The Tingler itself, it was very nearly as outrageous as the gimmicks used to promote it. Never mind the whole concept of a parasite present in every single human being that feeds on fear, The Tingler is famous for depicting the first portrayal of LSD use in a mainstream motion picture. In the movie Dr. Chapin doses himself with LSD in an effort to experience fear and thus isolate his own Tingler. While the characters refer to the drug only as "acid" in the dialogue, the title of the book Dr. Chapin is reading before his trip makes it clear what he will be taking: Fright Effects Induced By Injection Of Lysergic Acid LSD25.
Of course, Vincent Price's performance during Dr. Chapin's acid trip is one of the things that qualify The Tingler as a camp classic. Mr. Price uses the scene as an opportunity to ham it up, beginning it somewhat subdued and then upping the ante when he begins going on about "the walls." In the end Dr. Chapin's acid trip seems more histrionic than horrifying. Here I have to point out that Vincent Price's histrionics during the acid trip are not an isolated case in The Tingler. There are several scenes in which Mr Prince hams it up, particularly when the Tingler is loose in a theatre.
Vincent Price occasionally hamming it up in The Tingler is not its only source of humour. The Tingler itself looks more funny than frightening. The Tingler does resemble what for many is a truly frightening creature, looking somewhat like an oversized centipede. Unfortunately the Tingler is also quite clearly a cheap rubber prop that wobbles across the floor when it moves. I imagine the sight of the Tingler for many is more hilarious than horrifying.
Of course, given the somewhat dodgy science of The Tingler, perhaps it does not matter that the Tingler itself is a cheap prop. After all, the viewer is expected to believe that Dr. Chapin has discovered a creature previously unknown to man that shows up on a common, everyday X-ray! Even more so than many of William Castle's films, The Tingler stretches the bounds of believability.
While there are several moments in The Tingler that are so bad they are good, it seems possible that William Castle intended it to be so. It must be considered that given his love of gimmicks William Castle did not intend, let alone expect, his films to be taken seriously, not even as B horror movies. It would seem he was more interested in putting on a good show than a serious horror film. Indeed, William Castle's introduction to The Tingler is done with tongue firmly planted in cheek. If that could not be used as proof that William Castle intentionally made The Tingler campy, one must consider that at times it can be surprisingly effective for a horror movie, especially one made on a low budget. Indeed, William Castle succeeds in something that very few directors have--making a scene that is simultaneously funny and frightening. While Vincent Price's admonition to "...scream for your lives!" in the theatre is so over the top as to be funny, the actual sequence in which the Tingler (even the cheap rubber prop it was) is actually a bit scary.
Indeed, another bit of evidence that William Castle intended The Tingler to be camp is the presence of Vincent Price. Mr. Price was an excellent actor, one capable of delivering very subtle performances when called upon to do so. When Vincent Price hammed things up, then, there can be little doubt that it was intentional. Indeed, it is dubious whether William Castle would have permitted Vincent Price his histrionics had he not intended The Tingler to be a bit over the top. In other words, The Tingler (and likely William Castle's other films as well) may be better counted alongside John Huston's Beat the Devil (1953) as a movie that is intentionally campy rather than counted alongside films such as Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) as a movie that is unintentionally bad.
Regardless of whether it's a movie that is so bad it's good or a movie so good it's bad, The Tingler is one of William Castle's funnest movies. After all, it is not every movie that features a parasite that feeds on fear. And it's not every movie that has a character played by Vincent Price take an acid trip.