Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Just Seen: The Tingler

Halloween is closing in again, and on cue the cable nets are loaded up with horror films. Actually, I'll say the spooky season was kicked off quite well by last Sunday's season 2 premiere of "The Walking Dead" on AMC. A very impressive, excruciatingly tense 90 minutes. The only thing that let the air out of a fine evening of zombie action was the increasing tempo of commercial breaks, which started hitting every ten minutes or so in the third half. I guess they had to capitalize on the buzz-- and were rewarded with the best ratings for any AMC show so far.

Up-dial a bit, I got a chance to catch The Tingler (1959) last night on TCM, in finely transferred HD. It was part of William Castle's most successful cycle of gimmick-driven horror films, along with House On Haunted Hill (1959) and 13 Ghosts (1960).

Quite a few years ago, I got to see The Tingler in a revival house in San Francisco in an auditorium wired for "Percepto," the sensory gimmick from the original release. And by gimmick, I mean several buzzers wired into selected seats. When the blackout part hit ("The tingler is loose the the theater! Scream as loud as you can!"), the buzzers were turned on (along with, for added terror, a Van Der Graff generator throwing out blue sparks under the screen) and all the hipsters in the house reliably screamed their heads off.

No Percepto last night (though I did watch it a little buzzed) so I got to dig into the film's plot. It was written (along with the other two) by Robb White-- and it's obvious the poor guy had William Castle hovering over his typewriter the whole time. a few super-weird plot motifs popped out in this screening:

• Strange family relationships. Vincent Price (in his skinny-moustached prime) plays Warren Chapin, a pathologist. As the story opens he is conducting an autopsy on an executed criminal. Ollie, the executed guy's next of kin, plays a pivotal role in the story that follows. Dr. Chapin is married to Isabel, a gold-lamé-wearing trollop. She's an heiress who refuses to share her wealth with her good-hearted younger sister Lucy, who also lives with them. Lucy is going steady with David, who is played by Darryl "Dobie Gillis" Hickman and who Dr. Chapin considers a son to him. Everything that happens not directly Tingler-related involves the baroque, complex and hateful dynamics of this family unit.

• Weird plot holes. Dr. Chapin's trollop wife Isabel, a fairly important character, vanishes from the film at about the two-thirds point-- no real reason given. Vincent Price greets this development with a shrug, and the film continues.

• Time wasters. Aside for the long scream-filled blackouts at three points in the film (which are cheap to shoot!) We're also treated to an extended sequence in the silent-film theater (before the Tingler gets loose in it) of Tol'able David (1921). This was a wheezy melodrama featuring Richard Bartholomess about a mistreated bumpkin who gets his big shot a manhood when he gets to deliver a mailbag. For the most part, films-within-films usually make some sort of thematic commentary to the overarching narrative. Not this time. It was probably a way William Castle could add four minutes or so of length to his movie (which was shot in two weeks) and he didn't give a damn if it informed the plot or killed it dead.

Even with it's manifold faults, The Tingler is a genuinely creepy film, with a clever bit of color in the scariest part. There is an almost Lynchian despair and strangeness to the thing, an effect that lingers well after the last 50's teenager screams. it doesn't hold up well, but it holds up.

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