The Tingler is a very silly movie masquerading as a serious movie masquerading as a very silly movie. That might sound like a sentence that means absolutely nothing, but hear me out. How about we start with the title: The Tingler. The Tingler is not a serious title. Let’s say you go to see The Tingler at your local matinee in 1959. Knowing the title, you’re probably expecting something extremely goofy, on the level of Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter or Attack of the Crab Monsters. But then, what’s this? The beginning of the movie follows Vincent Price as a pathologist and occasional mortician who is in the middle of conducting an autopsy on the body of a recently executed murderer. The brother-in-law of one of the man’s victims comes in and they get to talking about fear and its effects on the human body. It’s not Shakespeare, but it is pretty serious, isn’t it?
Well, by the end of the movie Vincent Price trips acid on screen, a centipede-like monster that’s visibly pulled along by a string terrorizes a movie theater full of people, a mute woman is chased around a house by a collection of Scooby-Doo-style monsters (hairy arm, vaguely ghost looking person, a bald guy with spooky eyes, you know what I mean), and overall all of the seriousness of the first few minutes is right out the window. This tonal back and forth leads to an odd effect on Castle’s overall filmography and reputation, as The Tingler is probably Castle’s most popular film. With the combination of Vincent Price and the absurd qualities of the film it’s a regular in showings of camp horror films on late-night TV or in independent theaters, the kind of thing a family gets together and laughs at. This means that to anyone who connects Castle most of all with this film, there might be a presumption of this level of camp with all of his work when really it’s much more of an exception than a rule.
The Tingler is, unsurprisingly, about the titular monster. Sure, there are characters and Vincent Price gives the top-quality performance he always does but in this film and Castle’s next film, 13 Ghosts, the supernatural threat takes center stage more than the characters and their relations to each other. This is, frankly, a bit disappointing. It doesn’t make The Tingler bad by any means (although next time I will be making the argument that it does hurt 13 Ghosts quite a bit), but it does keep it from being very rewarding when compared to other films in Castle’s filmography.
Ask anyone who’s a fan of The Tingler though and they likely won’t think any of this. This film is beloved by many for its campy charm. This is, of course, a valid reason to enjoy the film and nobody should be disrespected for enjoying a movie, but it does run counter to the wider argument that I hope to present across “The Castle Report”: The films of William Castle deserve to be respected artistically and taken seriously, not treated purely as novelties to be made fun of. The trouble is that The Tingler really does work best that way. If you try to take it seriously there just isn’t enough character or story present to really carry the film, unlike in Macabre and especially House on Haunted Hill.
If you’ve read the previous two editions of “The Castle Report” you might be wondering why I didn’t summarize The Tingler’s plot the same way I did that of Macabre and House on Haunted Hill. Simply put, if I did that I would spoil the fun. Those films have much more invested in creating characters, twists, and especially the atmosphere. If you were a susceptible child seeing those films on late-night TV I imagine they could give you at least a little bit of a scare, even nowadays, but I can’t see The Tingler doing that. All The Tingler really has is its camp and one particular bit of technical showmanship (a scene midway through the film employs a very clever use of the film technology of the time, but like I said before I don’t dare spoil it). That camp makes it fun, but as an example of the kind of artist William Castle can be, it certainly isn’t his best.
This is, however, likely an unpopular opinion. As I’ve said, many love The Tingler and I feel it is important to say that I still recommend seeing it. It’s a lot of fun and though it’s nowhere near Castle’s best it’s still an enjoyable film to watch. The only thing that would make it unenjoyable is if the camp was gone and all that was left was the monster…