The Tingler (1959): Wednesdays With William Gives You a Buzz

Today when a movie studio wants to try a gimmick all they can muster up is blue people flying around in 3D, but in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s they knew how it was done. Yet only one man could be called the King of the Gimmicks, and that man is William Castle. Starting this week and running through the next couple of months, each Wednesday I’ll be looking at one of Castle’s films and the trick he had up his sleeve to promote it. I’ve always found Mr. Castle to be a fascinating character, a king of P.T. Barnum for the motion picture era, and while he was involved with many, many great films, the first that always comes to my mind is 1959’s The Tingler.

After the success of Castle’s film House on Haunted Hill, Columbia Pictures was eager to capitalize on the pairing of Castle and Vincent Price. Robb White, who had written House on Haunted Hill and Castle’s film Macabre, was brought in to write the new film. He took his inspiration from a rubber worm that was made, but not used, in Haunted Hill and grafted on his own experiences with the then legal drug LSD. What he came up with is one of the most absurd plots ever put to film, but it worked directly into the hands of Castle who had an incredible idea for a gimmick.

Vincent Price plays Dr. Warren Chapin, a pathologist who also has a hobby of studying the effects of fear. As Dr. Chapin says, “there’s a force inside of us that science knows nothing about, the force of fear.” Chapin and his assistant David Morris (Darryl Hickman) will stop at nothing to further their research even if it means scaring cats, dogs, or Chapin’s own unfaithful wife. They discover that there seems to be an organism that forms on the spine when people are frightened, and only the release of fear by screaming will make the beast, which they dub the Tingler, subside. Chapin experiments with LSD to try to elicit extreme fear in himself, but he can’t keep himself from screaming. So he injects a deaf/mute woman (Judith Evelyn) with the drug, and she dies of extreme fright. During the autopsy, he removes the Tingler from her back so he can study it. It doesn’t take long before it gets loose, and now everyone must scream to save their lives.

During the climax of the film with the Tingler gets loose in a movie theater is when William Castle’s gimmick went to work. The Tingler was billed as being filmed in Percepto, and Castle made a disclaimer for the beginning to the film explaining what might happen to the audience. In part he says, “ I feel obligated to warn you that some of the sensations— some of the physical reactions which the actors on the screen will feel— will also be experienced, for the first time in motion picture history, by certain members of this audience.” It was only certain members of the audience because only some seats where equipped with the vibrating box that went off. For years, many people thought that the audience was actually given electric shocks, and Castle didn’t help matters by stating it incorrectly in his biography. The film going experience didn’t end with vibrating seats. Castle also planted people in the audience to scream at key times and women who would faint and have to be taken from the theater. Seeing The Tingler must have been unlike seeing any other film, and it’s an experience I wish I could have had.

The gimmick aside, the film is filled with some great performances. In the documentary about The Tingler included on the disk, someone pointed out that Vincent Price could deliver the most absurd dialog and make it sound feasible. He definitely was working overtime in that department with this film. The best dialog in the film has to be the interchanges between Price’s Warren Chapin and his philandering wife Isabel played by Patricia Cutts. Here’s one of my favorites:

Isabel: "You know, Warren, you've lost contact with living people. Nobody means anything to you anymore, unless they're dead and you can root around in them with your sharp little knives. There's a word for you."
Warren: "There's several for you."

This verbal sparing really gives the film some pep in the beginning if the film when things are getting started. Price and Cutts had an explosive chemistry that leapt off the screen. Although there would have been no reason for it, I did kind of wish for more scenes between the two of them.

There are also several other supporting roles I have to mention. Pamela Lincoln played Isabel’s younger sister, and she was engaged to actor Darryl Hickman. William Castle got Hickman to take the part to help Lincoln’s career, and some places say Hickman was talked into doing the part for free. Both Hickman and Lincoln are adequate in their parts, but neither one are particularly memorable. On the other hand, Judith Evelyn as the deaf/mute Ms. Higgins was really good. Ms. Higgins and her husband Ollie (Phillip Coolidge) own a silent movie theater, and the character that Evelyn played seemed like she stepped right off that silent movie screen. I really enjoyed watching the performance. It’s also kind of fascinating that Evelyn’s other widely known performance is also one without words. She played Miss Lonely Hearts in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

The Tingler, without all the history and gimmicks, is a standard late 50’s shocker with some pretty shoddy special effects. If you can’t see the wire dragging the Tingler around the screen, then you must not be looking very hard. Yet the magic of William Castle rubs off all over this film, and even fifty years later, it still holds up as an enjoyably fun film. I had a great time watching it, and if you haven’t seen it, I think you’ll have a great time too. So check it out, and don’t forget to scream because it just might save your life!

Bugg Rating


  1. Glad you mention the couple dialogue - people seldom do when talking about Castle's films (and I can't blame them, those gimmicks are wonderfully distracting).
    I think Castle learned more about being a director from working on the Whistler films early in his career than he's usually given credit for.

  2. The things you could get away with back in the day! Thanks for exploring the value of Castle's film beyond the barely legal gimmicks he employed to thril his audiences.

  3. It's interesting that both of you mention the film that exists beyond the gimmick. I think man people forget that if the films were no good no gimmick would have brought people in to see William Castle's films. I'm excited to spend a couple of months looking into his catalog, and while I definitely want to talk about how he got butts in seats, as a lover of film I want to talk about what an entertaining director he was.

    Thanks for the comments folks.

  4. I love the Tingler! Castle was really ahead of his time.

  5. I love, love, love it! Great review, great film, great job!

  6. jervaise brooke hamsterJanuary 2, 2010 at 6:05 PM

    Judith Evelyn wasn`t a bad lookin` bird back in `59.


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