The Tingler (1959)

It’s becoming apparent that I’ve been foolishly overlooking William Castle’s value as a visual stylist & an auteur. Thanks to my own heroes’ reverence for Castle in works like the John Waters book Role Models & Joe Dante’s Matinee, I’ve always thought of him as a charming huckster & a good anecdote. Most coverage of William Castle’s art understandably focuses on his gleeful love for & exploitation of theatrical gimmicks: 3D tech, plastic skeletons that “fly” over the audience in key scenes, offering insurance policies to the audience, etc. As endearing as those playful pranks are and as big of an impression they made on the young genre nerds who grew up to become the producer’s biggest champions, it’s kind of a shame that they’ve wholly overshadowed his other merits as a filmmaker. After catching the Joan Crawford psychobiddy Strait-Jacket earlier this year and now the infamously gimmick-dependent The Tingler this Halloween, I’m shocked by how little praise Castle gets as a visual stylist, a boldly visionary genre cinema schlockteur. His imagery is often just as vividly memorable as his marketing gimmicks, which is something that needs to be stressed more often when he’s being praised.

1959’s The Tingler is a perfect illustration of the fight for attention between Castle’s visual work & his offscreen theatrical gimmickry. The movie is most often remembered for its so-called Percepto! gimmick – which simulated spine-tingling sensations referenced onscreen with electrically rigged theater seats that would mildly shock audiences during the bigger scares. The titular “tingler” in the film is explained to be a centipedal creature that lives in each of our spines, growing into massive rock-hard spinal obstructions whenever we are stricken with fear. Castle himself appears onscreen to introduce the film, instructing audiences to scream for relief from this rigid-back, tingly spine sensation whenever we get too scared, or else our respective tinglers will become too strong and crush our spinal columns from within. This insane mythology was conceived by screenwriter Robb White when he found himself studying centipede specimens around the time Aldous Huxley encouraged him to experiment with LSD. Castle’s gift was being able to transform those William S. Burroughs-level dark forces in the screenplay into a playful theatrical prank that’s fun for the whole family. And yet, as much as the Percepto! gimmick has aged into kitschy fun, Castle found other ways to accentuate the surrealism of this acid-soaked centipede premise in imagery that borders on legitimate fine art.

Vincent Price stars as a frustrated mad scientist studying the phenomenon of the tingler, increasingly obsessed with extracting the creature from a patient’s spine at the exact moment they’re effectively crippled with fear. In-between struggling for funding, fighting through skepticism from his peers, and engaging in bitter spats with his flagrantly adulterous wife, Price experiments with inciting terror in potential subjects (read: victims) in an attempt to extract a tingler at its most rigid. He starts with performing autopsies on already-executed prisoners, but diabolically graduates to shooting large amounts of LSD into his own arm in an attempt to scare himself and pulling a gun on his philandering wife to frighten her into frenzy. In each case, the subjects’ involuntary screams interrupt the experiment before completion, “releasing the fear tensions” before the tingler can fully take shape. Eventually, though, the mad scientist finds his his perfect specimen in the spine of a mute woman who cannot scream to dissolve her tingler. Once he inevitably frees the monster from her body, it runs loose, causing havoc onscreen and—through Castle’s Percepto! gimmick—in the very theater where the audience is watching the film. The tingler itself is an adorable centipede puppet operated by clearly visible twine, but Castle manages to squeeze more pure entertainment value out of those limited means than any working filmmaker could with big-budget modern tech.

Of course, you can’t entirely separate what Castle achieves as a visual artist from the novelty appeal of his theatrical pranks, since everything onscreen is toiling in service of that almighty gimmickry. Even just the long-winded, convoluted mythology of a fear-feeding centipede that causes spinal tingling in the moments of intense fear is such an over-the-top justification for the Percepto! stunt, making for one of the most delightfully bizarre B-movie plots in history (especially when you factor in Price’s onscreen experiments with mainlining LSD). Once the tingler is loose, though, the film’s formal experiments with theatrical cinema get even more impressively bizarre. The creature sneaks into an old-fashioned silent era movie house to terrorize the audience there, mimicking the theatrical environment where The Tingler would be screening in real life (an effect enhanced greatly for me by catching the film at the historic Prytania Theatre). It crawls across the projector light, revealing a kaiju-scale silhouette of its centipedal body. Vincent Price “cuts the lights” in the theater, shouting encouragements in the dark for the audience to scream in a collective effort to subdue the tingler, lest we suffer the wrath of the Percepto! chairs. Castle’s gimmickry is not a distraction from his visual artistry, but rather a commercial justification for it – finding a wonderful middle ground between surreal art & cheap amusement.

The tingler itself only represents a portion of the visual novelties Castle screentests here. Disembodied heads scream in a pitch-black surrealistic void as a visual representation of fear. A haunted house display disrupts the film’s black & white palette with splashes of blood-red color as one character attempts to scare a tingler out of another. The movie theater itself becomes a confining menace as the projector light shuts off, trapping the audience alone in a room with the monster they paid to see attack fictional others. William Castle’s playfulness extends beyond his imagination for attention-grabbing gimmickry to push schlocky premises into the realm of vividly graphic, surreal art. I have not been giving him the respect he’s owed for that willingness to experiment with the boundaries of cinema myself, and The Tingler’s a perfect example of these experiments’ dual extremes as silly novelty & high art.

-Brandon Ledet

Climax (2019)

It’s finally come to pass: notorious edgelord Gapar Noé has gotten bored of trying to piss us off and is now trying to dance his way into our hearts. The fucked up thing is that it’s working. Climax is the first feature film from the shock-peddling prankster that I’ve ever enthusiastically enjoyed, and it feels like that reconciliation is the result of a direct invitation from the creator. Noé changes nothing about his usual schtick in this provocation du jour either, at least not in terms of content. Climax is still the cruel, obnoxious, try-hard shock fest that Noé has been delivering over & over again throughout his career, complete with juvenile interest in hard drugs, gore, and sexual assault. The only real difference is in the tone & rhythms of the packaging. A constant dance beat propels Climax‘s pacing so that it’s more of a party than a grueling torture sesh. The sexual assault is largely implied rather than graphically lingered on for eternal minutes. It’s also the first film I’ve seen from Noé that could be comfortably categorized as Gay, rather than Homophobic. Most significantly, Climax is packed to the walls with dancing – gorgeous, infectious, horrific dancing. It’s as if Noé kept audiences waiting in the line outside his club for decades while only a few in the inner circle partied within, but now everyone’s invited to the dance floor to celebrate his fucked-up happening. The music hasn’t changed, but the atmosphere is much more accommodating.

Climax wastes no time announcing itself as pretentious smut, bursting out of the gate with structural shenanigans meant to disorient the audience. As its title cheekily promises, we open with the climactic end of the film, complete with closing credits. We’re then treated to an introductory collection of VHS interviews with the film’s cast of dancers, DJs, and choreographers set against a decrepit warehouse wall & framed by stacks of cassette spines through which Noé admits upfront the cinematic influences on what you’re about to see: Possession, Suspiria, Salò, Dawn of the Dead, Un Chien Andalou, etc. As performers with names like Serpent, Psyche, Daddy, and Dom audition for a spot in the film’s central dance troupe, this prologue begins to feel like a mid-90s matchmaking service produced by the good folks at Videodrome. Once those salutations are doled out, the film stops in its tracks yet again to watch the troupe perform a routine they’ve been rehearsing for several days in a rural, isolated gymnasium before the audience arrived. It is a spectacle. Long, swooping, full-bodied takes of modernist dancers exhibiting their craft stretch on into a hedonistic mania, slapping the screen with more death drops than Paris is Burning before finally rolling the opening credits in a strobelit visual assault. While the audience is bewildered in that drunken, disoriented state, it becomes apparent that someone among the dancers has spiked the sangria with an overdose of LSD. Their behavior becomes erratic and increasingly violent – devolving into the same hedonistic ugliness Noé always indulges in while the dance beat pounds in the background for hours on end.

Climax is one of the ultimate examples of a genre I like to call the “Part out of Bounds” – horrific sideshows where guests at a party recognize the vibe is turning darkly uncivil, but they all feel compelled to see it through anyway. Up until now, my personal experience with Noé’s filmography has itself been a party-out-of-bounds story. As a huge sucker for pretentious smut & over-the-top genre cinema, I’m continually lured in to check out his latest provocations, only to be punished by the edgelord posturing found therein. The difference is that my experience at the Gaspar Noé party finally reached a breakthrough with this picture, where I learned to let go & have a “good” time, mostly thanks to the host’s increased interest in accommodating his audience. For the LSD-poisoned dancers in Climax, the party only gets worse – devolving into terrible sex, horrific violence, and horrifically violent sex. Your personal response to this pretentious, obnoxious, “French and fucking proud of it” smut will vary wildly depending on how much interest you tend to have in the type of edgy, over-the-top art-schlock Noé usually traffics in. If it’s something you have absolutely zero patience for, the movie will alienate you early & often – leaving you just as miserable as the tripped-out dancers who tear each other apart on the screen. If, like me, you’re always curious about what Noé’s up to but never fully connect with the fucked-up party therein, you might just find yourself succumbing to the prurient displeasures of DJ Daddy and the killer sangria.

-Brandon Ledet

I Drink Your Blood (1970)

The two things I dislike & distrust most about 1970s grindhouse genre cheapies are the rampant depictions of sexual assault and the lethargic, stoney-baloney pacing. I Drink Your Blood suffers from both, yet the movie charmed me anyway. For all the exploitative & energetic faults I can find in the film as a supposed shock-a-minute gore fest, it’s just too gleefully & gloriously trashy on a conceptual level for me to disregard its merits. A nasty grindhouse gross-out about rabid, Satanic hippie cannibals chowing down on the God-fearing folks of a town just like yours, I Drink Your Blood is perfectly calibrated midnight fare. Even my complaints about its pacing & careless sexual assault issues are more endemic to the era of its genre than indicative of its strengths as an isolated picture; the rape occurs off-screen, not at all played for titillation, and the slow pace allows breathing room for a rowdy public screening party atmosphere (that I was likely missing out on by watching the film alone on my couch via Kanopy). This is one of those curios that’s commendable for the audacity of its own existence, especially considering its ludicrous premise and the extremity of its apparent politics—a movie that’s most entertaining for the disbelief that your watching it all, that it was ever made or distributed.

Satan-worshipping hippies invade a small town, planning to stage sacrificial rituals in the nearby woods. They brutalize & rape eavesdroppers, laugh in the face of local children & elderly, and tiptoe toward graduating from animal sacrifices to their Dark Lord to human ones. Fed up with the adults around him’s unwillingness to confront these youth culture reprobates, a child plans to rid his town of the hippie scum by feeding them meat pies he injects with rabies-infected dog blood. The plan backfires, as the hippies foam at the mouth and become crazed cannibals, eating everyone they can get their mouths on, spreading rabies to survivors. The result is the mayhem typical to a zombie outbreak, with the red acrylic stage blood of most grindhouse productions bathing the town as lives, limbs, and infected rats are liberally strewn about. The rabies is also spread through the hippies’ shameless sexual exploits (such as banging an entire crew of construction workers at once), recalling early stirrings of Cronenberg freak-outs like Shivers. You could probably also track the film as an influence on other mania-driven horrors like George Romero’s The Crazies, Sion Sono’s Suicide Club, and even the recent Nic Cage pic Mom & Dad, but ultimately it feels very much like a product of its time, just another batshit insane drive-in horror of the grindhouse era.

Nothing demonstrates I Drink Your Blood’s quality of being of its time quite like the film’s connection to the Manson Family murders. Less than a year after the infamous slaughter of Sharon Tate & house guests, this film shamelessly exploited the public’s fear of acid-dropping, Satan worshipping hippies by making the entire Free Love moment look like a cover for the hedonistic violence that was secretly driving the counterculture. It even makes hippies’ perceived egalitarian racial politics out to be something oddly sinister, with widely varied ethnicities represented among the cannibals’ ranks exaggerated as if they were gangs from The Warriors. And just in case you don’t connect the dots between those killer hippie scum and the killer hippies in the newspapers, the cannibals in the film write “PIG” in lipstick on their first human sacrifice’s stomach, one of the more widely-shared lurid details from the Sharon Tate tragedy, I Drink Your Blood attempts to scare audiences with alarmist depictions of youths gone out of control, the same tactic exploited in later cult pictures like Class of 1999. The irony, of course, is that most of the audience for these shock-a-minute genre pictures is the youth of the day, so that they always play as a kind of perverse, tongue-in-cheek parody of that alarmism.

Despite all of I Drink Your Blood’s shoddiness in craft and laughable attacks on the ills of youth culture & peace-loving (read: Satan-worshipping) hippiedom, the film is still grimy enough to be genuinely upsetting. Its characters’ hyperviolent LSD freak-outs are never accompanied by goofball hallucinatory imagery — instead manifesting as frustrated, sweaty intensity & wide-eyed madness. Even before the LSD or rabies kicks in, the hippies are already at least a little terrifying, especially as they maniacally chase rats out of their new squat with early signs of bloodlust. That mood-setter makes the eventual rabid hippie mayhem feel like a plague of rats spreading through small-town America – a grotesquely reductive, Conservative view of the times (hilariously so). There’s an authenticity to that viewpoint too, as even the crew of this production had territorial fights with the residents of the small town where they filmed, uptight folks who did not want their kind around. I could lie & say that this genuinely disturbing grime & historical context are what makes the film worth a watch, but the truth is that those are just lagniappe textures to the movie’s true bread & rabid dog’s blood-injected butter: the absurdity of its premise. Like most grindhouse fare, this is a movie that’s largely entertaining for its over-the-top conceptual indulgences, something you have to tolerate a little moral unease & impatience to fully appreciate.

-Brandon Ledet

Funeral Parade of Roses (1969)

One of the most frustrating deficiencies in queer cinema, besides there just not being enough of it in general, is that much of it is far too tame. Bomb-throwers like John Waters, Jonathan Cameron-Mitchell, and early-career Todd Haynes are too few & far between (a direct result of a heteronormative industry that’s stingy with its funding, no doubt), so most queer cinema is typified by safe-feeling, Oscar-minded dramas about death & oppression. It’s always refreshing to find a film that breaks tradition in that way, while also breaking the rules of cinema in general. We need to see more queer artists given the funding needed to push the boundaries of the art form, lest the only onscreen representation of queer identity be restricted to sappy, depressing, sexless bores. I can probably count on one hand the films that have satisfied that hunger we’ve covered since starting this site over two years ago. Tangerine, Paris is Burning, and Vegas in Space all come to mind, but feel like rare exceptions to the rule. That’s why it was so refreshing to see a queer film as wild & unconcerned with cinematic convention as Funeral Parade of Roses restored & projected on the big screen. Even half a century after its initial release, it feels daring & transgressive in a way a lot of modern queer cinema unfortunately pales in comparison to.

Part French New Wave, part Benny Hill, and part gore-soaked horror, Funeral Parade of Roses is a rebellious amalgamation of wildly varied styles & tones all synthesized into an aesthetically cohesive, undeniably punk energy. Shot in a stark black & white that simultaneously recalls both Goddard & Multiple Maniacs, the film approximates a portrait of queer youth culture in late-60s Japan. Referred to in the film’s English translation as “gay boys,” its cast is mostly trans women & drag queens who survive as sex workers & drug dealers in Tokyo. Their story is told through techniques as wide ranging as documentary style “interviews” that include meta commentary on the film itself & high fantasy fables that pull influence from Oedipus Rex. Although there is no traditional plot, the character of Eddie (played by Pîtâ) becomes our de facto protagonist as we watch her rise above the ranks of her fellow sex workers to become the Madamme of the Genet (a lovely Our Lady of the Flowers reference, that). Becoming the figurehead of a queer brothel obviously invites its own set of unwanted attentions & potentials for violence, which ultimately does give Funeral Parade of Roses an unfortunately tragic air. So much of the film is a nonstop psychedelic party, however, that this classic “road to ruin” structure never really registers. All shocks of horrific violence & dramatic tension are entirely offset by an irreverently celebratory energy that carries the audience home in a damn good mood, no matter what Oedipal fate Eddie is made to suffer.

Plot is just about the last thing that matters in this kind of deliberately-fractured art film, though. Much like the Czech classic Daisies, Funeral Parade of Roses finds all of its power in the strength of its imagery and the political transgression in its flippant acts of rebellious pranksterism. Eddie & her sex worker crew hand out with pot-smoking beatniks (whom Eddie deals pot to, conveniently), whose soirees often devolve into psychedelic dance parties staged before an almighty Beatles poster. They admire performance art war protests in the streets. Their out-of-character interviews & in-the-moment narratives are often disrupted by dissociative images like a rose squeezed between ass cheeks or cigarette ash emerging from a family portrait photograph. Whether picking girl gang fights with other groups of women at the mall or simply applying false eyelashes & lipstick in mirrors, everything Eddie & the girls get into is treated as an artful, politically subversive act. In a way, their mere existence was politically subversive too, just as the public presence of transgender people is still somehow a hot button political topic today. Funeral Parade of Roses often undercuts its own visual experimentation by laughing at the culture of Art Film pretension trough nonsensical asides or by using the tune of “The More We Stick Together” to score its pranks & transgressions. Its most far out visual flourishes or most horrific moments of gore will often be interrupted by a shrugging “I don’t get it” interjection from a narrator or side character. It’s consistently just as funny as it is erotic, horrific, and visually stunning, never daring to take itself too seriously.

The only real bummer with Funeral Parade of Roses is that the exploitation film morality of its era means that Eddie must suffer some kind of downfall by the film’s final act. The movie undercuts that classic-tragic trajectory by marrying it to Oedipal narratives & interrupting it with tongue-in-cheek tangents of meta commentary, but it still gets increasingly exhausting over the decades that nearly all queer films have to end with that kind of tragic downfall, as if it were punishment for social or moral transgressions. It’s likely an unfair expectation for Eddie to come out on top as the Madame of the Genet in the context of its era. You can feel a progressive rebelliousness in its street interviews where trans women dodge aggressive, eyeroll-worthy questions with lines like, “I was born that way,” or “I’m really enjoying myself right now.” What’s even more forward-thinking are the film’s lengthy, sensuous depictions of queer sex. The film’s sexual content doesn’t do much to push the boundaries of R-rating eroticism, but its quiet passion & sensuality erase ideas of gender or sexual orientation, instead becoming simple depictions of flesh on flesh intimacy. Both this genuinely erotic eye for queer intimacy and topical references to still-relevant issues like street harassment, teenage homelessness, parental abuse, and transgender identity make Funeral Parade of Roses feel excitingly modern & cutting edge, despite its aggressively flippant attitude & last minute tragic downfall.

Funeral Parade of Roses starts with a wigged female figure softly, appreciatively kissing its way up a naked man’s body. Somewhere in its second act it captures a psychedelic dance party initiated by an LSD dropper, seemingly mounted to the camera. It ends in a bloodbath, the chocolate syrup density of black & white stage blood running thick across the screen. Everything in-between is a nonstop flood of 1960s queer cool, from political activism to Free Love sexual liberation to flippant approximation of Art Cinema aesthetic. I wish more movies being made in the 2010s, queer or otherwise, were half as adventurous or as unapologetic as this transgressive masterwork. It’s not only the best possible version of itself, but also a welcome glimpse of a convention -defiant realm most films would benefit by exploring. To say Funeral Parade of Roses was ahead of its time is a given. In fact, I’m not sure its time has even arrived to this date. I hope it will soon, because I could happily watch a thousand more pictures just like it.

-Brandon Ledet