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.