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William Castle isn’t exactly a household name, but it would not be an exaggeration to call him a household archetype. Decades of parody and baby-boomer nostalgia have woven the “gimmick film” firmly into 20th century legend: cheesy sci-fi flicks and hokey ghost stories presented with outlandish audience participation gags, usually punctuated with “-O” or “-Rama.” William Castle wasn’t the only peddler of this strain of showmanship, but he was its unequivocal king. Anyone could make a 3-D movie, but it takes a peculiar type of genius to string a glow-in-the-dark skeleton over his audience’s heads and call it “Emerg-O.”

William Castle worshipped at the altar of Alfred Hitchcock, and attempted to adapt his model of suspense on a Z-grade budget (this admiration may not have been one-sided; it has been suggested that Hitchcock took some cues from Castle’s playbook for the back-to-basics shocks of PSYCHO. Castle would return the favor a year later with his own, less-subtle homage HOMICIDAL). This imitation-as-flattery extended to his films’ prologues, which would frequently find Castle strolling onto the screen to explain his latest gimmick. But where Hitch’s onscreen persona was aloof and deadpan, Castle could barely contain his glee, mischievously smirking as he informed his audiences what lay in store.


This enthusiasm extends to nearly every scene of THE TINGLER, Castle’s masterpiece and arguably the high-water mark of atom-age mad scientist films. Where other sci-fi films of the era would pad their thrills with stuffy scenes of technobabble, THE TINGLER careens headlong from one giddy setpiece to another. Dr. Warren Chapin (Vincent Price) discovers a lobster-like parasite present in every person’s spinal column, which feeds on fear but is neutralized by screaming. In an attempt to isolate said Tingler, Price first injects himself with LSD, in a hysterical scene widely accepted as the first onscreen acid trip. Later, an attempt is made to scare a deaf mute woman to death, involving rubber masks, a mock-up death certificate (“Cause of death: FRIGHT!!”), and a bathtub filled with hand-colored blood. Eventually, the Tingler gets loose in a silent theatre, crawling across the projector bulb before Price orders the audience to “scream for your lives!”

Cynical readers might point out that not a single thing I’ve just described makes a lick of rational sense. This does not matter. For starters, Price sells the hell out of the material; few actors could so deftly mix charming and sinister, camp and gravitas (for my money, only MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH’s Prince Prospero and THEATRE OF BLOOD’s Edward Lionheart gave him more to sink his teeth into). Robb White’s screenplay does him justice, filled to the brim with snappy banter and oddball asides (“This ‘silly pistol’ could put a hole in you the size of a medium grapefruit!”). And Castle keeps things moving at a breakneck pace, introducing one ludicrous conceit after another.


Finally, there’s the film’s true star: Percept-O, Castle’s most notorious gimmick and the reason the film is still remembered today. Upon THE TINGLER’s original release, Castle distributed small vibrating motors (not electrodes, despite popular myth) to be hooked up to select seats and physically jolt viewers during key shock scenes. This is the purest essence of Castle’s oddball methods: it’s the closest he could come to literally grabbing his audiences and shaking the scares into them. There is an enduring legend that a mischievous projector later took to using these buzzers to jolt unsuspecting audiences for THE NUN’S STORY. I have no idea how to verify whether this actually happened, but it doesn’t matter: it’s a great story, and could just as easily have been cooked up by Castle himself.

As part of their centennial celebration of Castle’s birth, the Brattle is presenting as many of the master’s films as possible with their original gimmicks intact. Saturday’s screening of THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL did indeed feature an “Emerg-O” skeleton flying through the air. 13 GHOSTS (also screening tonight) comes with complimentary “Illusion-O” ghost viewers. And, in a master-stroke, THE TINGLER is presented in full Percept-O, jolting buzzers and all. It is a rare opportunity – one which this writer has been actively hoping for since his teens – and absolutely not to be missed. And if you can’t make it, maybe the Brattle will prepare a screening of THE NUN’S STORY.

THE TINGLER (1959) directed by William Castle
Thursday, 10/30, 7:00 PM
Double feature with 13 GHOSTS at 5:00


Brattle Theatre (40 Brattle St, Cambridge, MA 02138)

$10 ($12 for double feature)

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