Vincent Price Blogathon: Vincent Takes a Trip

Film fans and scholars: what are the “Firsts” in cinema history? Was The Jazz Singer really the first sound film? What was the first Technicolor film? When was the first close-up and who filmed it? What was the first Horror film? The first Western? And who invented movies in the first place?

But there is one cinematic first that we will not dispute. And that is—the first LSD experience recorded on commercial celluloid:

Ah, yes, the Walls. Vincent Price was the first actor to drop acid on a movie screen, in William Castle’s 1959 horror classic, The Tingler; and life has never been the same. Could it just be a coincidence that first came The Tingler and then came The Sixties? You know, sex, drugs, and rock-’n-roll; Tune In, Turn On, and Drop Out? Before Timothy Leary turned on, there was Vincent Price, tripping down the psychedelic path with the aid of lysergic acid, in search of his heart’s desire. It puts me in mind of The Wizard of Oz (another notoriously trippy film), whose heroine travels far to a strange land and back just to find that what she wanted was at home all the time. Price kinda discovers that what he wants is also right in his home—or at least in the Walls holding it up …

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What Price is really seeking (and won’t be found in those Walls) is the source of Fear. He’s a medical scientist searching for the reason why we experience fear, and, being that he has a scientifically trained mind, he thinks he won’t scare easy. Hence his use of a mind-blowing drug to find out just what will scare the pants off you (metaphorically speaking). For some of us, it may be the Walls (particularly if they need painting), but The Tingler doesn’t stop there. Dear me, no. This film is on a truth-finding mission, and it rolls out a whole inventory of fright-inducing objects to thrill and chill you. Such as:

Black Cats:

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And Skeletons:

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Also Needles:

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Crawling Hands:

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Cocked Pistols:

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Devious Blondes:

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Large, Menacing Males:

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Small, Strange Males:

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Mashers:

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Monsters With Knives:

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And Axes:

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The Sight of Blood:

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The Sight of Lots of Blood:

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So dish, readers: do any of these items—frighten you? Do they give you that cold, creepy-crawly feeling up your spine? Kind of a … tingle? And does it feel as if those little tense prickles are … intensifying? If so, then you have just experienced the power of — The TINGLER! Yes, that terrible, title-named character, which lives in your body and crawls up your spine and crushes your vertebrae with vise-like claws—and draws its energy from your own fear! And the more you fear, the stronger the Tingler grows! And there is no way to stop its deadly clutches unless (as Mr. Castle warns us in a prologue), UNLESS you release it by the one method possible — by screaming, SCREAMING for your life!

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Oh, the fearsome terror of it! Oh, the horror, the Horror! What kind of dreadful Fiend can wreak such havoc on our frail bodies and—even kill us (especially if, as in the sad case of Judith Evelyn’s character, you’re a mute who can’t scream):

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Uh, well, this kind of … Fiend:

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All right, all right, you can stop laughing now. I admit, most people wouldn’t feel a ruffle in their back hairs at the sight of a foot-long piece of rubber that looks like a lobster crossed with a tuning fork. But, dammit, I want a little respect here. After all, this waterproof caterpillar happens to be Vincent Price’s main co-star, and the two share many scenes together—some quite intimately, too:

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So maybe Mr. Multi-Limbed Gumby there, who bumps across a carpet (with the aid of a wire) as if it were humping the fibers, won’t turn your hair white and send you hollering for help like the Cowardly Lion. But let’s just think for a minute. Think what does cause you to scream. I, for example, shriek whenever I see a water bug. I can’t help it; they’re such nasty, scuttling little things, that I’m nearly paralyzed with horror if I see one, until I scream for my brave little ginger-spotted cat (a great mouser, by the way) to get that, THAT–; and he snaps it up in his jaws and crunches it like a potato chip (such a good boy!).

So now—just follow me here—so now what if, in a case of imaginative projection, I were to open a cabinet door one day and see a slick, foot-long centipede-like-thingy waggling its evil little antennae at me? Or if I were to wake up one morning and see it slithering along my rug like a half-baked lobster thermidor in search of prey? Would I scream? Hell, yes, you bet I would. I’d let loose a bellow that could be heard across the five boroughs.

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And that’s what Vincent Price does in this film. No, not bellow. He does what every actor worth his salt does: he projects himself imaginatively into the text, even though he no doubt realizes that he’s not playing Hamlet encountering his ghostly father. No, he’s encountering the horror-film equivalent of a rubber chicken, and, without Shakespeare to back you up, that kind of imaginative projection is twice as hard. But Price succeeds at it beautifully. He dives right in and gives you the fear, the shrivel of disgust that such an imagined creature as the Tingler should cause; and he doesn’t throw out little hints to let you know that he’s better than his material. He’s too much of a pro for that. When I watch him wrestle with that wrinkled glop of rubber on his arm, I, too, can sense the Tingler’s deathly grip; and for a moment I experience the eerie suspension of disbelief that’s the aim of all good horror.

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But the reason we all love Price is how he could take horror and then flip it like a pancake on a spatula; he knew how not to play it absolutely straight, especially for the savvy teenagers of the 1950s-60s who became horror’s new audience, just when Price began to concentrate on the genre. That’s his genius as a horror actor. He goes for the terror while also coming at it with what I’d call a sideways irony. Thus those Waaaalls. What a mighty effort Vincent makes to push back their non-existent momentum. He gets the tone, like the Little Bear’s porridge, just right, finishing off with a howl that leaves audiences both laughing and applauding.

But Price could also play it straight when the movie needed it, even if the movie was a piece of cheese. Listen to how seriously he describes the Tingler: “What we’re looking for is something tangible, and real,” he exclaims, “It may exist for only a fraction of a second but during that fraction there’s something inside every frightened person that’s as solid as steel—and probably stronger.” And you do listen, because Price can take this crazy explanation of the horrors to come and make us, even for just a fraction of a second, believe it. If anyone is going down a trippy path here, it’s us, the audience, as Vincent sets us up for the Big Fright: now we know what that dumb piece of rubber can do, and it ain’t pretty. That’s an actor in control of his craft. He’s out to scare us because that’s why we’re watching. We want to be scared.

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Frankly, that’s also what’s so great about The Tingler. It’s all about what fun it is to be scared at the movies. Maybe it’s cheese, but it’s cheese toasted on a fork round a campfire, putting us in the mood for scary stories. The Tingler is an interactive, self-reflexive exercise in that kind of audience wish-fulfillment; and the ONLY way to watch this movie is in an actual movie theater. Castle primes us at the film’s beginning, explaining how some of us will feel a “tingling sensation” (movie houses during showings were—and some still are—equipped with buzzers under the seats for this effect). And then Price caps it at the end, with the Tingler rampaging in a movie-theater-inside-the-movie and the lights going on and off (both cinematically and physically), as he shouts from the screen, “Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in this theater!”

Note the wording: This theater, meaning Our theater, right where we’re sitting, and right above where the Tingler scampers. Whatta ya gonna do, suck a lozenge? No, you are going to SCREAM, like a million Fay Wrays, until the plaster falls from the ceiling and the old lady who lives in the apartment above the theater pounds her cane on her floor, wondering what the hell all the racket is about. Good, clean fun, that’s what I call it. It’s the collective imaginative projection of the communal cinematic experience, and there’s nothing in the world quite like it.

And, being that the Communal Scary Season is now upon us, I will leave you with Mr. Price’s closing words of warning from the film (said in that inimitably urbane tone, like a suave ghoul raising a champagne toast): “If any of you are not convinced that you have a Tingler of your own: the next time you’re frightened in the dark—Don’t Scream.”

Happy Halloween.

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This post is part of The Vincent Price Blogathon, running from Oct. 25-27, 2013, and hosted by the very smart and funny The Nitrate Diva Blog. For a list of participating bloggers, whose posts are all a screamingly good read, please click here.

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12 Comments

  1. I completely agree with this: “[T]he reason we all love Price is how he could take horror and then flip it like a pancake on a spatula; he knew how not to play it absolutely straight…” Price was the master of this, and he made it look so easy.

    Reply
    • Yes, you’re right; Price’s ironic humor and his ease with campy situations in horror (and in other genres, such as the egomanical actor he plays in His Kind of Woman) made him a unique and enjoyable talent. Thanks for commenting and for liking the post!

      Reply
  2. “the ONLY way to watch this movie is in an actual movie theater.” Six times and counting for me. Enjoyed the piece!

    Reply
  3. Many thanks for your great write-up on The Tingler!!! I completely agree with your comments about Price’s ironic humour… It’s quite tingling to watch 🙂
    Love the screen caps – especially the intimate scene with the catipilllar! After reading your fabulously entertaining post, I’m really looking forward to watching The Tingler again!

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for visiting and commenting! Price really had that ability to find the humor in horror situations, and I think he’s at his peak in The Tingler. I never tire of watching him in it, and I’m always going back to see him in it again, too.

      Reply
  4. Such fond memories of this movie! Although I was never lucky enough to see it at a theater, I at least got to see it for the first time at such a young age (about 7 or 8) that the cheesy lobster monster REALLY did scare me, causing me to cover my eyes. Alas, “The Tingler” now only makes me laugh, but your terrific post reminds me what a great asset it has in Vincent Price. Perhaps about the only person who could make that specious scientific theory sound remotely sane. A really great post! Happy Halloween!

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for your lovely comment, Ken, and for sharing your memories! I never saw The Tingler until I was an adult, so by then I was ‘hep’ to its humor; but I agree, Price had a gift for conviction that few other horror actors had (maybe only Karloff). I really hope you get to see it in a movie theater one day (if you can ever come to NYC when the Film Forum here shows it, you’ll get the total Castle viewing experience, tingle and all!). Thanks again and Happy Halloween also!

      Reply
  5. It’s been a while since I LOL-ed as hard as I did at your description of the Tingler itself as “a lobster crossed with a tuning fork.” You celebrate this film’s delicious cheesiness with wonderful humor while making me realize how clever the movie actually is. I think your point about Price’s ability to connect with younger generations is well-taken. While a lot of the old school actors of the classical Hollywood era became uncool to the hip teens of the late 50s and 60s, Price did surf the counterculture wave with grace and charm. I never gave that aspect of his career much thought, so I appreciate that you helped me recognize Price as the rightful first tripper of cinema history!

    And I need to see this in a theater soon… Yes, I am blushing about the fact that I haven’t yet!

    Thanks for contributing this spine-tingling and rib-tickling entry to the blogathon!

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for your lovely comment! I think a good study could be made of Price’s impact as a horror actor on a new generation of horror fans, by how, in effect, he takes a post-modern approach to the horror text — playing for the scares while at the same time giving audiences a wink about how over the top it can be. (His performances in Theater of Blood and Dr Phibes are really brilliant, extended takes in that mode.) It’s probably no accident that Price worked with both William Castle and Roger Corman, two directors who also ‘flipped’ the well-worn tropes of horror, and whose films targeted younger, hipper audiences. Because he worked in horror, though, I think Price, like Karloff, is underrated as an actor — he’s seen as camp, but he really does understand his material and what he’s doing with it, and he always gives a great, and ultimately sincere performance (he’s wonderful, and serious, in The Last Man on Earth, which is quite a grim film). As for seeing The Tingler in a movie theater, I know the Film Forum in NYC periodically shows it with the full Castle effects (it recently did so again this past August), so that’s an added attraction to coming to the Big Apple. And thanks so much for hosting this great blogathon in honor of Vincent, who deserves it – I’m enjoying reading the other posts and look forward to re-viewing some of my other favorite Price films1

      Reply
  6. Great post! I have yet to watch this film, but this creature full of legs really frightened me!
    Good point about the acid scene and the sixties…
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Greetings!

    Reply

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