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 …
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:
The Sight of Blood:
The Sight of Lots of Blood:
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!
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):
Uh, well, this kind of … Fiend:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.