Let me tell you a story:
In 1941, a 27-year-old William Castle (born William Schloss in 1914; he translated his German last name to English for his show biz career, which he began at age 15 as an assistant production manager for the touring company stage performance of Dracula, which he had earned after charming Bela Lugosi) found his way into Orson Welles’s office and convinced him not only to lease him the use of his theater in Connecticut while Welles was filming Citizen Kane, but managed to get him to seal the deal with one of his beloved cigars given to him by Winston Churchill.
Castle hired German actress Ellen Schwanneke to star in a play at this theater. However, guild laws at the time restricted the use of foreign-born actors: a German actress was only allowed to star in material that originated in Germany. As a result, Castle spent the weekend writing a play of fictional German provenance called Das ist nicht für Kinder (ie, “this is not for children”) and having it translated into German in order to have his actress perform the original English version of it.
While working on this play, Schwanneke was invited by Nazi Germany to return to her homeland for the Third Reich. When Schwanneke refused, Castle capitalized on this by advertising her as “The Girl Who Said No to Hitler,” but then went even a step further: he vandalized his own theater with swastikas in order to feign Nazi outrage over Schwanneke’s refusal (Castle himself was Jewish).
This stunt paid off and Castle’s play was successful enough to get him a meeting with Columbia Pictures, and thus began a long and illustrious career of not only making movies, but using insane but ingenious stunts to promote them.
Castle directed and produced dozens of films from the ’40s to the ’70s, but he is best known for a series of independently produced films that he directed between 1958 and 1965 which he promoted with the gimmicks with which he has since been inextricably linked. House on Haunted Hill, for example, was advertised as having been filmed in “Emergo,” which actually just meant that at a particular climactic moment in the film, a skeleton rigged to the theater’s ceiling would be dropped and swing through the crowd. 13 Ghosts was said to be filmed in “Illusion-O,” which meant that audience members were given red and blue viewing glasses which they could use to view or hide the ghosts on screen at any given moment.
(A particular favorite gimmick of mine was for Castle’s 1961 film, Homicidal, which could charitably be called “inspired” by Hitchcock’s Psycho. The movie featured a “fright break,” in which anyone who was too scared to continue the movie could get up and leave in exchange for a full refund. What happened was that filmgoers started sitting through a showing, and leaving during the fright break of the next, getting a refund and having seen the movie almost a full two times. To combat this and other demands for refunds, Castle instituted what he called the “Coward’s Corner.” Anyone leaving the theater during the fright break was bathed in yellow light and followed yellow footsteps to a booth where a nurse took their blood pressure while a recording called them a chicken. Then they had to sit in the Coward’s Corner and hold a sign—yellow, of course—stating that they were a bona fide coward.)
The film, however, where gimmick is so brilliantly intertwined with story that it somehow transcends both gimmick and story is The Tingler, Castle’s 1959 film starring Vincent Price (his second, after House on Haunted Hill, and also his last with Castle before signing a contract with American International Pictures).
Here is the superficially ridiculous premise of The Tingler: Vincent Price stars as Dr William Chapin, a pathologist who studies the effects of fear in his free time in a home laboratory. He hypothesizes that there must exist in humans some normally imperceptible creature or object that affects them physically in moments of great fear, which leads to the possibility of a human being literally frightened to death.
In a conversation with the brother-in-law of an executed criminal, Chapin names this being “the tingler,” as he theorizes it must be the creature that causes the spine to tingle in moments of terror. He further speculates that the danger posed by this theoretical creature can be reduced by relieving the tension of fear with screaming.
So, to reiterate: there is a deadly creature inside of you that makes your spine tingle when you are afraid. The only way to protect yourself is to scream. This premise is really hammered home by the fact that William Castle himself appears in a prologue scene and lays it out for you.
If the true measure of a successful horror flick is the volume of a screaming audience, this movie is built at the molecular level to achieve that. Besides this basic premise, Castle further draws the audience into the action by having the climactic scene take place in a movie theater. An almost surprising amount of footage from this film (an old silent called Tol’able David) is screened, literally making the audience for The Tingler part of the diegetic audience of The Tingler.
The tingler is loose. He is out to destroy anyone who shows fear. If you’re afraid, scream for your life.
And that’s where Percepto comes in.
The gimmick of the movie being filmed in “Percepto” really meant that select seats in the theater were equipped with “buzzers” on the underside (these buzzers were actually surplus wing de-icers from World War II planes). And so, in the climactic theater scene, Chapin cuts the lights in the diegetic theater, which means the real theater is also cast in darkness, and shouts “The tingler is loose in the theater! Scream for your lives!” The buzzers were activated, literally tingling spines in select seats.
The screaming, one supposes, was contagious.
The film has many other virtues besides its sublime melding of plot and gimmick (although there is one other, less known gimmick of the film: The Tingler is almost entirely filmed in black and white, but one single color makes an appearance in a key scene. In order to achieve this effect, one reel of the movie was filmed in color, but everything but one was painted gray for a stunning and surprising visual moment). The plotting, for example, is masterful in its own way, as every element of the story builds toward its own premise.
Additionally, Price’s character is wonderfully morally ambiguous in a time when heroes tended to be more of the straightforward variety. It is made clear that this is a man of science who will stop at nothing to achieve the goals of his research, whether that means threatening the life of his philandering wife, or, in a scene that is almost shocking in retrospect, dosing himself with LSD in order to see if he can build his own fear without relieving it.
While the special effects of this late ’50s B-movie will certainly not impress modern audiences (it is unlikely the puppet used for the tingler itself impressed audiences in 1959, either), hopefully viewers who can appreciate the ingenuity of craft (and gimmick!) of hastily thrown together but still mightily entertaining.