The film tells the story of a scientist who discovers a parasite in human beings, called a "Tingler", which feeds on fear. The creature earned its name by making the spine of its host "tingle" when the host is frightened. In line with other Castle horror films, including the 1958 Macabre and 1959 House on Haunted Hill, Castle used gimmicks to sell the film. The Tingler remains most well known for a gimmick called "Percepto!", vibrating devices in some theater chairs which activated with the onscreen action.
A pathologist, Dr. Warren Chapin (Price), discovers that the tingling of the spine in states of extreme fear is due to the growth of a creature that every human being seems to have, called a "Tingler", a parasite attached to the human spine. It curls up, feeds and grows stronger when its host is afraid, effectively crushing the person's spine if curled up long enough. The host can weaken the creature and stop its curling by screaming.
Movie theater owner Oliver Higgins (Coolidge), who shows exclusively silent films, is an acquaintance of Dr. Chapin. Higgins's wife Martha (Evelyn), who is deaf and mute, dies of fright after weird, apparently supernatural events have occurred in her room. During her autopsy, Chapin removes the Tingler from her spine.
After they have contained the Tingler and return to Higgins' house, it is revealed that Higgins is the murderer; he frightened his wife to death knowing that she could not scream because she was mute. The centipede-like creature eventually breaks free from the container that held it in and is released into the theater where the deaf mute woman ran before she died. Chapin wishes not to tell anyone, knowing it would start a panic. The Tingler latches onto a woman's leg, and she screams until it releases its grip. Chapin controls the situation by shutting off the lights and telling everyone in the theater to scream. When the Tingler has left the showing room, they resume the movie and go to the projection room where they find the Tingler and capture it.
Guessing that the only way to neutralize the Tingler is to reinsert it inside Martha's body, Chapin does so. After he leaves, Higgins, who has admitted his guilt to Chapin, is alone in the room. As if by supernatural forces, the door slams shut and locks itself and the window closes, echoing what happened just before Martha was frightened to death. The Tingler causes the body of Martha to rise from the bed, staring at her husband. Higgins is so terrified that he is unable to scream. The screen fades, and there is the sound of someone (presumably Higgins) falling, either in a faint or dead. Amidst the dark screen, Dr. Chapin's voice says to the audience, "Ladies and gentlemen, just a word of warning. If any of you are not convinced that you have a Tingler of your own, the next time you are frightened in the dark... don't scream," and the film ends.
Much in the way of Universal's Frankenstein (1931), William Castle opened the film with an on-screen warning to the audience:
"I am William Castle, the director of the motion picture you are about to see. I feel obligated to warn you that some of the sensations—some of the physical reactions which the actors on the screen will feel—will also be experienced, for the first time in motion picture history, by certain members of this audience. I say 'certain members' because some people are more sensitive to these mysterious electronic impulses than others. These unfortunate, sensitive people will at times feel a strange, tingling sensation; other people will feel it less strongly. But don't be alarmed—you can protect yourself. At any time you are conscious of a tingling sensation, you may obtain immediate relief by screaming. Don't be embarrassed about opening your mouth and letting rip with all you've got, because the person in the seat right next to you will probably be screaming too. And remember—a scream at the right time may save your life."
Vincent Price as Dr. Warren Chapin
Judith Evelyn as Mrs. Martha Ryerson Higgins
Darryl Hickman as Dave Morris
Patricia Cutts as Isabel Stevens Chapin
Pamela Lincoln as Lucy Stevens
Philip Coolidge as Oliver "Ollie" Higgins
The financial success of House on Haunted Hill was reason enough for Columbia to produce The Tingler. Vincent Price was on board again, with Darryl Hickman playing his assistant and newcomer Pamela Lincoln playing his sister-in-law. Patricia Cutts played Price's beautiful, unfaithful wife, Isabel.
Director William Castle was never one to miss an opportunity for publicity. He convinced Hickman, who was Lincoln's real-life fiancé, to join the cast as her fiancé in the film. At first Hickman declined, but agreed after Castle convinced him it would help Lincoln's career. According to Hickman, Castle did such a good job of convincing him it would help Lincoln that he worked for no salary. Hickman, who was 5'10", was required to wear lifts for the scenes with 6'4" Vincent Price to offset the disparity of their heights.
Judith Evelyn was hired at the request of Price, who had worked with her on Broadway. She also received attention in another prominent "non-speaking role" as the suicidal "Miss Lonelyhearts" in Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954). Dal McKennon, the projectionist (uncredited in the film), had a successful career as the voice of many screen and TV characters, including "Buzz Buzzard" in the Woody Woodpecker cartoons and "Gumby" in the TV clay animation series. Jack Dusick, makeup artist for The Tingler, was the father of singer/actress Michele Lee.
Robb White, the story author, said he was inspired to write The Tingler after seeing one of the rubber worms that makeup artist Dusick designed for House on Haunted Hill. There are, however, no rubber worms in House on Haunted Hill. In an interview Robb White said this movie was partly inspired by his encounter with a centipede while living in the British Virgin Islands.
White had experimented with LSD at UCLA after hearing about it from Aldous Huxley and decided to work it into the script. It is the first depiction of LSD use in a major motion picture. At the time the drug was legal. The title of the book Vincent Price's character reads before taking LSD—Fright Effects Induced by Injection of Lysergic Acid LSD25—is printed on the back of the book, not the front. This was done for a better shot for the expositional title of the book explaining the effects of LSD to the audience.
The Tingler was Price's second and final film with Castle and the fifth performance that would ultimately brand him as "The Master of Menace".
The movie playing in the theater when the Tingler escapes was the 1921 silent film Tol'able David.
A subplot of the film involves the fates of a movie theater specializing in silent films and its owners. According to Kevin Heffernan, this reflects the conditions of the movie theater industry in the late 1950s. There were many discount theaters trying to establish their own market niche by showing older films. For the owners of these small theaters it was a thankless and poorly paid job, as described in the trade journals of this period. When Ollie describes at length the work load involved in cleaning the building, he echoes real-life complaints. This provides the motive for his murder, as he is trying to escape a hopeless life.
Another subplot involves dysfunctional married lives. Most prominent is that of Warren to Isabelle, who is clearly unfaithful to him. She stays out until the early hours of the morning and is seen giving her lover a farewell kiss. In another scene, Warren enters through the front door of his house and hears the back door slam. He then discovers two used glasses of wine and forgotten tie clip. In an argument between them, she does not deny her unfaithfulness but Isabelle counters by accusing her husband of neglecting her. While spending so many hours in his laboratory, he has lost contact with living people leaving her no choice but to seek human affection elsewhere. The marriage of Ollie and Martha is also an unhappy one. He claims that Martha would have killed him if she could.
Martha is depicted as a woman with a whole range of obsessive and phobic traits. She even communicates in a neurotic pantomime. Tim Lucas has described her as a silent film character in a sound film. The idea of a terrified, mute woman was not fully original. According to Heffernan, it was probably inspired by The Spiral Staircase (1946).
The scene with the LSD trip offers a display of "stylized and exaggerated performance". The eyes of Warren shift from side to side, gazing suspiciously at his environment, while describing feelings of unease and apprehension. He loosens his tie, when he thinks himself unable to breathe. He opens a window while insisting that it is nailed shut. He sees a hanging skeleton as a moving figure, and describes the walls of the room as closing in on him. Finally he visibly struggles with the urge to scream, and succumbs to it.
The death scene of Martha is a highlight for the film. The woman wakes with a start within her apartment. Around her the lights flicker on and off, a rocking chair moves on its own and a door closes by itself. Martha staggers towards the other bed of the room, where a sheet is steering. She rips off the sheet and a corpse-like figure emerges from the bed. It wields a machete, causing her to escape towards another room. Again the lights go on and off. A hairy hand appears and throws a hatchet. It misses Martha but strikes the table next to her. The bathroom door opens on its own and Martha flees into the darkened room. She turns on the lights and sees red blood flowing from the faucet. Red in an otherwise monochrome shot. The bathtub is also filled with blood and from it emerges a hand. The medicine cabinet opens to reveal a death certificate for Martha, the cause of death is fright. Seeing this she collapses, scared to death.
The final scenes involve a Tingler unleashed in the movie theater, while the audience watches Tol'able David (1921). A young woman escapes the unwanted advances of her boyfriend and is targeted. Her screams in the film were co-ordinated with screams in the movie theater where The Tingler debuted. In the real life theater, a woman screamed and then pretended to faint; she was then taken away in a stretcher, all part of the show arranged by Castle. The image of the film goes dark. From the screen, the voice of Vincent Price speaks of the fainted lady and asks the rest of the audience to remain seated. The film-within-a-film resumes and is interrupted again. The voice of Price explains that the Tingler is loose and asks the audience to scream. This was the signal for Percepto to be activated. The voices of scared patrons are heard from the screen. They are replaced by the voice of Price, who explains that the Tingler is paralyzed and the danger is over. At this point the film resumes its normal format, which is used for its epilogue.
The epilogue ends with the death scene of Ollie. Having failed to kill Warren, he is left alone with the corpse of his wife. The bedroom door closes on its own and the corpse rises from the bed. Ollie is scared to death and the scene with the sound of his body collapsing. The voice of Price can once again be heard, giving a snide warning.
William Castle was famous for his movie gimmicks, and The Tingler featured one of his best: "Percepto!". Previously, he had offered a $1,000 life insurance policy against "Death by Fright" for Macabre (1958) and sent a skeleton flying above the audiences' heads in the auditorium in House on Haunted Hill (1959).
"Percepto!" was a gimmick where Castle attached electrical "buzzers" to the underside of some seats in theaters where The Tingler was screened. The buzzers were small surplus airplane wing deicing motors left from World War II. The cost of this equipment added $250,000 to the film's budget. It was used predominantly in larger theaters.
During the climax of the film, The Tingler was depicted escaping into a movie theater. On screen, the projected film appeared to break as the silhouette of the Tingler moved across the projection beam. The film went black, all lights in the auditorium (except fire exit signs) went off, and Vincent Price's voice warned the audience "Ladies and gentlemen, please do not panic. But scream! Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in this theater!" This cued the theater projectionist to activate the buzzers, giving some audience members an unexpected jolt, followed by a highly visible physical reaction.
An alternate warning was recorded for drive-in theaters; this warning advised the audience the Tingler was loose in the drive-in. Castle's voice was substituted for Price's in this version.
William Castle's autobiography Step Right Up!: I'm Gonna Scare the Pants off America erroneously stated that "Percepto!" delivered electric shocks to the theater seats.
Two Joe Dante films contain scenes which reference the "Percepto!" gimmick: Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) and Matinee (1993).
This gimmick was also lampooned in one of the films-within-a-film in the thriller movie Popcorn (1991), where the feature was called "shock-o-scope."
To enhance the climax even more, Castle hired fake "screamers and fainters" planted in the audience. There were fake nurses stationed in the foyer and an ambulance outside of the theater. The "fainters" would be carried out on a gurney and whisked away in the ambulance, to return for the next showing.
Although The Tingler was filmed in black-and-white, a short color sequence was spliced into the film. It showed a sink (in black-and-white) with bright red "blood" flowing from the taps and a black-and-white Judith Evelyn watching a bloody red hand rising from a bathtub filled with bright red "blood". Castle used color film for the effect. The scene was accomplished by painting the set white, black, and gray and applying gray makeup to the actress to simulate monochrome.
Reviews of The Tingler were mixed, though praised for its camp qualities, with Time Out London calling the plot "ingeniously ludicrous". Lyz Kingsley of And You Call Yourself a Scientist! pointed out that "no film made before or after it quite matches it for its mix of the imaginative, the creepy, the funny, and the downright weird".
Classic-Horror said "the acting is fine, the direction is among Castle's best, and the script is semi-brilliant for the time", and Harvey O'Brien of Harvey's Movie Review stated that "for all its flaws, The Tingler is very watchable and has been put together with enough canniness to be enjoyable on its own terms".
Not all reception has been positive. Howard Thompson of The New York Times said "William Castle has been serving some of the worst, dullest little horror entries ever to snake into movie houses".
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released the film on DVD for its 40th anniversary in 1999. The film was later included on the William Castle Film Collection DVD set, released on October 20, 2009.