Walking into Texas Theatre last night, my friends and I formed an unlikely alliance. A Cathy cartoon, flamingo and Shari Lewis abandoned East Dallas for Oak Cliff, largely thanks to a curious week of Instagram photos spit out by the resurrected art house.
They were really hyping this screening of William Castle's camp classic, The Tingler, egging on its corny hysteria. We wanted in on that action.
The Tingler is classic Castle, a really schlocked-up B-thriller that employed elaborate, participatory gimmicks during its release in 1959. It was intended to scare audiences through its titular villain, an oversized centipede/lobster/pill bug revealed to inhabit human bodies, clutching their spines during moments of peril. The film's lead scientists, played by an LSD self-injecting Vincent Price and overly eager protege Darryl Hickman, determine the Tingler's victims must scream, lest they be killed "by fright."
But wait, there's more.
Castle was passionate about breaking down the fourth wall. In House on Haunted Hill, he created "Emergo," a floating skeleton. For 13 Ghosts there was "Illusion-O," a viewfinder contraption that safeguarded audiences from direct netherworld confrontation. "Fright Breaks," "Punishment Polls," "Magic Coins" and more would follow, endearing the filmmaker to us, the nostalgia-heavy generation waiting in the pipeline.
But even at our non-tender ages, none of us -- Cathy, the flamingo or Shari Lewis -- had ever experienced Castle's ploys in the flesh, including "Percepto," the chair-stinging effect linked with The Tingler. Those campy pranks were the charming stuff of legends -- until last night, when Texas Theatre stepped up and did the damn thing.
We knew we were in for it when the ticket clerk handed out death certificates with our payment stubs. Name, date and other personal information were left blank. "Cause of Death" was filled in, listed simply as "Fright."
A combination of door bell buzzers and chair massagers was reappropriated for the task itself. All wired up, the devices were attached to the backs of select theater chairs, just how Castle had done more than 50 years ago. We'd arrived as the lights switched off, and chose our seats randomly based on what we could find in the dark.
The movie is wonderfully weird. It's a real coke-bender of a screenplay, crammed full of irrational dialogue and overtly good or hateful characters. But it really gets crankin' at the end, when the Tingler gets loose, shuffles its chunky lobster-self into an on-screen movie theater and begins having its way with both the audience and projectionist.
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And that's when the buzzers blew. The film shut down. The whole performative in-theater experience charged-up and the audience screamed -- out of joy, certainly, but screamed none the less. Then laughed. Then scream-laughed.
We weren't in the special chairs and it didn't matter. Noise devices and motorized squealing blasted through the room. Nobody could keep it in, our group included. Shari Lewis snorted her cocktail right onto Lambchop's head. The Cathy cartoon lost her weave in a laughing fit. I dabbed fitful tears with feathers. And later, when the credits had rolled and we were all a bit drunker, they let us back in to experience "Percepto" with the lights up.
Will Texas Theatre find another use for the gadget after last night's one-time-show? Dunno. But the passion required -- not just to dream that program up, but to actually construct it -- is admirable. It unified a previously untingled crowd in the name of Halloween.
I like to think that somewhere Castle was watching, smiling in approval behind his giant cigar.