Thursday, January 19, 2006

36. A Mathom from the Time Closet

Some movies hold a position in my memory that is a bit precarious. I recall them fondly, even with some enthusiasm, but I have a sneaking suspicion they're not as good as I remember them. This is common for anyone who's spent at least a dozen years or so watching movies. As a teenager I ran across across horror and SF movies I'd enjoyed or been scared spitless by--and hokey smokes, Bullwinkle, might they be the same thing?--when I was little, but at seventeen I was bored--and even embarrassed I'd taken them so seriously.

If enough time goes by, however, a weird thing happens: the movie is redeemed later in life, restored, if not to former glory, then to a fond corner of the curio shelf, more of a memory of a good film than a good thing itself. William Castle's The Tingler (1959) is a fitting case study of this shifting appraisal. When I was a little kid it scared me plenty. The Tingler was a crawling spinal column, ferchrissake, a shiny-black chittering centipede, yanked out of someone--a mute woman--who'd died of fright without screaming--and it's the scream that kills the Tingler; if you don't let loose with a good one, the thing clamps down and cracks your backbone like a walnut. It gets into a movie theater (attack of the meta-horror!), the screen goes blank--and so does the one on which you're watching the movie--and Vincent Price looks right at you and entreats you to start screaming, while the Tingler noses around the feet of the moviegoers. At eight years old or so, this was almost more than I could take. It was as if David Cronenberg had gotten an early start, and whispered a warning that he was comin' t'getcha, later on in the '70s.

Of course, by the time I was eighteen or twenty the movie had become a campy groaner; I'd heard about the original theater screenings, where certain seats were wired, and patrons would get a shock at fitting moments. The Tingler was joining that goofy cavalcade of William Castle's fun-lovin' huckster gimmicks, like Emergo and those contracts you signed promising not to sue the theater if you died of fright. Add to that Vincent Price's pencil mustache and the Tingler itself, obviously not crawling, but pulled jerkily on a string, and the movie lost its power to--well, to be a movie; instead, it was just another snicker.

What now? Did having children of my own to scare resurrect The Tingler? Not really--and maybe. My kids were much further removed from the culture that made the movie, a black-and-white world where everyone was comfortable with fake sets and acting styles. And the movies had become more literal since 1959--now there's an understatement--and not even Alien, one of The Tingler's mutant grandchildren, could give them nightmares. But then again, there was something about the idea of the Tingler, and the dream-qualities of flat black-and-white photography--not to mention the strange use of color, especially in that bathtub-fulla-blood scene--and finally the air of casual cruelty that pops up in older movies, in the mute woman who had been frightened to death by her husband. And while none of this fully redeemed The Tingler for my kids, I began to forgive it its faults--which, I knew, had led to our break-up in my teens; but now we were reconciled, agreeing to disagree. Besides, The Tingler's heart was always in the right place: right at the base of my spinal column, where my childhood sleeps, occasionally whimpering as William Castle, still, sends it a little shock.

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