The UPP and the Phoenix Picturehouse – Oxford treasures
The curtains part in the darkened room to reveal William Castle, director of The Tingler, giving the audience a friendly word of warning before the movie begins: ‘Remember, if you scream at the right time, it might just save your life.’ His introduction is probably an homage to Frankenstein, whose director also steps out from behind a curtain to put the audience in the right mood, delightfully warning them of the terrors they are about to watch. Castle smiles as his image fades, and is replaced by shrieking, disembodied heads zooming into focus. The tone of The Tingler is sinister, but the feel of the movie is fantastically absurd. The Tingler, released in 1959, excellently represents the genre of Hollywood B-horror films and is considered to be a camp cult classic.
I had the good fortune to attend a screening of The Tingler at the Phoenix Picture House in Jericho. It tells the wildly unbelievable tale of a rather unethical scientist, Dr. Warren Chapin, who discovers a parasite, which he names the Tingler, that lives in the human body and feeds on fear. The ghastly creature gets its name from the sensation one feels on the back of the neck in moments of fright: a slight tingling sensation accompanied by a shiver that ripples up the spine. The only way to protect yourself from its deadly effects is by screaming. Only Vincent Price would be able to deliver a successful performance as Dr. Chapin, simultaneously ridiculous and terrifying. I would not say that The Tingler is a particularly scary movie, but it is creepy and enjoyable nonetheless.
What did frighten me was the emptiness of the cinema for the screening. The Phoenix, and occasionally the Ultimate Picture Palace in Cowley, are the only two cinemas in Oxford that show outstanding movies that are often difficult to come by. The wondrous and chilling effect of The Tingler would have been lost had I rented the movie and played it at home on my laptop. Seeing a movie in a theatre is an entirely novel experience, one that audiences may not fully appreciate. Sitting in a cavernous darkened room, listening to the sounds as they play over highly thought-out moving pictures is simply magical: I am watching exactly what the director has intended, and he is in effect projecting his imagination onto the screen.
I applaud the independent cinemas for giving me the opportunity to watch movies I never would have rented on my own. Short festivals, director retrospectives, and one-off midnight screenings are exceptional ways to educate audiences. Movies should be thought of both as entertainment and as culture, and I only hope more people will be attracted to the gems independent cinemas have to offer.