Monday, February 15, 2016

Macabre (1958)

Directed by:
William Castle

Though far from a masterpiece, this remains a very important title nonetheless. Not only was it the very first Castle horror offering of many, but also the first film employing Castle's now-legendary showmanship and gimmicks. The director / producer mortgaged his own Beverly Hills home in order to finance it and formed his own production company, Susina Productions (which would later be William Castle Productions), in the process. Macabre was then filmed in the summer of 1957. After selling the picture to Allied Artists, Castle went all out to sell it the following year. He went on a promotional tour (which would often see him emerging from a coffin), nurses were sometimes hired to stand around in the lobby, hearses and ambulances were parked outside of theaters and, most famously, theater patrons were handed 1,000 dollar life insurance policies from Lloyd's of London in case they'd happen to succumb to “death of fright” while watching it. That is, for everyone “Except people with a known heart or nervous condition.” These promotional gimmicks gave the film a certain notoriety, word of mouth quickly spread and it went on to gross an impressive 5 million dollars on a budget of just 90 thousand. Its success led to many other fun films (perhaps most notably the following year's HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL and The Tingler) and just as many memorable gimmicks, which smartly encouraged audience participation.

The first image in Macabre is of a clock as a narrator chimes in: “Ladies and gentlemen, for the next hour and fifteen minutes, you will be shown things so terrifying that the management of this theater is deeply concerned for your welfare. Therefore, we request that each of you assume the responsibility of taking care of your neighbor. If anyone near you becomes uncontrollably frightened, will you please notify the management so that medical attention can be rushed to their aid?” We're then whisked off to the small town of Thornton where strange and mysterious deaths and disappearances over the course of a few years have pitted many people against one another. Dr. Rodney Barrett (William Prince) has received a fair share of the blame considering he's failed to “save” anyone, including his own wife Alice (Dorothy Morris), who died giving birth while the good doctor was off having a glass of wine with young widow Sylvia Stevenson (Susan Morrow). Gossipers believe they were  having an affair and it certainly doesn't make either party look innocent since they're now set to be married.

Sylvia isn't the only one after the doctor as his loyal nurse Polly Baron (Jacqueline Scott) sometimes seems to forget she's just a nurse and has an obvious crush on him. Rodney's little girl Marge (Linda Guderman) even prefers Polly to her future stepmother. After work, Rodney and Polly plan to take Marge out to eat and return home only to find her nowhere to be found. While nanny Miss Kushins (Ellen Corby) stepped out a minute, someone came in and swiped the little girl. A creepy phone call follows from the abductor, who tells them Marge's funeral has just taken place and now she's with the dead. The man has buried her alive. He continues that they have about 4 to 5 hours max before she suffocates to death. This is all in line with funeral director Ed Quigley (Jonathan Kidd) reporting to the police earlier that someone had broken into his parlor and stolen a child's coffin.

Since local police chief Jim Tyloe (Jim Backus) hates Rodney for reasons we will later discover, Rodney figures he has to take matters into his own hands and sets about trying to locate his little girl before it's too late. The abductor leaves Marge's clay-covered teddy bear on the doorstep as a clue, so the doctor and Polly grab shovels and flashlights and head to a nearby graveyard looking for freshly-dug graves. They're able to locate a couple, but still no trace of the girl. Going off a tip off from the nanny, Rodney's father-in-law Jode Wetherby (Philip Tonge), who has a weak heart (uh oh), shows up there and we then learn a lot about many of the principles in a flashback that lasts seven minutes. A second later flashback reveals more information and the animosity between Jim and Rodney. Now get on those soap opera goggles, folks!

Jim loved Alice. Alice went on to marry Rodney instead. Then Jim fell for Jode's other daughter Nancy (Christine White) who, despite being blind, was something of a whore. Well, or a free spirit. Or an independent woman unashamedly taking control of her own sex life by 1950s standards. Either way, to her all men look the same in the dark and she's not interested in being a wife or a mother. She just wants to have fun... with Jim... and all the guys she met on her European vacation... and her studly chauffeur Nick (uncredited Robert Colbert)... and... Well, you get the idea. Nancy taunts Jim (“You're the last man in the world I'd marry because I don't want leftovers!”) but soon finds herself pregnant with no idea who the father is. After Rodney refuses to abort Nancy's baby, she's found dead. While it's never made quite clear how she died, one gets the impression she either offed herself or died with clothes hanger in hand.

While Macabre plays out more like a morbid mystery than an out-and-out horror flick, there's still plenty here to appeal to fans of classic horror. Clever ad campaign and amusing, partially animated closing credits aside, the movie itself isn't “fun” like many of Castle's later films. This is gloomy, serious stuff following shady and mostly unsympathetic characters around dreary locations like funeral parlors, dark forests and a foggy, rainy cemetery, where our protagonists climb in and out of graves and explore tombs. There's an expressive noir-ish / shadowy feel to Carl E. Guthrie's cinematography and a sparse score from Les Baxter

Robb White, who helped Castle form his company and wrote this and many of his subsequent films, based his screenplay on the novel The Marble Forest, which was authored by twelve different writers using one alias (“Theo Durrant.”) Personally, I found the mystery involving enough to easily keep my interest for 75 minutes and the final revelation surprising, so I ended up enjoying this overall. It was one of the hardest Castle horror films to find for a number of years but that all changed in 2010 when Warner finally released it on DVD.


Unknown said...

William Castle himself billed "Macabre" as the most horrifying movie of all-time (and had the $1,000 insurance against "Death by Fright" gimmick). Well, maybe not the most "horrifying" but one of the most overlooked gems in screen history. The atmospheric sets and photography by Castle are terrific, both in the Cemetery and at the Funeral Parlor. The flashbacks seem at first rather jarring, going from William Prince and Jacqueline Scott searching around a dark graveyard with flashlights, complete with tombstones, mausoleums, and ground-fog -- to bright sunny scenes of Jim Backus, Christine White, and an uncredited Robert Colbert ("The Time Tunnel"). But it's an effective way to tell the "backstory" and further contrast the dreary night search for the missing little girl. The scenes where Prince and Scott are looking for fresh graves are among the best ever done in movies. The midnight funeral of Christine White in the rain is another highlight. The funeral parlor with the flashing light from the sign that illuminates the caskets, then the hearing of "breathing" in the still and supposedly empty parlor, are more highlights. I saw this as a rather young child in the 1960s on Los Angeles television (probably one of the independent stations) and never forgot it. Today, "Macabre" stands for me right with my two other William Castle favorites -- "House on Haunted Hill" and "13 Ghosts".

The Bloody Pit of Horror said...

This one did take me by surprise. I expected camp based on several of the other Castle movies I'd seen plus the ad campaign but it was anything but that. I still need to check out 13 Ghosts but I'm looking forward to it.

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