Exploring fright in black-and-white. It's enough to make your spine tingle!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Instant Classic: M (1931)

If you've never seen the classic German Expressionist film M, I would urge you to catch it while it's still on Netflix Instant. I'm a huge fan of Lang's silent masterpiece Metropolis and have been intrigued by M for years now. I must admit that I'd been putting it off due to its very grisly subject matter. I've always been fascinated by stories about serial killers but I've always actively avoided stories about serial killers who target children. I'm a huge fan of Law and Order: SVU, but I usually avoid the plotlines that deal with kids.

M begins with a group of young children playing a game which revolves around a morbid nursery rhyme ("just you wait,it won't be long, the man in black will soon be here, with his cleaver's blade so true, he'll make mincemeat out of you!") I was already sufficiently freaked out because I have a thing about creepy, sing-song nursery rhymes. The mothers aren't thrilled with their children's choice of game- it turns out that the nursery rhyme is based on a real killer who has been targeting the children of the neighborhood.

While we hear about the prior murders, only one is committed over the course of the film. Instead of going for sensationalism, Lang tells the story of young Elsie Beckmann's tragic fate with great subtlety- whch only adds to the horror. He intercuts shots of Elsie's worried mother calling her home with shots of Elsie meeting and going off with a strange man who compliments her toy ball and buys her a balloon. As the mother truly begins to panic, we see a simple shot of Elsie's ball rolling away and the balloon which the stranger had bought for her floating away and getting caught in telephone wires. Elsie's murder may occur offscreen but her fate is clear to us.

The murderer doesn't leave behind much in the way of clues and the townspeople grow restless and increasingly paranoid. The police begin daily raids of local establishments- causing a local criminal ring to be forced to cease their illegal activities. Their frustration regarding this causes them to decide to take matters into their own hands and hunt down the child murderer who is causing all of this increased police presence. The fact that the film takes place in (and was shot in) 1930's Germany makes the police raids plot point particularly effective. It was hard not to think about the Nazis while watching scenes where the police demanded people hand over their papers under threat of arrest. Interestingly, footage from M was later used in Nazi propaganda films to warn of the dangers of sexual deviance.

German expressionism was of course a huge influence on the film noir genre and it's never more evident than in this dark tale of pathology and vigilantism. Lang uses many elements that later became staples of the film noir, most notably chiaroscuro lighting, high-angle shots and voice-over narration. The latter was particularly revolutionary as M was Lang's first "talkie". His use of sound in the film is nothing short of extraordinary- particularly when you consider that the technology was brand-new. Before we are shown a clear shot of the murderer's face, we know him only from a shadow of his profile and the ominous tune he whistles (which later causes him to be positively identified by the blind balloon seller.) Several of the scenes without dialogue are shot silently, most likely due to the costliness of shooting with sound. This stark contrast serves to point out Lang's effective use of sound.

has plenty of strong points, but its strongest lies in Peter Lorre's performance. Any genre fan worth his or her salt is well-acquainted with Peter Lorre's face- and in particular his oh-so-creepy eyes. He's never creepier than he is in this film. I was truly unsettled watching a scene where Lorre looked longingly at a child and we, the audience could read his very bad thoughts. However, Lorre shockingly ends up making the character sympathetic in a scene where he's confronted by a mob of vigilantes who seek their own form of justice. He breaks down talking about how he "can't help himself". M's subject matter is very timely- we indeed still wrestle with the question of whether or not pedophiles suffer from a sickness that can be cured.

M is a masterpiece and I highly recommend it to any fan of great cinema.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Five Questions with William Castle...From The Grave!

I hope Miss Sardonicus isn't the subject of a punishment poll anytime soon!

You all know of my love for William Castle's films- after all, the name of this blog is inspired by one of them! A couple of posts ago I mentioned a website that I adore: http://www.williamcastle.com/

I've been very excited by the recent renewed interest in Castle's work. Homicidal and Strait-Jacket are both on Netflix Instant and I've already blogged about my experiences at Film Forum's Castle retrospective. When I stumbled upon the William Castle: From the Grave blog I was like a kid on Christmas morning (or in the case of my childhood, a kid on Halloween night!) I couldn't resist asking Mr. Castle a few questions and he kindly took time from his schedule of spookin' and hauntin' to answer them. I've got to admit that the 10-year-old in me gets a little giddy every time I see that I have email from William Castle. And let me tell ya, if there's any filmmaker who's gonna return from the grave....let's just say it ain't gonna be Walt Disney, even if he is cyrogenically frozen! (He's not.) Castle revealed to me that he reads this blog but has been having some trouble with commenting- I guess blogger is a bit biased towards living followers.Without further ado, I give you my very first interview with a dead man!

MS: What would you say is the quintessential William Castle film? In other words, which film would you first recommend to viewers unfamiliar with your work?

WC: In today’s world, I think that your audience would enjoy The Tingler. But if possible see it in a theater or with a bunch of friends. It is really an experience that just keeps on getting better with time. Like old cheese or good cheap wine.

Personally I never tingle on the first date.

MS: Which was your favorite of the gimmicks and why?

WC: I loved Tingling the butts of my audience with the electric shocks exhibitors installed underneath their theater seats during The Tingler, but I have to say I loved “The Fright Break” and the concept of getting your money back if you were to chicken to see the end of the film. Of course, if you were too afraid, you had to stand in the “Coward’s Corner.”

(editor's note: for those who don't know, "The Fright Break" was used during Homicidal. It has one hell of a twist and it's on Netflix Instant so everyone should watch it!)

MS: You've scared so many over the years. I want to know- what scares YOU?

WC: The scariest movie I was lucky enough to see in a theatre as a living man was The Exorcist. But if you really want to know what scares me, it’s being irrelevant-- nobody wanting to see my movies now or then. It scared me so much when I was alive, I created gimmicks, my own inspired insurance policies.

MS: Do you haunt any multiplexes these days? If so, what are your thoughts on present-day horror films and filmmakers? Anything or anyone promising?

WC: I have been dead for such a long time. Recently I got to see An American Werewolf in London. I loved it! I also loved Paranormal Activity for its inspired Ad campaign and it really kept the audience on the edge of their seats. But I really loved Guillermo del Toro’s “Pan’s Layrinth” and “The Orphanage.”

MS: 3D is having a renaissance right now. Do you think it's here to stay? If you do end up directing/producing from the grave (as we hope you do!), how would you utilize the new technology? Along the same lines- how do you think you might use the new various ways of marketing (internet, social networking, iphone, etc) to hype your movie and get people in the mood to be scared?

WC: 3-D has been delightful. I particularly thought that Coraline was inspired and that their use of 3-D was beautifully crafted. I personally think we won’t see too much more of 3-D. It has run its course. Not everything needs to be in 3-D. But certain worlds may be more interesting with this added perspective.

I would love to work with augmented reality. It is my dream. I want to you to be able to see me.

And there you have it- Miss Sardonicus' first interview with a dead man! I intend to keep in touch with Mr. Castle (or "Bill" as he signs his e-mails) so if you have any questions you'd like to pass along, send them my own way. Unless you're too chicken to talk to a dead man....in which case you belong in the "Coward's Corner"!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

10 Twilight Zones That Traumatized Me For Life

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a confession to make. I'm a Twi-hard. But before you hastily figure out how to unfollow my blog, I must clarify that the Twilight I refer to has nothing to do with sparkly vampires. Yes, I'm obsessed with The Twilight Zone and have been ever since I was a little girl and sat through my first TZ Marathon on New Year's Eve. Before I was old enough for New Year's Eve parties with champagne and awkward midnight kisses, ringing in the new year was all about the egg nog and Rod Serling. Oh, who am I kidding- it STILL is. For a truly rockin' New Year's Eve I know I need only turn to the SyFy Channel (sorry Dick Clark.)

The Twilight Zone holds the distinction of being the first scary material I was allowed to watch. A few years before my first fateful Twilight Zone marathon, I had begged my parents to be able to stay up late to watch Tales From The Crypt. I swore that I was a big kid and wouldn't be scared at all! And then I saw this face:

And as much as it shames me to admit this, I screamed "TURN IT OFF! TURN IT OFF!" My parents mocked me and continue to mock me to this day. They were pretty skeptical that I'd make it through The Twilight Zone, but I proved them wrong! However, it was a VERY different story when it was time to go to bed and turn the lights out. Years of nightmares ensued, and I can most definitely trace many of my deep-rooted fears back to a Twilight Zone episode. I had no reason to fear my dolls until I met Talky Tina. I actually used to think ventriloquist dolls were awesome and even asked for one for my tenth birthday. I still have it and it still freaks me out- although to be fair, my dad also just got me a particularly creepy dummy.

Thankfully my dad pays my therapy bills. Seriously, WTF?!

I've grown a bit since the first time I watched TZ, and I now realize that most of the episodes contained some sort of social or political commentary. I can appreciate the episodes that make statements about McCarthyism and I even grasp that many of the so-called scary episodes are essentially classic morality tales. However, some episodes crawled under my skin the very first time I saw them and show no signs of leaving. Here are my top ten Twilight Zone episodes that traumatized me for life. Again, I'm thankful that my dad pays my therapy bills. But no amount of therapy can erase the image of those pig nose people!

(Obligatory Spoiler Warning)

10. Nightmare At 20,000 Feet

Yeah, I know it's been parodied ad nauseum and I know it's William Shatner and I know that the actual creature is pretty ridiculous looking when you get a closer look at it but let me tell ya- those five little words "There's something on the wing" have led to a lifelong fear of flying.

That's what you get when you book your flight on priceline.com

9. Mirror Image

Some of you may know that Miss Sardonicus went to college in Binghamton, NY which is really only famous for two things. It is the Carousel Capitol of the World- and the birthplace of Rod Serling. Having spent five years living in Binghamton (don't judge me- I was a double major!) I can honestly say that it doesn't at all surprise me that the creator of something so twisted hails from there. One of my favorite New Year's Day activities is to lounge on my couch hungover and count the number of Binghamton references made throughout the marathon. There are several and sometimes this even turns into a drinking game! Hair of the dog, people- hair of the dog.

Mirror Image was actually filmed at the Binghamton Greyhound bus station which is one of the creepiest bus stations I've ever been to. I recently heard that it was torn down which really saddens me. The episode stars Vera Miles as a woman waiting for a bus who begins to notice that things around her aren't quite right. When she asks a question of an employee she is told that she already asked him that a few minutes ago. Her luggage isn't where she knows she left it. She goes to use the bathroom and is told she's been in there already, even though it's her first time there. I've always been very unsettled by the idea that reality isn't what we perceive it to be- which is probably why The Twilight Zone works its magic on me so well. She eventally comes face to face with her own doppelganger- and it's way creepier than the Drew Barrymore 90's movie. This one isn't to be missed!

 I waited at this very station many times back in college!

8. To Serve Man

This is another of the oft-pariod episodes of The Twilight Zone and I consider myself very lucky to have seen it before I knew the big twist. The basic plot: Aliens land on Earth, humans are only able to translate the title of the book the aliens bring with them ("To Serve Man"), aliens convince humans that life is groovy on their planet, humans board spaceship in droves, humans realize too late that the aliens plan to serve man on a plate. In retrospect the twist makes absolutely NO sense: If the book is written in the aliens' language then isn't it highly unlikely that their word for "serve" contains the homonym as in English?! But I didn't go that deep back when I first saw it- all I knew was that aliens wanted to cook people and it was terrifying. The episode closes with our protagonist breaking the 4th wall and addressing us directly with "Sooner or later we'll all be on the menu." Yikes.

   Go away, scary giant-brain alien!

7.  After Hours

Mannequins are ALWAYS terrifying. They're like dolls, but life-sized. And anyone who has had the misfortune of seeing Life-Size with Tyra Banks knows that life-size dolls are REALLY creepy (as is Tyra Banks.) This episode centers around the idea that mannequins come to life at department stores after hours.
You'll quit your retail job faster than you can say Kim Cattrall!

Rod Serling and the Mannequins is a pretty great
name for a band, no?

6. The Silence

The Tremloes taught us that silence is golden....but try telling that to a compulsive chatterbox! This episode involves an old man who bets a talkative young man half a million dollars that he can't go an entire year without speaking. You see, the old man is getting really tired of hearing the younger man jabber on and on. He says "Your voice has become intolerable to me. I sit here each night and the sound of it makes me wince." I think we've all had someone in our lives we'd like to say that to- I know I have. I'm not going to spoil the ending here because this episode isn't quite as well known as the others I listed and I'd really like you guys to see it for yourselves. Trust me when I say that the ending is HORRIFYING- particularly if you are a chatterbox like myself. Based on a short story by Anton Chekhov!

5. The Masks

Like many people, I'm terrified of masks. My fear goes back farther than this episode- when I was a small child I dressed as a skeleton for Halloween and the mask I wore scared me so much when I looked in the mirror that I cried for hours. Yeah....I was a pretty lame little kid. But masks are scary and I don't like being around them and I certainly don't like wearing them. This episode centers around a really wealthy old man who is dying- and his uber-obnoxious relatives who can't wait to inherit his money. The old man proposes a Mardi Gras party which consists of all of them sitting around wearing really hideous masks until the stroke of midnight. Sounds like a pretty dull party if you ask me. The obnoxious relatives want none of it until the old man tells them that if they don't comply they're out of the will. They quickly change their tune, put the masks on and wait for the old man to die. Little do they know that these are no ordinary masks....they reveal one's true character. The results ain't pretty. Voila!

               Awkward Family Photo

4. Stopover In A Quiet Town

I didn't see this episode until I was in my teens but it effectively traumatized me for life. It involves a couple who has too much to drink at a party and wakes up in a strange town that neither of them recognize and which seems to be devoid of people. Don't you hate when that happens? As they try to figure out where they are, how they got there and how to get home, they are haunted by the sound of a child's laughter. I find the sound of a child's laughter to be particularly creepy- which is why I should probably never have children. They also begin to realize that everything around them is fake: the grass, the trees...they even find a stuffed squirrel. Did they perish in a drunk driving accident? Is this Hell? When we finally find out the truth, it's more horrifying than we could have imagined. They've been abducted by giant aliens to serve as "dolls" in the young alien daughter's dollhouse neighborhood. Rod Serling gives us a final warning- "Don't drink and drive". They should seriously use this episode as a PSA!

Why are aliens always GIANT in The Twilight Zone?

3. The Dummy

I don't know anyone who doesn't love a good creepy ventriloquist doll story. This is one of the finest I've seen. A ventriloquist named Jerry is a very popular act in the nightclub circuit (yes, apparently ventriloquists used to be a staple of late night entertainment- I'm glad I missed these times.) One big thing is standing in the way of his success- and that thing is his dummy, Willie. Jerry claims that Willie is alive and is tormenting him but everyone thinks he's just a crazy alcoholic. He gets a new dummy and tries to get rid of Willie but Willie will have none of it. In one of the most terrifying scenes Willie reveals to Jerry that it was he who made him alive. A classic pinocchio story with a very dark twist.

         Stop looking at me!!

2. Living Doll

Chucky's got nothin' on Talky Tina. First of all, Talky Tina actually looks like a doll that someone might want to play with. Second she speaks in a doll voice- which makes her later threats that much more unexpected. Telly Savalas stars as mean stepfather Erich who wants to deprive young Christie of the only friend she has. Tina however, has other ideas. Her threats are gradual ("My name is Talky Tina and I don't think I like you.....My name is Talky Tina and I'm beginning to hate you....My name is Talky Tina and I'm going to kill you!) It's almost hard not to cheer when Tina trips Erich on the stairs and he falls to his death. Sure Tina is PLENTY creepy but she was a good judge of character, right? I mean Erich was a complete jerk! She'd never do anything to hurt the mom or Christie- right? Tina's last ominous line makes us think twice: "My name is Talky Tina...and you'd better be nice to me!" Terrifying.

I want to see a Chucky vs. Talky Tina movie like, yesterday.

And now, the moment you've been waiting for....my number one most traumatizing Twilight Zone episode. It may surprise you. It's not one of the "scary" ones but it left deep emotional scars.

1. Time Enough At Last

Every time this episode is parodied on a television show I yell something along the lines of "YOU PEOPLE ARE HEARTLESS! IT'S NOT FUNNY!!! NOOOOO!" This episode is the only Twilight Zone that ever made me cry- and by cry I mean sob uncontrollably. Little Miss Sardonicus was a huge bookworm (and still is, for that matter) so this episode really resonated with me. Henry Bernis (played hearbreakingly by Burgess Meredith) is a man who is treated terribly by absolutely everyone in his life and would like nothing more than to be left alone with his books. I've often had the same wish! However, as the oldest cliche in the book goes: "Be careful what you wish for". Henry ends up being the last man on Earth after an H-bomb kills everyone on the planet. He's about to kill himself from the lonliness when he notices the ruins of the public library. All the books are unharmed!! It's a miracle!! He has all those books to keep him company!!! ...and then his glasses break. And he's practically blind. It's so undeserved and such an incredibly mean ending. The sight of Burgess Meredith in tears wailing "That's not fair at all....there was time now. There was all the time I needed!" still gets me. I'm about to cry just thinking about it!

          Just take a look, it's in a book...

And there you have it. What do you guys think? Did I overlook your favorite episode? Which ones traumatized YOU?

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Macabre/13 Ghosts Part Deux

I'd like to start this blog post off with an apology to my readers. I've been going much longer between blog posts than I'd intended to, and it hasn't been intentional. You see, Miss Sardonicus is unemployed (or as I like to call it....funemployed.) This leaves her lots of time to watch movies on Netflix Instant but doesn't leave her much in the way of money. Ah, money.

In my dreams I have a plan, if I got me a wealthy man, I wouldn't have to work at all. I'd fool around and have a ball.....


But life is unfortunately NOT an ABBA song and therefore it's off to work I must go. Once I'm settled into some kind of routine I expect to be much more diligent in terms of updating. Thank you for your patience! I'd also like to take a moment to bring your attention to a website that you may or may not be aware of. It turns out that our dear William Castle, Patron Saint of Gimmicks has decided to grace us with his presence from beyond the grave. Isn't that just like him? He can be found here: http://williamcastle.com/

Mr. Castle was gracious enough to take a little break from his busy schedule of spooking and haunting to communicate with Miss Sardonicus! And I didn't even need to whip out my Ouija Board! It is my hope that within the next few days, I will have something to share with you from the Spine Tingler himself.

I told you about my experience watching Macabre. Needless to say I was really in need of lighter fare and hoped that 13 Ghosts would deliver. Did it ever! I'm ashamed to admit that I hadn't seen it before and that my only experience was with its remake which left me unimpressed. However I know a great many people who consider the 2001 version a guilty pleasure so perhaps I will give it a second chance one of these days. Personally, I really couldn't get past the glass house. Glass houses freak me out but not in a "haunted house" kind of way. More in a "I really don't need to be able to see everything that you're doing in the privacy of your own home" kind of way. As the saying goes, people who live in glass houses shouldn't masturbate.

That means YOU, Leelee!

Thankfully the house in the original 13 Ghosts is not a glass one. Our story centers around a loveable eccentric family with unusual first names (Cyrus, Medea, Hilda....Buck?! One of these things is not like the others...) Cyrus Zorba's job at the museum just isn't cutting it salary-wise and the family is in dire straits. Their furniture has just been repossessed just in time for young son Buck's birthday. Despite the fact that the family is penniless they do manage to give Buck a gift he'll love: a book of ghost stories creatively titled "Ghost Stories". Buck just so happens to be my favorite character in the movie and quite possibly my favorite child character to ever appear in any movie, horror or otherwise. He's played by Charles Herbert, seen here:

You may remember from my last post that I typically hate child actors, and I attribute most of this to Miko Hughes who appeared in Pet SemataryWes Craven's New Nightmare, Kindergarden Cop and as Michelle Tanner's most annoying playmate Aaron on Full House. You might think it's difficult to be more annoying than Tahj Mowry and it's certainly no easy feat, but Miko manages it and then some. I will begrudgingly admit that he was pretty good at being creepy in the horror films he's done but I still can't stand his face. I think I just never forgave Aaron for telling the whole class that Michelle let the pet bird fly out the window on the first day of kindergarten. I mean, really. How rude!  

Don't mess with the Tanners!
 On the eve of Buck's birthday he makes a very Liar Liar-esque wish. Instead of wishing that his dad could go a whole day without telling a lie, he wishes that his family could own their own house and that no one could take away their furniture. As we know from the movies, birthday wishes made by precociously adorable children always come true instantly. Immediately a gust of wind blows through the windows and blows out the candles, letting us know that magic is in the air. And lo and behold! The Zorba family inherits a house from Cyrus' uncle, the even more eccentric Dr. Zorba. And lucky for us (and Buck) they inherit Dr. Zorba's ghost collection as well. Twelve of 'em to be exact- soon to be thirteen if the ghosts have their druthers. But who will it be? All bets seem to be on Medea who the ouija board has singled out as the future victim of harm. I mean, dude- you just don't name your daughter Medea and expect no tragedy to befall her.

In between bouts of fearing for her life and telling Buck not to slide down the banister, Medea makes googly eyes at the lawyer Ben Rush (Martin Milner.) He continuously urges Dr. Zorba not to make this his family's home, but it's not like the Zorbas really have any choice due to their financial situation. We learn that Dr. Zorba was working on a way to clearly see apparitions and had invented a "ghost viewer". Here is where the gimmick comes in: at specific points in the film, the audience is instructed to use a "viewer" to see the ghosts. In this case, our vieweres were 3D glasses. Much of the fun of the movie came from the excitement of scrambling to put my glasses on in order to see what the ghosts were up to. One of my biggest problems with the current overuse of 3D (particularly in horror) is that we as an audience are going to become desensitized to it. I can remember when getting to see something on the big screen in 3D was something very out of the ordinary, and a real treat. I think William Castle really had the right idea here with limiting the scenes in which the Illusion-O effect was used. By requiring the viewer to see the ghosts, Castle puts us in the same position as our protagonists and also causes us to wonder just what those ghosts are up to when we're NOT using the viewer and therefore can't see them.

The ghosts are varied, ranging from a murderous chef to a lion tamer who was apparently not so good at his job. Adding to the creepy atmosphere is Margaret Hamilton as the housekeeper Mrs. Zacharides who Buck insists is a witch in an obvious inside joke. The family becomes more and more freaked out as they realize the ghosts may not be so friendly. Buck, even when scared still acts like living in a haunted house is the greatest adventure he's ever been on and this is why I love Buck. Usually children in horror films aren't the least bit amused by what's going on, and I'm glad to see a film where the kid is a realistic combination of scared and delighted. As a young'un I was alternately terrifed of and fascinated with all things supernatural and my inner child definitely relates to Buck.

You really don't want to complain about his cooking.

The real threat of course, ends up not being any of the ghostly beings at all but instead the very flesh-and-blood lawyer Ben. Ben knows that there is money hidden in the house and is intent on driving the Zorbas out so that he can have all of it. He realizes that Buck has already found traces of the money and attempts to manipulate Buck into helping him find the rest of it. He swears Buck to secrecy, counting on Buck's desire to be a part of an exclusive adventure. Buck immediately tells anyone he talks to that he has a secret with Ben. This is just another of the many reasons that I love Buck.

Ben doesn't count on the ghosts and of course as a result, he gets his in the end. 13 Ghosts doesn't have too many authentic scares- the ghosts are more entertaining than terrifying. The oujia board scene is probably the creepiest sequence in the film. What it lacks in scares however, it makes up for in high doses of fun. It's campy without being ridiculous and the cast is endearing. Donald Woods is no Tony Shalhoub but he's better suited to the material and this is a far better film. Rosemary deCamp seems to be having a ball and Jo Morrow plays a convincing teenage girl whose mood alternates between that of "serious grownup" and "terrified teen". We already know how I feel about Charles Herbert (I'd like to go back in time and adopt him) and Margaret Hamilton can't do any wrong in my book! All in all, a quintessential Castle classic.

On a slightly personal note, I'd like to thank everyone who is following this blog. I've been writing for awhile but blogging is much newer for me, and this is the first time I've written about horror in a public forum. If anyone has any suggestions, complaints, demands, etc they can always be sent to me at MissSardonicus@gmail.com. Or you can stalk me on Twitter at MissSardonicus. I've only got two followers, but one of them is Joe Bob Briggs so I'm clearly awesome. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I'm learning- so some entries might be awesome, some might suck and some might be just kind of meh. I'm still figuring out my format and what works and what doesn't. I didn't really expect anyone to read this so I'm flattered, excited and a little terrified. Thanks for being a part of it!


Friday, September 3, 2010

Macabre/13 Ghosts: Part Une


Sadly I have not been able to attend as many of the William Castle films as I'd originally planned. The main reason for this is that I decided to get myself a full-body sunburn last weekend at Long Beach. I have a vampire-esque complexion, and I definitely don't sparkle in the sunlight. I spent most of this past week in a state of peeling that was reminscent of Cabin Fever (I wisely chose to refrain from leg shaving. Thanks for the tip, Eli Roth!)

By Wednesday I looked slightly less like the victim of a flesh-eating virus, so I decided to venture outside of my apartment and see the double feature of Macabre/13 Ghosts. I was particularly excited because I'd actually never seen either of these films. I had seen the subpar 13 Ghosts remake (annoyingly spelled Thir13een Ghosts in a clear ripoff of Se7en.) Despite the fact that the remake starred Tony Shalhoub (for whom my love rarely knows any bounds) and "Man Of A Thousand Ridiculous Facial Expressions" Matthew Lillard- I hated it. Hate is a strong word for anything involving Tony Shalhoub- I mean, this is the man for whom I used to watch "Wings" religiously on Nick at Night.
I bought my ticket and was immediately rewarded with two items that I already considered well worth my twelve dollars:

I can't even explain how jazzed I was to have some red-and-blue 3-D glasses, as the last time I'd used these was during Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare.  It was my first Freddy movie, I was only seven, and let me tell ya- it was far from my final nightmare.

The producers of Macabre kindly changed the life insurance policy from $1,000 to $1,000,000 to allow for inflation. The fine print read that "at the time of death, deceased party must be clutching a valid ticket for the screening in his or her left hand. Policy must be redeemed within 2 minutes by a third cousin of deceased party, in the presence of beneficiary, two witnesses, a notary public, a representative of the Munich (Germany) Police Department, and William Castle in person." I friggin' love this and wish I had a copy of the original policy to compare.

I knew nothing about Macabre outside of the life insurance policy gimmick and as William Castle introduced the film telling me that my life was insured for the next 72 minutes and that the policy would be null and void if I took my own life, I found myself getting really antsy with anticipation. Despite the fact that reason told me there was no way this film was going to scare me anywhere near as much as it was promising to, I found myself really getting into the whole shtick. I started wondering if I was indeed predisposed to anxiety or if my family history of heart disease might proprose a problem.

As it turns out, Macabre was a lot more um, macabre than I would have guessed by the fun and kitschy gimmick surrounding it. It's a darkly themed movie that relies little on special effects and greatly on suspense. There's an overwhelming sense of dread that hangs over the film and I swear that at many moments you could have heard a pin drop in the theater. I'm pretty sure the guy behind me had never seen a scary movie before because he gasped and shrieked at every fake scare as though he was in serious danger of getting some use out of that life insurance policy.

Macabre tells the story of Dr. Rodney Barrett who isn't the most popular guy in town. His sister-in-law Nancy Weatherby has just died, and most people seem to think Dr. Barrett didn't do enough to save her and that a more competent physician would have been able to preserve her life. His wife Alice died in childbirth several years earlier while he was apparently out having drinks with another woman (classy!) Meanwhile, a child's coffin has been recently stolen from the local funeral parlor which is the first sign of something ominous in the air...

Dr. Barrett just wants to get home so that he and his nurse can take his young daughter out to the lake for dinner. Surprisingly, his nurse Polly is NOT his girlfriend despite the fact that she acts as though she's campaigning to be the next Mrs. Barrett. His main squeeze is actually the woman he was rumored to be having drinks with on the night of his wife's death (apparently Dr. Barrett's overwhelming unpopularity in town doesn't apply to the female population.) He arrives home to find that Marge isn't in her playroom and indeed can't be found anywhere within the house. The housekeeper apparently did not remember to "check the children" (in this case, child) when she returned home from running an errand. The doc assumes she went over to his girlfriend's house and leaves to look for her. While he's gone Polly gets a phone call that causes her to scream a couple of times and then faint. When the doctor gets home and she finally comes to, she tells him the content of the call: a strange man informed her that Marge has "just had her funeral". He then assured her that she isn't dead yet, she's in a very big coffin so there might still be about five hours time.

I'm pretty unshockable, but I must say that this plot really unsettled me. There's a lot of talk in the horror community about how the death of children is probably the last real taboo in horror movies. Being buried alive is one of the most horrifying ways one can possibly imagine to die, and when you make the victim a child it's all the more agonizing. When you consider that this film came out in 1958 it's even more surprising and daring.

I won't spoil the ending as there are some excellent twists and turns along the way. Jim Backus gives a great non-comedic performance as the sheriff who's out to get the doctor. I had some issues with William Prince's performance at first, but as we learn more about his character his choices and overall tone make perfect sense. Jacqueline Scott gives a fine performance as Polly, although her character isn't well-developed enough. Christine White really shines in the flashback sequences as Nancy Wetherby, the beautiful blind bachelorette who enjoys having brief affairs with various men. She has my favorite line in the film: "Why should I get married? All men look the same in the dark."

Macabre is just over an hour so its pace never feels too slow. A recurring shot of a ticking clock at the funeral parlor only added to the sense of the race against time to find Marge before she suffered a truly unthinkable fate. A child in peril is always an emotional subject and I must admit here that the fact that we hadn't met Marge yet helped me in terms of rooting for Marge to survive. This may sound terrible, but I typically hate child actors in movies and while I would certainly never wish any ill upon a real child, I have found myself rooting against the survival of a child in a horror film if that meant that I wouldn't have to hear them speak again for the rest of the movie. I can't help it- most child actors are just insufferable. I blame it all on this guy:

Sorry, kid- I was rooting for Freddy.

I would definitely recommend Macabre if you're a fan of spooky little atmospheric films with dark subject matters and slow-burn suspense. It's certainly one of the more serious William Castle flicks I've seen, and I was a bit relieved that 13 Ghosts was much lighter fare. The two films balance each other out nicely and make for an excellent double feature.

Stay tuned for Part Deux in which I talk about 3-D ghosts, headless Lion tamers, Margaret Hamilton and a child actor who doesn't annoy the crap out of me!