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!