Today we’re going to feature a movie which if you choose to watch, you do so at your own risk! You see, audiences who first saw this film during its original theatrical run at least had some small degree of comfort. Director/producer William Castle had very generously decided to issue each audience member a certificate for a $1,000 life insurance policy from Lloyds of London, payable should any poor soul die of fright during a screening of 1958’s “Macabre.”
Our story takes place in a small town where, on this day, the local mortician, Ed Guigley (Johnathan Kidd), has noticed the theft of a child’s casket from his funeral home. The sheriff, Jim Tyloe (Jim Backus), is suspicious that Ed is just trying to fabricate an insurance claim, though. But that’s the least of Ed’s concerns on this day, as the town’s wealthiest citizen, Jode Weatherby (Philip Tongue), has scheduled the funeral of his adult daughter Nancy (Christine White) for midnight. Why the odd time? Well, he reasons that Nancy, who was blind, lived in the darkness, so she should be laid to rest in the dark, as well.
Many people in the town, including Sheriff Tyloe, believe local doctor Rod Barrett (William Prince) to be somewhat responsible for Nancy’s death…as well as the death of her sister Alice (Dorothy Morris), who it just so happens was Rod’s wife, a few year’s earlier. Got all that? You see, Alice died giving birth to Rod’s daughter Marge (Linda Guderman). Instead of tending to his wife, Rod was visiting beautiful young widow Sylvia Stevens (Susan Morrow) at that time. Now, Sylvia is engaged to Rod…and add in that Rod’s nurse Polly (Jacqueline Scott) clearly has the hots for him. Am I the only one who feels a bit more like I’m watching a soap opera than a horror movie?
Despite being harassed by the Sheriff, Rod returns home determined to enjoy his evening by having a picnic with Marge. But when he goes into her playroom, he and nanny Miss Kushins (Ellen Corby) are surprised to find Marge is nowhere to be found. They search the house, still nothing. Thinking she may have gone to Sylvia’s, Rod heads over there…but still nothing. Then, Polly, who’s still at the house, receives a phone call from a mysterious sounding voice. It claims that Marge has been buried alive in a casket and has only a few hours left to live.
Rod now sets out to try and find her. He can’t go to the police, since he knows Sheriff Tyloe has it in for him, and could very well be in on it. Before long, Rod finds Marge’s teddy bear on the front porch, covered in clay. This leads Rod, Polly, and later Mr. Weatherby to search the local cemetery for freshly dug graves.
As the story unfolds, we see several flashback moments that fill us in on the story of Nancy…her struggle to find a cure for her blindness, Sheriff Tyloe’s love for her, and what led up to her mysterious death. We also see the circumstances surrounding the troubled pregnancy that led to the death of Rod’s wife Alice in childbirth. But time is running out for poor little Marge as leads continue to not get them closer to her location and forces seem to be lining up against the helpless father.
Now, I’ve intentionally left things kind of vague there, as to say too much would totally ruin the experience of watching “Macabre.” I will say, though, that in spite of Mr. Castle’s concerns about people dying of fright, this isn’t exactly a horror movie. There are some horror elements, but it’s really more of a suspense story. And, leave it to Castle, he certainly grabs hold of you early and refuses to let go. This is, no doubt, because of the truly terrible premise of a young child being stuffed in a casket and buried alive. When you end up a parent yourself (as I am) any story that involves harm befalling a child becomes all the more difficult and/or engrossing to watch.
“Macabe” is a movie that keeps you thinking. It keeps adding layer upon layer to the story. It continuously challenges you to figure out what is important and what is smoke screen. I can’t say that it makes for a particularly scary story, but it is intriguing. Strangely, when all is revealed at the film’s conclusion, Castle give the film a weird, darkly comic spin, using an animated funeral procession to list the cast members according to who did and did not survive the proceedings.
In the end, Castle’s concerns about audiences dropping dead of fright were somewhat unfounded. However, “Macabre” is still a fun little piece of suspense which you can feel safe watching even without updating your life insurance policy.
This post is Forgotten Films’ contribution to The William Castle Blog-a-Thon. Be sure to check out the other posts in the series!