Monday, November 11, 2013

$1000 Against Death By Fright

Director/producer William Castle’s 1958 suspense film MACABRE opens with a narrator asking audience members to keep an eye on the person sitting next to them in case fear makes their neighbor uncontrollable. Lloyd’s of London offered a thousand-dollar insurance policy to anyone who died of fright while watching MACABRE. I doubt anyone collected, but Castle loved the idea so much that his name became synonymous with promotional gimmicks, such as the joy buzzers that zapped certain bums during showings of THE TINGLER and “Emergo”—nothing more than a plastic skeleton that scurried over the heads of those watching HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.

Oddly, MACABRE isn’t a horror movie, but a tale of straight suspense. A small town doctor (William Prince, better known for playing dozens of obsequious heavies on '70s television) is rocked when his little girl is kidnapped and buried alive somewhere with less than five hours of oxygen. Prince is carrying some secrets that have caused the townspeople not to trust him, including the mysterious recent deaths of his wife and his sister-in-law—both of whom were daughters of Jode Wetherby (Philip Tonge), the richest man in town. Also involved in the plot are Prince's nurse (Jacqueline Brooks), his fiance (Susan Morrow), and the nasty-seeming police chief (Jim Backus).

Castle’s films aren’t generally known for their visual flair, but MACABRE’s night sequences are bolstered by nice black-and-white photography by Carl Guthrie. If only the rest of the film was as good. Characters act with a startling lack of urgency, so if they don’t seem to care about saving the girl (whom we don’t know at all), why should we? Scripter Robb White (HOMICIDAL) waters down the excitement in other ways too, such as having the characters stop their frantic search to talk about their pasts, triggering flashbacks that slow the pace.

Based on the novel THE MARBLE FOREST by “Theo Durrant” (actually several mystery authors masquerading under a pseudonym), MACABRE’s twist ending may provide legitimate story reasons for its unusual structure and pacing, but they unfortunately detract, rather than add to the film’s appeal. Les Baxter’s playful score and the cast’s reliable thesping are worth a watch, however. Nice work by the supporting cast, including Christine White, Dorothy Morris, Jonathan Kidd, Ellen Corby, and THE TIME TUNNEL’s Robert Colbert in an unbilled part.

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