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Screenplay by Rob White, based on the novel by Anthony Boucher
Directed by William Castle
William Prince: Dr. Rodney Barrett
Jim Backus: Police Chief Jim Tyloe
Philip Tonge: Jode Weatherby
Christine White: Nancy Weatherby
Jacqueline Scott: Polly Baron - Nurse
Susan Morrow: Sylvia Stevenson
Ellen Corby: Miss Kushins
William Castle was the King of the Gimmicks. His movies were always presented as wonders of the age rather than quickly shot horror or suspense flicks and he had a dozen different ways to sell them to eager audiences. For today's film, he bought a policy with Lloyd's of London and declared anyone who died of fright watching Macabre would get $1,000 in death benefits. Or rather, their next of kin would, I guess. From what I read, the insurance company said that people with existing heart conditions had to be declared ineligible for the payouts in order to issue the policy, but I'm sure that didn't bother Castle at all. Whatever it cost him to get the policies, he probably considered it a wise investment. If the movie's only going to play a single theater for a week before moving on to another one, there's got to be some way to get people to shell out for tickets and popcorn, and "this film is scary enough that it could kill you" is some gold standard ballyhoo.
The movie wastes zero time getting started. In fact, there's a narrator speaking over a shot of a clock with the second hand sweeping onward at a quarter to seven when it starts rather than an establishing shot of a city (or any location, really). He's just telling the audience to keep an eye out for each other; should someone be paralyzed with terror or suffer an apoplectic attack brought on by sheer dread, the theater management should be notified so that appropriate measures can be taken to help the victim (or cart their body out before they ruin the film for anyone else).
After the narrator's done explaining himself (and telling us that the story we're watching takes place in one of those late Fifties Anytowns called Thornton), the camera zooms out and pans down from the clock to reveal that it's the timepiece out front at a funeral parlor; the mortician is reporting a strange and off-putting crime to a sheriff. Turns out someone smashed into the funeral home, swiped a child's coffin, and took it away to parts unknown. In 2016 I'm sure every viewer (or reader of this review) thought of a half dozen things far, far worse to do with a child's coffin than the audience in 1958 would have had in their mind. Still, it's a bad scene when something like that gets stolen no matter what year it is.
The police chief thinks that the mortician might have reported a coffin stolen so he can use the insurance money on it to bet at a racetrack, which sounds like the start of a Dortmunder novel more than anything. The mortician says he quit gambling (other than poker for miniscule stakes) and he turns out to owe substantial money to various parties--including the police chief himself. Their conversation shifts to the richest man in town, who will be burying his daughter later that night. I guess she was blind, because Old Man Weatherby referred to her being born and living in darkness, so her funeral should be held the same way. The conversation ends when Chief Tyloe sees Dr. Rodney Barrett pull up across the street in a car that's seen better days.
Man, this is going to be one of those small towns festering with secrets, isn't it? Chief Tyloe engages Dr. Barrett in conversation and says "I remember the night your wife died better than you; I was sober. I was with her." (Damn!) This film having come out two years after the novel Peyton Place was a best-seller about goings-on in a Sleepy Little Town With Secrets(TM), I'm betting that that book was one of the inspirations for the milieu here. Tyloe tells the doctor that a good medical man could have saved Nancy Weatherby a couple nights before and the doctor leaves before he can be provoked into assaulting an officer. This early in the film, I'm not sure who--if anyone--I should be rooting for. So far we have a funeral director with a gambling problem, an asshole cop with some justification for taking shots at a doctor raising a child by himself and a (possibly reformed) alcoholic. Maybe there's going to be a schoolteacher that isn't getting crushed by some burden or other later on, but so far it's just weakness and negativity on display from everyone but the narrator. And maybe he's addicted to diet pills or something.
Dr. Barrett goes to his practice and ignores his nurse Polly for a moment to fret, then asks if people are really saying that a competent sawbones could have saved Nancy Weatherby. Well, that's exactly what they're saying, Doc. Unfortunately the recently deceased Nancy was the child of the richest man in town (owner of the bank, as its window declares) and also a beautiful young girl that should have grown up to have the pick of anyone or anything in her dad's tinpot kingdom. Whether or not anyone could have done anything to save her life, the gossip narrative is going to be that Old Man Weatherby would have been able to pay any amount to keep the Reaper at bay; obviously if something happened it couldn't have been random chance or bad luck or an unavoidable death. It had to be bad medicine.
Polly says nobody in town is going to believe the truth because they've already got a story to run with (ahhh, now I see where Fox News got its business philosophy) so the best course of action is probably for Dr. Barrett to pull up stakes and move somewhere else rather than stick around. She says she's willing to go with him, too, and I'm betting she means in a personal sense in addition to a professional one (especially when she does the Fifties Bicep Rub on the doctor that was code for a relationship between a woman and a man). Barrett's too stubborn to run away, though, even if it means financial ruin. He'd rather go bust than let Chief Tyloe or anyone else in town have the satisfaction of driving him away.
Barrett is willing to run away from his practice for the day, though, telling Polly that it's time to take his daughter Margaret out to the lake for a picnic supper and ignore their cares for at least a day. Hey, someone's decided to do something that isn't just out of self interest or to tear a different person down. Wonder how long that's going to last. At Casa Barrett the housekeeper, Miss Kushins, says that Margie's in the playroom but when Dr. Barrett goes there his daughter is nowhere to be found. It's a cluttered room, yeah, but there aren't that many places for a child to hide. Miss Kushins did step out for a moment, but didn't bother checking in on her charge when she came back since she was only gone for a few minutes. That's one of those minor things that almost always turns out okay, but in this movie? It's bad news. At first Dr. Barrett assumes his daughter went over to a playmate's house but when he drives there he finds that his theory is wrong. He also calls the playmate's mother, Sylvia, "darling" while he's there, so chalk up one more buried secret for the town, I think.
While he's talking to Sylvia she says they're going to be married and that Barrett's letting his nurse get the wrong impression about their relationship. Dr. Barrett kisses her and flees, partly so he can keep looking for his daughter and partly because that conversation has to be making him panic. Back at the doctor's house, the phone rings and Polly answers it before the housekeeper can. The doctor not being at home, Polly offers to take a message. We don't get to hear the other half of the phone call but the camera zooms in on Polly as she panics and the score gets all ominous, so it can only mean one thing: yet another telemarketer trying to say that Barrett's car warranty has expired and trying to sell him a new one for thousands of dollars. Polly begs the caller not to hang up and faints when they do. When Dr. Barrett gets home Polly's on the couch being awakened by smelling salts courtesy of Miss Cousins and fighting to get coherent enough to talk to Dr. Barrett.
As she haltingly explains (to maximize the suspense), the man on the other end of the phone line asked Polly if the doctor was looking for his daughter, and then laughed when she confirmed that he was. Then the mystery caller told Polly that Margie's funeral has just occurred and she's "with the dead". Dr. Barrett's daughter isn't dead yet, and she's got four or five hours' worth of air in the coffin she's currently held in. So if Barrett really busts a move he might be able to find where she's buried and rescue her before she dies.
Dr. Barrett says they can't call the police (given the way Chief Tyloe treated him earlier, I'm half tempted to say that's a good call--even though I doubt the chief was the caller, there's almost no chance he could be counted on to help and there's not much time to try and convince him that Polly and Dr. Barrett are telling the truth). Dr. Barrett starts to feel the icy grip of fear on his spine when he says there's nobody in town he could trust to help him search other than Sylvia (Polly takes this pretty badly but he is under a lot of pressure). Barrett's worried that people won't just refuse to help him, but might actively hinder his efforts, so he tells Miss Kushins not to tell anyone who might ask where he is. Because he's deduced what the caller meant, and has to go grab a couple of shovels and start digging in the graveyard to look for his daughter. Oh, and it transpires that Old Man Weatherby is Margaret's grandfather--and he's got a heart condition that (in the best tradition of heart conditions in movies) will kill him if he gets any emotional shocks. So he can't be informed either. It's two people, a flashlight and a pair of shovels against a deadline and a suspicious town that might just glory in the death of Barrett's daughter if it means he gets taken down a peg.
All right, hit the bell for the start of the first round and let's see how this goes. It can't be a good sign that Marge's teddy bear is outside the front door of the Barrett household, covered in clay and dirt from six feet down underground. And when Miss Kushins hears Dr. Barrett's car pull away she leaves the house to go over to a big important-looking homested. Barrett and Polly race to the graveyard (in scenes filmed at night) while Miss Kushins' walk takes place in the afternoon, as far as I can tell. Alas, day-for-night technology is right up there with Bat-On-A-String effects for taking you right out of the movie. Mr. Weatherby is resting at his home-office desk when Miss Kushins arrives to tell him his granddaughter's got the Ray Milland treatment and the news gives him an obvious cardiac spasm.
Elsewhere, at night, Barrett speeds towards the cemetery and follows Polly into the fog-shrouded graveyard to look for where his daughter has been buried alive. He's briefly overwhelmed by the task in front of him but Polly's sharp enough to look for signs of recent digging at one of the graves. They find one with a headstone marked Stevenson and the pair starts digging in a frenzy. After only a few moments Dr. Barrett gives up, perhaps thinking it'd be too easy to find the coffin in the first place they looked. Polly thinks she heard something in the graveyard but Barrett didn't, which means it's time for a slow pan over a bunch of gravestones illuminated only by Barrett's flashlight.
The pair searches through the cemetery while trying to think like the abductor, whoever it was, and after a brainstorm they go to the Barrett family mausoleum--but the ivy and cobwebs covering it haven't been disturbed, so that's one more good idea that didn't pan out. And from the furtive sounds in the graveyard, Polly starts to deduce that they're being followed by the culprit. She can't imagine why someone would do such a thing but Dr. Barrett says it's so they can enjoy watching him suffer up close and personal. I'm starting to wonder if Barrett did the whole thing himself in a twisted bid for sympathy (he was nowhere to be found when the phone call was made and could have dropped the teddy bear off on his own front doorstep when he returned home from Sylvia's place), but that's a bit too much of a Scooby-Doo ending for me to accept. I hope that isn't it.
Some more searching transpires, and Polly remembers that Nancy Weatherby's funeral is also taking place that night, so that burial site is a natural place to look (as well as a location that will have too many people there to just start digging without Barrett having to explain himself). But when they arrive at the plot it's empty; Dr. Barrett thinks the abductor must have dug another couple feet below the bottom of the grave, stashed the coffin with Margie in it, and then filled the soil back in. He and his nurse start digging when Polly hears someone coming, and realizes that they're going to be gold medal contenders for the "This isn't what it looks like" competition for 1958. They crouch down into the grave to remain hidden when a caretaker approaches and covers the top of the gravesite over with a tarp. An unseen person thwacks the caretaker with a cane and absconds, leaving Dr. Barrett and Polly with an unconscious body to look after. Then, suddenly, a hand reaches out from behind a tombstone and grabs Polly's shoulder and it turns out that Jacqueline Scott can do an amazing Fifties Woman Scream.
It is, inevitably, Old Man Weatherby ("Jode" to his friends), and he's got the same cane that was used to wallop the caretaker. But Jode's pretty much visibly dying, and I thought he wasn't going to be the mystery attacker until he confessed to hitting the caretaker because he thought the man was a threat. He does get to ask "Why must I look for my granddaughter in the grave of my daughter?", which is an even better pulpy B movie question than "Where on the graph do 'must' and 'cannot' meet?".
I didn't expect a flashback here, but we get one. That's one way to fill in the back story without resolving the main conflict, so here we go. We first meet Nancy Weatherby when she's driving a hundred miles an hour in a convertible and blind (a chauffeur is steering but she's got a lead foot on the gas pedal). Chief Tyloe pulls them over and hears from Nancy that a great many European specialists were unable to do anything to help with her sight--she cheerfully informs him that she'll be blind "for ever and ever". Chief Tyloe lets the driver go with the convertible and takes Nancy to his police car, where he parks under a shady tree and the pair embrace passionately. In the aftermath of their lovemaking (implied by a lost button on Nancy's dress), Chief Tyloe asks her to marry him; she says all men are alike in the dark, which is a bit more explicit a comment than I might have expected for 1958. Perhaps that's the line that took out some bluenoses in the original theatrical run and cost Lloyd's of London a few thousand dollars.
Nancy isn't going to marry the chief. She says that even without the sense of sight she can perceive that he's in love with her (late) sister, who married Dr. Barrett instead of him. She also says she doesn't care for leftovers in this sequence and Chief Tyloe looks anything but happy as they get into his cruiser to take Nancy home. Back at the Weatherby place, Nancy goes for a swim in the pool and macks on the groundskeeper before a transition to her sitting stonefaced in Dr. Barrett's office. He tells her there's no doubt about it, whatever "it" is, and that her best option is to "marry him". (Ohhhh, that's what "it" was--and I'm betting those lines in the script went through repeated revisions to get past the Hayes Production Code.) I wasn't expecting Nancy to say the father is "person or persons unknown", either, and I'm guessing the Peyton Place influence is in that line as well. I'm hardly an expert on the cinema of the Fifties that didn't involve monsters or aliens, so maybe the straight-up dramas of the time dealt with female sexuality in just such a clear and forthright manner (choice of wording notwithstanding), but I'm guessing that this movie was more explicit than the A pictures of the time.
Holy cats, Nancy says she's not going to inflict a life of blindness on her child and refuses to be a wife as well. Fifteen years before Roe v. Wade, this is a film that presents a pregnant woman as a character who is aware of options beyond adoption or marriage. Dr. Barrett refuses to terminate Nancy's pregnancy, even when she says the shock of finding that she's knocked up could give her father another heart attack. The greasy fingerprints of the Hayes Code are all over Barrett's dialogue in this scene, though, where he repeatedly just tells Nancy he's a doctor and can't do what she's asking him to do (the word "abortion" is never mentioned here). The next we see of Dr. Barrett, he's taking a phone call about Nancy and barks at the other person to "get her to the hospital"; the scene fades back to the gravesite to show Jode Weatherby mourning the loss of his daughter who was lost in a world of darkness her entire life.
Dr. Barrett says he thinks the coffin containing Jode's granddaughter is at the bottom of the gravesite, and then examines the caretaker. Turns out that Weatherby killed the man when he smacked him in the head with that cane, which leads to another shot of Philip Tonge clutching his chest and looking pained. Dr. Barrett says that Jode has to leave and has Polly take the old man back to Barrett's place. Then he turns back to the gravesite and we get another shot of the clock from the funeral parlor, reminding the audience that there isn't much time left.
Over at Barrett's house, Jode accuses Miss Kushins of being the kidnapper as a pretty transparent red herring. That's interrupted by Dr. Barrett calling again and asking Polly about details from the phone call, since he hasn't found Margie at the cemetery at all. Barrett says he's going to the funeral parlor and look for a tiny coffin there; Polly and Jode join him over the doctor's protests. They go through the casket showroom (lit sporadically by a flashing neon light outside, and looking quite atmospheric) but none of the coffins are occupied. The last one they open contains Nancy's body, but not Margie, as the doctor had hypothesized. The searchers make enough noise in the showroom to alert the funeral director, who apparently lives above the shop. When he arrives Dr. Barrett grabs him by the throat and demands to know where Margie is. There's a baffling moment here where the mortician says he has an artificial bellows that makes the sound of breathing for mourners to hear and enjoy during wakes--that's the device that Barrett and the others heard and mistook for Margie's breaths.
Everyone accuses the mortician of being the kidnapper and most of his dialogue in this scene is punctuated with "Wait!" while Dr. Barrett strangles him repeatedly. Barrett tells the man not to tell anyone they're going to the graveyard to look for Margie's coffin again and Chief Tyloe shows up to say they're all going to the cemetery to look around. He also says there was the report of a stolen child's coffin the previous day, but his expression is that of a man who knows he's been listening to some bullshit stories for a while and hasn't been buying anything he's been hearing. Everybody files out to go to the cemetery for Nancy's funeral with the chief greasily smiling as he volunteers Dr. Barrett's efforts to help load the coffin with Nancy Weatherby's body in it into the hearse. Barrett files past everyone in the film but the pool boy that Nancy flirted with in the flashback, all of them dressed for Nancy's funeral and silently judging him as he trudges forward. He's got to keep his cool in front of everyone, and that's a sequence that could have been used in a classic noir or a Coen brothers movie, depending on whether we were supposed to be squirming in sympathy at a man trapped in a scheme gone wrong or laughing at the poor trapped dope (also in a scheme gone wrong).
Back at the graveyard, Dr. Barrett theorizes that either the caretaker or funeral director had to be the kidnapper(s) because someone hauling a child-size coffin around town would be noticed and questioned, other than those two. And each one has a vehicle big enough to hold the casket while they were driving to the cemetery. While searching the graveyard, Polly accuses Sylvia (remember Sylvia? She had about two lines of dialogue in the first act) of using Margie as a stepping stone to worm her way into Dr. Barrett's heart and getting him to marry her--with the implication that Polly's had her sights set on the doctor for quite some time. Which means--good grief--it's time for another flashback. This time it's about the late Alice Weatherby rather than her sister Nancy.
It's also about Alice showing up unannounced at Dr. Barret's office, just as Sylvia (dressed in a fur wrap and looking elegant as heck) is leaving--and setting up a lunch date for Dr. Barrett for later in the week. Dr. Barrett becomes the avatar of Fifties sexism as he tells his wife that she was supposed to have nine months of bed rest while pregnant with their child; here's hoping the wallpaper was some color other than yellow in her bedroom. Alice wants to go for a ride in the country and to get lunch; her husband says that's definitely not happening and that she's got to go straight home. Also she can't do anything stressful (or fun), and that he's too busy to take her home himself or to have lunch with her, because of doctor stuff. Polly's giving him the stink eye during that whole scene but keeps her mouth shut.
And later that night, Alice goes into a difficult labor at Casa Barrett, while her asshole husband is having a cocktail with Sylvia and nobody knows where to find him. Sylvia says that he's not there when Polly (who knows about their affair) calls to try and get him back to the house to save his wife's life. And so Polly and Miss Kushins have to get Alice to the hospital. Chief Tyloe is waiting at Barrett's office to break the good news about Margaret's birth to him and then punch the Christ out of him for deserting his wife and contributing to her death during childbirth. Beating and promises of suffering to come delivered, Tyloe walks out. The flashback ends and Polly tells Dr. Barrett that he's a good doctor and a horrible fiasco as a human being thanks to Sylvia's influence. He responds by saying that he never heard any phone call and for all he knows Polly's the mastermind behind everything. We, the viewers, know better and are cheered substantially when she slaps Barrett's face and walks off.
Chief Tyloe walks up just in time to catch the end of the fight and make some insinuating comments about missing Nancy's funeral. Polly spills the beans about why they're at the cemetary in the first place and enlists the chief to help them disinter Margaret from the Tyloe family tomb (which is supposed to be locked, but the door swings open easily when Polly tries it). The body of the caretaker has been stashed inside and Polly screams when it falls down in front of her. Barrett claims that he doesn't know anything about that particular death and an Instant Thunderstorm pops up outside to drench the grounds and the mourners at Nancy's grave during a pretty uninspired service from one of those movie ministers who appears as needed for scenes like this.
When Chief Tyloe, the funeral director and Dr. Barrett fill in the grave, the pile of earth by the gravesite turns out to have that stolen child's coffin inside it (!). Dr. Barrett opens the casket and collapses into sobs (the blocking of the shot means we, the audience, don't get a chance to see inside it; we just get a look at the coffin lid and Barret's face as he agonizes). When Jode Weatherby opens it, though, we're treated--if that is the word--to a crash zoom on the rotting face of a child as thunder booms and lightning flashes. It's surprisingly nasty for 1958 and even more so for a movie that's been about a race against time to save the kid for its entire running time.
And that's his third or fourth onscreen heart attack for Jode Weatherby; he collapses and falls into his daughter's grave. Then, while everyone's stunned at what's been discovered, three shots ring out and Dr. Barrett is fatally wounded. Okay, I didn't see that coming at all. Even less so that it was the mortician that shot him, and even less so when we learn the reason why.
Which, since the narrator asked me not to tell you, I'm tempted to leave unexplained. But it's a nearly sixty year old obscurity on DVD and I think the statute of limitations on spoiler warnings has run out. Turns out that Dr. Barrett was a much worse son of a bitch than anyone in the film (or audience) knew. He wasn't just a cad who slept around on his wife, but a man who was planning to shock Jode Weatherby to death by leading him on a wild goose chase around town late at night when he was planning to bury his daughter. After half a dozen massively stressful shocks, the old man finally died at his daughter's funeral service and Barrett stood to inherit the entire Weatherby estate. The mortician, who owed money all over town (including to the chief of police--and that's cool), was pressed into service. He falsely reported the child's coffin stolen, made up the dummy of Marget's body, and even built that goofy-ass breathing pump thing as part of the plan to keep shocking Jode Weatherby until he died from it.
But before Dr. Barrett goes to the hospital, he says to take him to his office (which, with three bullets in his torso, must contain something important in order to prevent him from seeking medical attention). Turns out to be the tape with his phone calls from the "kidnapper" on them and the key to the locked room where Margie's been all along, taking a nap. Barrett dies knowing he failed completely and has been exposed as a total creep, and Polly unlocks the room to free the never-actually-in-danger kid (who is on screen for all of thirty seconds in this flick and gets no dialogue).
Well, other than that one shot of the fake dead girl, I'd be hard-pressed to call this one a horror movie. It moves like a bullet train, though, and makes fantastic use of a few sets and one location to keep turning the screws and getting through the narrative. A couple obvious clunkers of red herrings aside, it's a low budget delight (who would have known Jim Backus had that sneering, small-town, small-time jackass hiding inside him?). Much more a film noir than a straight up fright flick, but also the starting point to all of William Castle's increasingly elaborate gimmicks and fantastic premises. He wasn't nearly the crass genius of ballyhoo that he was going to be later on, but you can see where he would be going from this one. And thanks to Warner Archives, this quickie B movie with a cast of about ten people and a running time of 71 minutes will be available in perpetuity whenever you want to check it out.
My estate won't be picking up that thousand dollar check from William Castle this time around, but that's perfectly all right. I've still got half of HubrisWeen to get written up this year, after all.
"And because you spoiled the ending when the narrator told you not to, I'm telling all your readers that you have no idea how to actually pronounce Macabre. You don't get a grand from the filmmakers if you die of embarrassment."
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