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Tricks and Treats with William Castle and Macabre

October 31, 2014

Jacqueline Scott, who made her film debut in Macabre, recalled the day her agent phoned and informed her that Castle had seen her on live TV in New York and wanted her for his next movie. Scott’s first reaction? Laughter! The actress was performing in summer stock in Ohio at the time, and the movies were the furthest thing from her mind; she just wanted to work on the stage.


Scott finally accepted the role, but she almost didn’t make it to the studio! Why? Well, used to New York City cabs, Scott simply thought she could flag down a taxi in Los Angeles, but as anyone who has ever been to LA knows, that is not the case. Consequently, she was about an hour late her first day on set, which had her “in shock.” The shock soon dissipated, though, and Scott remembers everyone having a good time and working very hard; she remembers clocking in about 17 hours on the last day of production!

Macabre (1958)

After the Q&A wrapped up, Macabre was set to screen. As I mentioned before, I had done a little research on the film beforehand, and what I found was pretty fascinating, so I was definitely excited to watch the movie!


Macabre’s plot is quite simple and utterly outrageous: small town doctor and widower Rodney Barrett (William Prince) has a daughter, Marge (Linda Guderman), who has been playing at the house of his fiancée, Sylvia Stevenson (Susan Morrow) all day. After Sylvia drops the girl off with Barrett’s housekeeper, Miss Kushins (Ellen Corby), Rodney goes to pick Marge up at home with his nurse, Polly Baron (Jacqueline Scott). After a few minutes searching the house for the young girl, Polly receives a terrifying call informing her that Marge has been kidnapped and buried alive. Apparently, she’s among the dead, but not dead yet, though she only has about 4-5 hours to live.


Rodney has made quite a few enemies in town, like Police Chief Jim Tyloe (Jim Backus), whose wife, Nancy (Christine White) died the night before and is being buried, weirdly, at midnight (Jim is convinced Rodney could have saved her). With no one in town who he really trusts, Rodney brings along Polly to the town graveyard in an attempt to locate his daughter. In between digging through fresh graves, Polly and Rodney somehow jump into memories/flashbacks of all the strange happenings around town, stories which include Nancy, Chief Jim, and Rodney’s blind former wife, Alice (Dorothy Morris), who also passed away. Their reminiscing occurs while they both try to hide - in a graveyard with open plots, no less – from Chief Jim and also Marge’s grandfather, Jode (Philip Tonge), who they didn’t want to tell about Marge’s disappearance because of his weak heart. Of course someone has a weak heart in this situation!


Nancy’s middle-of-the-night funeral begins as rain pours down. The clock is ticking away and it’s only a matter of time before Marge will be gone for good! That is, unless they can find and save her in time…

Macabre publicity from Terry Castle's collection. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

Castle recalled Macabre’s production story in his autobiography. As mentioned previously, it all began with Les Diaboliques. After witnessing the power this particular movie had over audiences, Castle challenged himself to find a more frightening book, which is where The Marble Forest (1950) comes in. Centered around a doctor who has mere hours to find his daughter who has been buried alive in a graveyard, The Marble Forest actually was written by 13 different writers: each author, a member of the San Francisco division of the Mystery Writers of America, penned one chapter, and an editor adjusted each author's writing style to make it seem as if one person wrote the entire book.


Castle purchased The Marble Forest, and his first point of business was to brainstorm a one word box office worthy title that somehow exemplified a "dance of death:" Macabre. It didn't matter that some people wouldn't know how to pronounce it; Macabre sounded creepy enough (135).


Castle took the idea for Macabre to Columbia with the intent to produce and direct. Though he never produced a movie, he figured how hard could it be? Very, according to the studio, who agree to Castle as director but not producer. However, Castle wanted more control over the property, and the only way to do that was to undertake the whole thing himself. When he approached his wife with the idea, she already knew what was coming: "I know. You want to mortgage our house and go into business for yourself. It's about time!" (136).


Writer Robb White, who would go on to pen the script, partnered with Castle to put up the $90,000 necessary to finance the film. However, Castle quickly realized the studio was right: he didn't know anything about producing. The director contacted his friend Howard Koch and Koch's partner Aubrey Schenck, both of whom became the movie's "guardian angels." Production kicked off on August 15, 1958 and ended a mere nine days later. Exteriors were shot in Chino, California, while interiors, including the massive graveyard, were filmed on sound stages in Hollywood (136).


With the film in the can, Castle was now worried that it didn't possess that "blood-curdling quality." White suggested adding more horror, but the duo didn't have enough money to reshoot any scenes. What else could they do to ensure that audiences would attend? An idea popped into Castle's head in the middle of the night: an insurance policy! "I had heard that Lloyds of London would insure anything or anybody," he recalled in his autobiography (137). Jackpot. 


Of course, getting an insurance policy for each person who saw Macabre was no easy task, and Castle's recollection of his meeting with Lloyds of London was so hilarious that I would have paid to travel back in time to be a fly on the wall in that room. The representatives from Lloyds of London flat out told Castle it was impossible to insure 2 billion people, the largest number of people who could see the film since that was the population of the world back then. No, no, no, Castle tried to explain: this was just a gimmick, though he did want a real insurance policy. Since there was obviously no protocol for a request like this, one of the representatives suggested that Lloyds insure Castle against any claims from the audience; basically, if anyone died, Castle would collect from Lloyds and pay the deceased's beneficiary (138). 

The original Lloyds of London insurance policy for Macabre, which is Terry Castle's favorite piece of memorabilia from her father. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

Next came the numbers game. The amount Castle would have to pay depended upon the number of people who died during the movie. "Would you say that twenty-five people might drop dead?" one of the Lloyds representatives asked. "Nobody's going to drop's just a publicity stunt," Castle replied (139). Well, someone had to die for the policy to work, so Castle and the men from Lloyds sat for hours "bargaining on people's lives," and they finally settled, as Castle recalled, on "five lucky people who would not live through Macabre." At $1,000 a head, Castle owed Lloyds a total of $5,000, which he paid in an installment plan (139).


With the film finished and the gimmick in place, all Castle needed was a distribution partner. Warner Brothers approached Castle for the rights, offering to pay $45,000 and take 25% of profits, because the studio "decided it's a risk picture." Considering the film cost $90,000, Castle turned them down but soon began to worry that WB may have made the best (or only) offer (140). WB actually came back around, but for a very specific reason: a few weeks after Castle met with them, another WB movie boasted Castle's exact same stunt, offering insurance policies to patrons to protect them against "death by fright!" Castle sued WB, and when Jack Warner called to apologize, he offered Castle $90,000 for the picture. Castle considered accepting the offer, but his wife luckily stepped in to remind him: "What did you make the picture for in the first place - to break even? Tell him no!" (140-141).


Castle then turned to Allied Artists, an infamously cheap distributor. Steve Broidy, the President of Allied, understood that with the right publicity campaign the film would make money, and when he asked Castle how much he made the movie for, Castle wised up and lied, giving Broidy the very inflated sum of $250,000. His trick worked: Broidy, who knew he was being played, coughed up $150,000 and agreed to give Castle 75% of the profits (142).


Insurance policies aside, the beginning of Macabre was enough to set an extremely tense atmosphere in every theater: a clock appeared onscreen, and as it slowly ticked from 0 to 60, Castle's voice boomed: “Ladies and gentlemen…when the clock reaches sixty seconds, you will be insured by Lloyds of London for one thousand dollars against death by fright during Macabre. Lloyds of London sincerely hopes none of you will collect….But just in case, isn't it comforting to know that your loved ones are protected? You are now insured against death by fright!” (143).


What an intro - the audiences ate it up! 

The insurance policy each member of the audience was given at the Hollywood Heritage Museum. This is apparently a direct copy of the original. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

Lines formed around the block and the movie broke theater records. Patrons eagerly collected and signed their insurance policies as they waited to experience what they assumed would be the most horrifying movie of their life. The fact that Castle stationed nurses and an ambulance outside each theater also didn't hurt the tension and trepidation surrounding the movie (144-145).


Castle loved the hype he built and actively participated in the publicity stunts as well. Case in point: at a showing of Macabre in Minneapolis, Castle arranged for a hearse and coffin to pull up in front of the theater, and he secretly snuck into the coffin, which was placed right outside the theater door. His grand entrance from the coffin would have been great, but what really happened was perhaps more appropriate considering the movie: when the director tried to push the lid open it wouldn't budge! He screamed and pounded on the coffin but couldn't get out; eventually, he passed out inside and woke up on the sidewalk some time later with the help of smelling salts (144). Those who were aware of the stunt thought Castle was going the extra mile by pretending to be stuck inside, but that was not the case!


Macabre ultimately made $5 million at the box office. “I had always recognized the potency of showmanship,” Castle recalled. “Now I had proof that it was pure gold, and I was determined to mine it over and over again” (145).  And mine again he did, next with House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, 13 Ghosts, and so on!

Is that Castle?! It's hard to tell, but I wouldn't put it past him... (Picture by Warner Archive)

After learning more about the genesis behind Castle's first large scale publicity stunt, I noted above that I was quite excited to see Macabre. Sadly, I was let down. Though an enjoyable flick, I can't imagine the movie inspiring enough terror in 1958 audiences to even come close to collecting on those insurance policies; in fact, I think the poster is scarier than the film itself (see poster near the top of the page. It really is more horrifying).


Then there's the ending. I won’t spoil it, but the final few scenes were severely anti-climatic. First of all, it felt as if the finale came out of nowhere. Clearly, the clock that appeared intermittently on screen was closing in on 4-5 hours, so taking a cue from that, I knew the end was near. Even so, I wasn't ready for the rapid chaos that took place right after Nancy’s funeral when everything unraveled and the truth spilled out. In fact, I barely remember who the culprit was, because there was no sensible reason for any of insanity at the end to happen other than time being up, nor was there sufficient explanation behind...well, almost anything.


Also, for the most part during the flashbacks I was confused between Nancy and Alice and what their relationship was (if any). At first, I thought they were mother and daughter, then I just got them mixed up – both were blondes, and though one was blind, the flashbacks and the fact that both characters names were being tossed about did nothing to help my confusion (did one have an affair with someone else?!). Even though Alice was blind, when similar-looking Nancy showed up in a flashback, I thought it was Alice, now finally cured of her blindness! The mere fact that I could casually assume Alice was legitimately cured - though no one mentioned that being the case - speaks to the believability, or lack thereof, of the film as a whole.

Ever the showman! Castle with (I think) fan club members. Bill Castle for President!

Of course, to audiences in 1958, the movie didn't have to make perfect sense (or anywhere near perfect sense, as it turned out). Castle's genius PR move worked wonders to attract audiences, and the gimmick basically dared people to attend; I mean, back in 1958, what movie experience could audiences point to as being terrifying enough to warrant insurance policies against death by fright? Well, for some people back then, the most horrifying movie ever made may have been Macabre, but with all the truly frightening films that have been released in the genre since 1958, most patrons today would charge Lloyds of London with fraud!


How to have a Macabre party in the comfort of your own home:

You can buy Macabre on DVD from the Warner Archive Collection. Despite its tepid scare factor today, the movie is still watchable; however, to really enjoy all the cheesiness the film has to offer, I suggest screening the flick 1958 style - that is, print up some fake insurance policies, throw a nurse outfit on someone, and if you happen to have a spare hearse and coffin lying around, all the better!


Special thanks to the Warner Archive Collection for giving me a spare ticket to the Hollywood Heritage event and letting me post some of their photos here.

thanks for stopping by!

I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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