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Macabre (1958) was William Castle's first film, and also his fortieth. A dependable B-movie machine for Harry Cohn at Columbia, Castle had churned out efficient programmers for years, among them the underrated noir When Strangers Marry (1944) with Robert Mitchum, the Technicolor 3D actioner Fort Ti (1953), and sundry installments of the studio's Crime Doctor and The Whistler series. After more than a decade in the business, he was hungry for a new flavor. The success in America of Henri-Georges Clouzot's Diabolique (1955) prompted Castle to cook up not only his own shocker but an irresistible publicity campaign to go with it. Buying the rights to the suspense novel The Marble Forest, Castle hired scenarist Robb White to adapt the material for the big screen, jettisoning the tony title (a coy sobriquet for graveyard) in favor of the Gallic Macabre. He then went the extra mile to offer insurance policies, backed by Lloyd's of London, payable to anyone who died of fright while seeing the film. Self-financed by Castle and Robb White, Macabre cost $90,000 but more than repaid its investment when Allied Artists laid out $150,000 for the film and campaign. Macabre was a hit with moviegoers and the King of the Gimmicks was born.
Published by Knopf in 1951, The Marble Forest was signed by one Theo Durrant but true authorship belonged to a dozen members of the Northern California branch of the Mystery Writers of America, each of whom wrote a chapter, with editor and critic William White (who signed much of his writing "Anthony Boucher") shaping the text so that it maintained a consistent tone from cover to cover. Though the name Theo Durrant would ring few bells beyond San Francisco city limits, residents of the Bay area at the turn of the century would have recognized the moniker as belonging to a Sunday school teacher/convicted murderer (dubbed "The Monster in the Belfry") hanged at San Quentin in 1898 for the mutilation killing of two young women. (White occasionally signed his work with the alternative pseudonym H. H. Holmes, a reference to the notorious Chicago serial killer hanged in Philadelphia in 1896.) Begun in 1948, The Marble Forest would survive at least one of its contributors (novelist Virginia Rath died at age 45 in 1950) and inspire its own publicity stunt. A contest engineered by White/Bouchard and the MWA asked mystery lovers to name the author responsible for each chapter. The campaign drew just one response - from William White's father-in-law.
All but forgotten by 1957, The Marble Forest was an affordable acquisition for freshman producers William Castle and Robb White, helping to keep their investment to the bare minimum. (Castle and his wife Ellen had mortgaged their Beverly Hills home to raise the shooting budget.) With exteriors captured beyond Hollywood in downtown Chino, California, and interiors (including a spooky graveyard set) mocked up on a soundstage at ZIV Studios in Santa Monica, principal photography for Macabre took only nine days, with Castle culling his cast from the roster of industry character players - among them William Prince, Ellen Corby, Philip Tonge, and a pre-Gilligan's Island Jim Backus - familiar faces all but no household names. Turned down for distribution by Columbia and rejecting a bid from Warner Brothers that would have covered only half of his production expenses, Castle stuck to his guns and later threatened to sue Warners when the studio attempted to cadge his insurance policy campaign for one of their own releases. Screening Macabre for Allied Artists head Steve Broidy, Castle inflated his production cost to $250,000, prompting the skeptical but intrigued Broidy to offer $125,000.
As if the Lloyd's of London policy were not enough, Castle sweetened the deal by hiring nurses to attend select exhibitions of Macabre and having himself sealed inside a casket for a showing in Minneapolis - during which he was accidentally locked inside the coffin while the picture unreeled inside the cinema. When the film grossed $5,000,000, Allied Artists ordered more of the same from Castle: a horror picture and a gimmick to go with it. Castle was able to rope in a ringer with Vincent Price, then experiencing career doldrums. For House on Haunted Hill (1959), Castle and Robb White cooked up a twice-baked old dark house thriller tricked out with "Emergo," a gimmick in which a plastic skeleton flew on a wire over the heads of moviegoers during a key moment in the film. "Emergo" yielded to "Percepto" for The Tingler (1959), which shocked patrons in their seats as they watched Price delve into the origins of human fear. Ghost viewers, fright breaks, punishment polls, magic coins, cardboard hatchets, and beauty contests particularized Castle's later output but his biggest gotcha was wiggling his way to a producer's credit for Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby (1968), in which he also popped up, Emergo-like, in an amusing cameo.
Looked at with fresh eyes, Macabre seems closer kin to Peyton Place than The Fall of the House of Usher. True to its title, White's screenplay brokers in subjects of questionable taste, opening with a street corner discussion of the theft of a child's coffin from the local mortuary before the onset of the inciting incident: the abduction of a young child who is then buried alive, forcing the principals into a race against time to find the girl before she asphyxiates. Flashbacks fold in premarital sex, unwanted pregnancy, and abortion (a major character dies of a presumed back alley or possible bathroom sink procedure), all bracketed by the context of small town life in Eisenhower America. Castle keeps his setpieces persuasively claustrophobic, even when shifting the action to the local cemetery. Cinematographer Carl Guthrie limns the proceedings in black coffee shadows, adding incalculable production value to the film whose gabby script often approaches radio play prolixity. Macabre concludes with a surprise reversal and a rapid-paced declamation of the facts that would not be out of place in an episode of Perry Mason -- no surprise then that Robb White went on to write several episodes of that popular courtroom drama.
Additional research: C. Courtney Joyner
Producer: William Castle, Robb White, Howard Koch (uncredited), Aubrey Schenck (uncredited)
Director: William Castle
Screenplay: Robb White, based on the novel The Marble Forest by Theo Durrant
Cinematography: Carl E. Guthrie
Music: Les Baxter
Editing: John F. Schreyer
Art Direction: Jack T. Collis, Robert Kinoshita
Special Effects: Irving Block, Louis DeWitt, Jack Rabin
Cast: William Prince (Dr. Rodney Barrett), Jim Backus (Sheriff Jim Tyloe), Jacqueline Scott (Polly), Susan Morrow (Sylvia), Christine White (Nancy), Dorothy Morris (Alice), Ellen Corby (Miss Kushins), Philip Tonge (Jode Wetherby), Robert Colbert (Nick the Chauffeur), Linda Guderman (Marge), Jonathan Kidd (Ed Quigley), Howard Hoffman (Hummel).
by Richard Harland Smith
Step Right Up! I'm Gonna Scare the Pants Off America: Memoirs of a B-Movie Mogul by William Castle (Putnam, 1976)
Anthony Boucher: A Bibliobiography by Jeffrey Alan Marks (McFarland Publishing, Inc., 2008)
William Castle obituary, The New York Times, June 1977