The undertaker of this smalltown has called the local police sheriff, Jim Tyloe (Jim Backus), to report the theft of a child's coffin, but the sheriff is not exactly sympathetic thanks to the general belief that the undertaker charges too much for his services. Nevertheless, when they see local doctor, Rod Barrett (William Prince), parking his car across the street, they observe that he'd be better off leaving town thanks to his poor record of saving his patients - including his wife, who died three years before leaving him to bring up their daughter on his own.
So when the little girl goes missing from his home, he is frantic. And why is he reacting so agitatedly? Because his secretary Polly (Jacqueline Scott) recieves a telephone call from a mysterious party who laughs and gloats that he has kidnapped the child, and to make matter worse, he has buried her in that small coffin in the town's graveyard! What happens after that may not have been a classic of the horror movie, but it certainly provided its creator William Castle with fresh territory to explore, as it was the first of his gimmicky, sensationally-advertised horrors after many years toiling in B-movies.
This set him on a new dawn in his career, as now his dream of being as renowned as Alfred Hitchcock, complete with his name prominently featured as a means of selling his movies, was to be realised over the next nearly twenty years. Well, almost - there were few who would place Castle and his exploitative productions up there with as true innovator like Hitchcock, and in truth he rarely reached the heights The Master of Suspense did, not for the length of a whole film, at any rate. But he really did know how to sell his work, usually with some kind of unique proposition inspired by carnival hucksters.
Therefore with Macabre the ploy to get the audiences into the cinemas was to insure them for death by fright, thanks to an arrangement with Lloyds of London, thereby building up the picture's potential for scaring you out of your skin to giddy heights. Not that much in the process of watching it would actually do that, but Castle was willing to go to grimmer places than many directors at the time, so while much of Macabre was leadfooted in effect, there were a couple of moments which could legitimately be said to conjure a genuine jump. Maybe not now, where these conventions are so hackneyed, but back then he managed it.
Even in the film itself we were treated to a narrator setting out the premise of the insurance over the image of a ticking clock above the funeral parlour to emphasise the race against time the characters were forced to conduct, and once more remind audiences that this was going to be the scariest movie they had ever seen. That went pretty well in 1958, as Castle was rewarded with a big hit, but now it plays like one of those contemporary radio plays with a couple of concessions to the visuals - it was actually based on a novel written by a number of mystery authors, one chapter each - though the smalltown mood is nicely conveyed, generating an atmosphere that just about lives up to the title thanks to how much of it takes place around death. It was all over with in barely over an hour, so economy was one of its strong points even if polish was not. Music by Les Baxter.