Southern Movie 61: “Macabre” (1980)

Set in New Orleans, the Italian horror-thriller Macabre weaves a complex plot that centers on an adulterous housewife whose extramarital affair goes horribly wrong. In the movie, a pretty wife named Jane Baker (Bernice Stegers) is seeing her lover Fred behind her husband’s back, but it is their young daughter who realizes what is going and reaps a terrible revenge on her mother. Directed by Lamberto Bava, Macabre also stars blue-eyed actor Stanko Molnar as the blind, homebound musical instrument repairman who provides the apartment where Jane has her affair.  Like perhaps too many movies of the 1970s and early ’80s, we begin with an on-screen bit of text that tells us what we will watch is based on a true story . . . 

Macabre begins simply enough with Jane Baker’s husband going to work, kissing their children on the his way to the car. He is older and bald, in a business suit and carrying a briefcase. A barely dressed Jane watches the scene with anticipation, then rushes back into the house, gets on the phone, and tells the man on the other end that they can meet in a half-hour. Outside, their children – an older daughter, who looks to be about twelve, and a son probably six – play on the lawn. The girl is clearly the dominant one, taking toys from her brother and informing him that she will dictate the rules of their game. 

When Jane comes outside to tell them that she is leaving, that she has a meeting to go to, the daughter challenges her. Their mother was supposed to take them to the movies. That won’t be possible today, the mom replies. The girl is suspicious, and angry, at her mother’s betrayal. 

Jane then takes a cab across New Orleans to a house, where she is let in by an old woman. The old woman’s grown son is taking a bath in the downstairs bathroom, and for some reason, his doting mother lets Jane come in there to say hello. The man Robert Duval – yes, with the same name at the actor – we soon realize is blind. Jane regards him with a smile and leaves the two to go upstairs to her apartment. Robert is clearly uncomfortable at being seen in the bath by a grown woman who is their guest.

Back at the Baker home, daughter Lucy snoops around the house, first lighting one of her mother’s cigarettes then searching for something to get into. She seems to know that something is going on with her mother. Across town, Jane gets ready for her lover to arrive, and the apartment phone rings— it is daughter Lucy calling her. Lucy has found her mother’s address book and makes the call to ask how the “meeting” is going. Jane hangs up on her, but seems unfazed and continues to prepare herself for sex.

What happens next is the horrifying part. While Jane rolls in the hay with her man Fred, Lucy coaxes her little brother into the bathroom. There, she drowns him in the bathtub. When she’s finished killing her brother, Lucy calls her mother to interrupt the liaison, but leaves out the detail that she was responsible for the death. Jane freaks out, of course, and she and Fred jump into his little Volkswagen Beetle to race toward the Baker home.  Except that, in their frantic attempts to navigate the streets, Fred misses a curve. They crash into a metal guard rail, which decapitates Fred.

Next we see Jane Baker, it is one year later, and she is exiting a mental hospital, alone. She ambles back to the house where she had the apartment, and it takes the blind young man Robert a moment to answer the door. However, he lets Jane in and seems pleased to see her. We learn from their dialogue that Jane was paying rent on the apartment the whole time she was confined, and Robert says that he would have kept the place empty for her anyway. His mother has passed away, so it’s just him in the house. At this point, there is no sign of Jane’s husband or Lucy.

When Jane returns to the apartment, it is just as she left it. She opens the fridge, and somehow there are groceries waiting on her. She also notes that the icebox has a small gold lock on it, and smiles at the lock’s presence. We now know that Jane is deeply troubled, refusing to let go of her traumatic experience. We also know that the blind shut-in Robert is in love with this woman, but is too frightened to be straightforward about it. What also lets us know this is the presence of a triangle-shaped memorial to Fred, which looks like a display poster for a class project. There are pictures of Fred, as well as bits of ephemera like cigarette butts, all mounted on red velvet. This little altar-homage is something between creepy and pathetic. 

From this point, we have two sources of tension, which will converge. First, Robert is in love with Jane. The problem is that Jane is beautiful and charming . . . and obsessed with a dead guy. On the other hand, Robert is quiet, squeamish, untidy . . . and blind. He is no match for the object of his affection. The second conflict revolves around Lucy, who re-enters the story when her father brings her for a very brief scheduled visit. The cuckolded husband is cold and resistant, wanting nothing to do with his former wife, while Lucy is bent on reuniting her parents. While the adults talk, Lucy looks around Robert’s house, and we get the sense that she has not mended her sneaky ways. (It is also clear that no one realized that Lucy killed her brother, that she suffered no consequences, and that she seems fine with being a murderer.)

As the plot of Macabre moves forward, the three central characters become intertwined. Robert makes attempts to show Jane that he is interested in her, but those attempts are vague and easily thwarted. Jane is so amused by his naive, shy behavior that she even calls him upstairs for a drink then gets into the bathtub naked, taunting him. She knows that he cannot see what is right in front of him. On the other front, Lucy uses his blindness in her own way, manipulating him to gain entrance to her mother’s apartment. She puts herself out there as a sweet child, then uses the fact that he can’t see to do as she pleases. First, Lucy comes when her mother isn’t home and puts a framed photo of her dead brother in the apartment. After being scolded for giving Lucy access, Robert tries to prevent Lucy when she comes back again and again. But Lucy is too sly for the young man with the kind heart. Lucy claims to want her parents to get back to together, but her actions seem aimed at making Jane suffer. Robert eventually realizes what he is enabling, by allowing Jane to stay, when he finds a human earlobe with a gold ring in it.

Ultimately, Jane Baker cannot fend off all of the crazy that she has incited. Lucy and Robert both want to know what is going on, each for their own reasons. By sneaking around quietly – in what is his house – Robert discovers Fred’s head in the icebox. When he calls the jilted Mr. Baker to rat out Jane, Lucy hears one side of the phone conversation and surmises that there is a secret to be unearthed. She rushes over to Robert’s house and worms her way in, again, to find out what the secret is. That won’t bode well for Jane either. Of course, nobody calls the police.

Lucy Baker brings it all to head in the final ten or twelve minutes by playing nice. She offers to fix dinner for Robert, who no longer trusts her, and Jane, who seems to for some reason. Lucy cooks up a soup, and the three sit down to a candlelight dinner. Jane begins to eat, while Robert is hesitant. They soon realize that bits of Fred’s head are in it. Robert takes off, but Lucy throws him down the stairs, leaving him knocked out on the landing. Jane tries to go get one of her anxiety pills, but Lucy follows her into the bathroom. There, she informs her mother of the truth: she murdered her younger brother! Jane then goes bat shit crazy, enacting some poetic justice on Lucy: the girl gets drowned in a bathtub. 

If Macabre weren’t already weird enough, the director takes it one step further. With Lucy lying dead in the apartment’s tub, Jane dons her see-through nightie one more time and gets Fred’s head so they can get it on. With her dead daughter’s body soaking in the next room, Jane’s mind turns to satisfying her desire for necrophilia. Meanwhile, the running water from the bathtub overflows, rolls down the stairs, and wakes Robert up. He tries to leave but the front door is locked, the key removed. With no choice, he heads upstairs to confront Jane. Unwilling to give up her love affair with dead Fred’s frozen head, she attempts to fight Robert, who pushes her into the burning hot oven, which is still on from Lucy cooking dinner. Jane’s face is burned up, and she dies on the kitchen floor. 

Now comes the real shocker. As Robert – who is blind, remember – is rooting around and trying to find something, what we don’t know. He climbs onto the bed and is feeling around where Fred’s nasty head lies on a pillow. And as Robert moves across it, Fred’s head jumps up by itself and bites into Robert’s neck! The image freezes, with Robert’s terror held in place. Text across the screen tells us that Robert Duval’s autopsy information was never revealed. No one really knows what happened to him. We are left to wonder whether Fred’s head was really alive and participating in all that sex that Jane was having with him.

Macabre is one part Diabolique, one part Psycho, one part The Bad Seed, and one part Wait Until Dark. We have adultery, creepy children, a momma’s boy, blindness, murder, and . . . necrophilia. But is it Southern? Not hardly. Because almost all of the story occurs inside of Robert’s house, it is virtually irrelevant that it takes place in New Orleans. Granted, Jane Baker does go out a few times, walking the streets of the French Quarter, but the city scenes could have really taken place in any city. She doesn’t do anything particular to the Crescent City, and frankly, the fake Southern accents aren’t even right for that city. Also, I can’t think of a less New Orleans name than “Jane Baker.” A woman with that name would live in Iowa or Indiana. Of all the names the writers could have given a sexy adulteress in New Orleans— Jane Baker, really? Though they do try to jazz it up by making Robert a guy who repairs trumpets and saxophones, he tells Lucy that he doesn’t know how to play them. Again, really— a guy in New Orleans who repairs brass horns but can’t play them? I’m sorry to say so, but: though Macabre is a reasonably good Italian thriller from its time, as a document of the South, it falls flat. If Jane’s last name had been Delacroix, if Robert had tried to woo her with a sax solo, or if she had visited a voodoo shop to animate Fred’s head, then maybe we could at least give the filmmakers a nod on the stereotype angle. The sad truth is: they didn’t check a single box


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