Of the popular series of 60’s horrorflix "adapted" by Roger Corman and company from the works of Edgar Allan Poe, The Premature Burial is one of the least seen. Produced in 1962 after the success of House of Usher and Pit And the Pendulum, the movie was made during a brief dispute between director/producer Roger Corman and American International Pictures, the company that had been distributing his flicks for years. As a result of this contentiousness, Poe icon Vincent Price was not available for the film, and the lead was given to Ray Milland (a year before his great Corman-directed performance, as X, The Man With The X-Ray Eyes). Though other Corman stock players like Dick Miller have a role in the film, you can really see how inseparable Price had already become from Corman's Poe-sie: Milland never approaches the level of effete menace Price conjured up with deceptive ease in these films. S'no wonder that Corman quickly brought Vincent back for subsequent Poe excursions like Tales of Terror.
As a pre-teen, I missed Premature Burial during its first-run at the movie theatres. These were the days when horror movies were advertised with sound fx-packed ads on AM top forty radio, and I remember being ultra-enthused about seeing Burial when I first heard its creepy ads. But my spoilsport parents, recalling the nightmares I'd been subject to after seeing Pit And the Pendulum the year before (for some reason, my folks didn't much enjoy being roused in the middle of the night by the sounds of me screaming in my sleep), refused to let me go with my friends. For years I had to be content with the oral summary of the film offered the next day to all the other no-shows in the neighborhood by my friend, Bill "Mushy" Michaud. And when I recently happened upon one of MGM's "Midnight Movies" sets featuring Burial alongside Masque of the Red Death, I jumped at the chance to finally view this still unglimpsed gothic offering. Turns out, of course, that the movie I'd erected in my imagination was ten times creepier than the actual product.
Corman's film, written by prolific horror/fantasy film writers Charles Beaumont & Ray Russell, centers around 19th Century artist/medical student Guy Carrell (Milland, looking considerably older than yer average student), a moneyed English Lord with an obsessive fear of being buried alive. The movie begins with a moody glimpse of the aftereffects of this particular misfortune: two gravediggers (one of 'em whistling "Molly Malone," a song that achieves a spooky resonance over the course of the flick) opening up a grave at night as Guy and several of his doctor peers look on. When they lift the coffin lid, first thing we see is a pattern of bloody scratchmarks on the inside, then the inevitable shock shot of a mummified corpse caught in mid-scream. You know, after seeing that, I'd be a tetch nervous about the possibility of premature burial myself.
Guy has another reason for his uneasiness: he believes his father, Gideon Carrell, was wrongly placed in the family vault after suffering a bout of catalepsy. As a young boy, he recalls hearing his father crying out from the vault 'neath the spooky Carrell mansion. Though grim-faced sister Kate (Heather Angel) insists this was just childish imagination, Guy has become obsessed about staving off that which we all know has to happen because it's in the title. Newly married to Emily Gault (Hazel Court, not utilized to her full potential here, unfortunately), Guy reneges on the promise of a Venice honeymoon to oversee the construction of an elaborate crypt packed with an overabundance of escape hatches and tools in the event that he is inaccurately pronounced dead. He even offers Emily's former suitor, Dr. Miles Archer (Richard Ney), space in the mansion so the doctor can research the means of best determining actual death.
This being a Poe movie, these measures don't improve our hero's state of mind, of course. Soon Guy is having smoky, green-tinted dreams about being stuck inside his crypt – with every one of his escape mechanisms malfunctioning – and seeing those Charles Addams-ish gravediggers out on the mossy, dry iced moors. He retreats into the crypt, where he spends his days painting garish Bosch-indebted visions of colorfully rotting corpses and medieval torture. He hears the ominous "Molly Malone" whistled in the night, and comes upon the family house, looking like a dead dog but – hey! – he's only resting! Good Lord, Guy exposits, poor King could've been buried alive!
Guy's being set up, of course, a plot point that anyone the least bit versed in psychological horror flicks of the 60's will immediately suss. But the big question is: who's behind this gaslighting? Is it bland Dr. Archer, who notes that even though catalepsy isn't inherited, there's the possibility that Guy's growing obsession with it will bring on the condition? ("The episode at the cemetery," Dr. Miles pronounces at one point, "changed a fear to a certain obsession!") Is it Emily's father Dr. Gault (Alan Napier), who turns out to be in league with a Burke & Hare-y pair of graverobbers? Is it the surly looking sister? Ingénue Emily? A combination of the above – or is Guy, in his own developing mania, doing it all himself? If it's new bride Emily, we can scarcely blame her, since hubby Guy seems to grow more histrionic and explosive daily.
When the title moment comes after all this build-up, it's pretty prosaically staged. Having been persuaded by his loving spouse to destroy the escapable crypt, Guy is buried in a nearby moss-festooned cemetery. As in Carl Dreyer's Vampyr, Carrell's coffin is equipped with a small window, affording him a stiff's eye view of the proceedings. There's a nice small bit of suspense, reminiscent of a classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, where our paralyzed protagonist finally gets his eyelids working – as he pleads in voiceover for someone to notice his blinking. But even as we see the dirt being tossed on top of him, we're sure Guy's gonna escape that coffin in order to enact his unholy revenge.
Corman's usual rapid-fire shooting habits are very much in evidence in this outing. While he does a great job troweling on the establishing dank atmosphere, there are moments during the climax where you wish the guy had maybe shot this or that scene just one more time. (A confrontation between Guy and Dr. Gault squanders most of its horror, though there is a nice quick shot of Milland looking suitably mad-eyed.) Beaumont & Russell's script is especially half-assed in the movie's denouement, where a brief explanation of what has happened between the film's two sole surviving parties elicits more yeah, sures than anything.
As I noted, Premature Burial is currently being packaged in flipper DVD format as a double-feature with a later Corman adaptation, Masque of the Red Death. For its presence alongside that superior Poe flick (lensed by Nicholas Roeg), the film is worth getting. Though after viewing Burial for the first time last weekend, I can attest that Masque is the flick I'll be pulling out when I'm in the mood for a second helping of Corman Poe.
And, Mushy, I still remember your version of the movie . . .