Synopsis: Talk about a tortured artist! Oscar® winner Ray Milland is Guy, a medical student and painter whose obsessive fear of being buried alive compels him to build himself a tomb with a view, equipped with everything he can think of to escape death. But it’s when his long suffering wife convinces him to destroy the tomb that he finds himself in the gravest of danger!
The Premature Burial 7.75
eyelights: its cast. its storytelling. its mood. the quality of the production.
eyesores: its rehashed themes.
“Let’s drink to someting important: to death!”
Remember how ‘The Pit and the Pendulum‘ was essentially a shadow of ‘House of Usher‘, with many plot points being the same or reversed? I had a bad feeling in my gut when I started ‘The Premature Burial’, the third in Roger Corman’s so-called “Poe Cycle” with American International Pictures.
The picture, which was released in 1962, begins with Emily arriving by coach at Guy’s home and being turned away by Kate at the door, reminding me of the openings of both of its predecessors. Add to this the picture’s title, which evokes plot points of ‘Usher’ and ‘Pendulum’ and it was a bad omen.
But it turns out that ‘The Premature Burial’ is thus far the most solid entry of the whole series, through and through – and, if the first two pictures didn’t exist, would probably rate a bit higher. Sadly, as it stands, it feels like more of the same but with a few twists to give it some legitimacy.
This time it finds Emily coming to restore her relationship with Guy, who had pulled away since the exhumation of his father’s body, discovering that he’d been buried alive. Convinced that catalepsy is a family trait, he’s since been consumed with a distressing fear of being buried alive as well.
But Emily gets him to confirm his love for her and chooses to remain by his side. Unfortunately, it soon becomes apparent that Guy is a bit unhinged: he reacts strongly to seemingly innocuous things, builds himself a mausoleum with multiple means of escape, and hears voices and sees dangerous creeps.
Naturally, this will not end well.
Apparently, after ‘Usher’ and ‘Pendulum’, Roger Corman was at odds with American International Pictures and decided to go make this picture with Pathé Labs. When AIP found out, they put pressure on Pathé, with whom they did business and threatening to take it elsewhere unless they sold the picture.
By the time that Corman started rolling, AIP owned the picture. But it was too late for Corman to get Vincent Price as his lead again; he’d already hired Ray Millan because Price was contracted to AIP at the time. He also had a different writers and score composers than in the previous installments.
But this was to the benefit of the picture: Milland was typically a much more subdued, subtle actor than Price and was able to bring the tone down appropriately, allowing ‘The Premature Burial’ to be a credible slow-cooker – whereas Price would have hammed it up, turning it into a campy farce.
Working with Pathé brought an added benefit: the quality of the production. Though it might have been coincidental (perhaps Corman was just refining his style, and would have done the same with AIP), this picture has a gorgeous set, rich in detail and filled with incredible atmosphere.
It stands tall, well above its predecessors.
The storytelling is also more even, gradually building up the tension and mystery at once: on the one hand, Guy is clearly losing his marbles, but there’s also an undercurrent of conspiracy, with Emily giving mild sneers of disdain and Kate showing flashes of amusement on her face at Guy’s behaviour.
By the time we get to the great reveal and the picture goes for broke, burying Guy alive as he’d long feared (making us privy to his despair, trapped in his body à la ‘Johnny Got His Gun’), we are ready for the frenzy that unfolds – though it stretches the boundaries of credulity to some degree.
‘Burial’ finds Corman with a really even hand, balancing the terror and the humour ably: There’s this great scene in which Guy proudly shows everyone all the care and cleverness he invested in his mausoleum. You can feel the horror the others feel at all these morbid calculations. Nice.
And there’s a nightmare sequence in hazy black and white with swatches of blue or green in which he imagines himself waking up in his mausoleum and everything is sabotaged or defective. Though it pales in comparison to the flashbacks in ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’, its dark humour is delicious.
‘The Premature Burial’ would be another hit for Corman and AIP, though it wasn’t at all on the same scale as most of the others in the series (one could suspect foul play, given its production history…). But it’s certainly a feather in Corman’s cap, as it’s when he truly blossomed as a storyteller.
He’d certainly matured as a filmmaker by then.
Date of viewing: January 28, 2017