3 stars out of 4.
It’s truly amazing to see what one can do with so little when one puts in the necessary willpower. This single idea is the meaning behind Roger Corman’s entire filmmaking career. He became legendary for stretching tiny budgets to the absolute maximum, and producing results of such a similar uniform quality that audiences came to know exactly what a Corman production entailed.
The Premature Burial is no exception. in the third of his Poe series, Corman departs from the successful formula established on House of Usher (1960) and wonderfully developed on Pit and the Pendulum (1961). This time the Poe experience is brought away form the rather Gothic and medieval trappings and into the realm of a character study. As all Poe enthusiasts are aware, the Corman films merely use the words of Poe as a backdrop and setup for an entire film. because they utilize the short stories there isn’t enough material to cover an entire film narrative and so with varying degrees the films depart from their source material. The best of them actually deviate the most, becoming freer to create their own particular worlds and in turn remain faithful to the spirit of Poe, if not in the exact details. (Pit and Masque of the Red Death respectively)
And so the film in question is obviously about a man terrified of being buried alive. Guy Carrell (Ray Milland) suffers from a fear of developing catalepsy and being buried alive, just as he believes his father was many years ago. He has refused to marry his sweetheart, Emily (the wonderful Hazel Court, borrowed from Hammer) because of this but is convinced perhaps wrongly that they should marry anyway. (As if the thousand strikes of ominous lightning that interrupt their wedding ceremony doesn’t tell them anything.) Guy’s malignant fears of premature internment have been awakened by attending a exhumation that happens to reveal the occupant was indeed buried alive. His overly convenient doctor friend warns Emily that Guy’s fears may, if properly motivated by events, actually cayuse the condition of catalepsy he so fears.
After the marriage, Guy retreats into himself and builds and elaborate tomb complete with a multitude of escape methods all in the event of a premature burial. Still, he finds himself confronted by memories and visions of the exhumation, references to death and premature burial and finally the fears of his father’s fate. Are these indeed true, and has Guy begun to actually go mad or could there be something else at work…
As with all the Poes, this is the primary conundrum for the audience. The casting of Milland over Vincent Price furthers the different flavor of Burial, and allows for a fresh look at what could have quickly become boring and routine. Milland brings his leading man charm that became so increasingly underused by Hollywood, and this non-use led him to productions like Corman’s. This is at a completely different angle than Price, who would either coldly or joyously throw himself into whatever the role dictated. Milland always retains a certain steely sense of sophistication, much like his portrayal of the jilted husband who plots an elaborate way to murder his wife in Dial M For Murder (1953). In the final denouement of the film, this becomes absolutely exemplary and a joy to watch, however brief the result may be.
And here we are with yet another inherent flaw in these films, the fact that the short 80 minute or so running time does not allow for an adequate space for the plot reveals to actually work and take hold in the audience’s mind. here it’s a great one, but the handling is so rushed that it loses almost all credibility. Inf act it takes the second viewing to fully appreciate the entire story in context and the ending because one isn’t simply hit over the head with hit in the last minute of the reel!
Part of the fun of the Poe films is seeing where the same sets were reused from picture to picture, or actors, props, costumes and not to mention those damn red candles that appear in every film. (Seemingly when making House of Usher someone got a great deal on red candles.) But on Premature Burial, this isn’t as readily apparent as on some of the others. It seems as if Corman and his team tried to create a different film from the previous two so that it may reside in the same world, but has its own distinct personality. In fact, the film that reminds me most of Burial besides the other Poes is Hammer’s The Mummy (1959).
This is a brisk little film that may not prove to be very surprising, or shocking in any regard but it is a nice little reminder of what craftsmanship can do with good talent in even the lowest of production values. An essential Halloween treat shrouded in fog. It is worth viewing alone for the Poe series requirement of a color tinted nightmare sequence, this time depicting how Guy’s burial tomb goes horrifyingly wrong.
EDITIONS: Released by MGM on DVD some time ago, Burial is one of the best looking of the Poes on disc. The Panavision frame is well presented in a 16:9 anamorphically enhanced transfer. Print damage and wear is light but occasionally noticeable. Color looks good, though grain is seemingly reduced a bit. Dupes and transitions are a bit dirty but then click into the main feature cleanliness again. Audio is clear in Dolby 2.0 mono with only some very faint hiss on occasion. Later repackaged with The Masque of the Red Death at a reduced price. Look for these films to hit Blu-ray in Europe, sourced from the HD transfers that first appeared on HDTV networks a few years ago.