Directed by: Roger Corman
Written by: Charles Beaumont (based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe)
Starring: Ray Milland, Hazel Court, Richard Ney, Heather Angel & Alan Napier
Reviewed by: Brett H.
“Can you possibly conceive it? The unendurable oppression of the lungs, the stifling fumes of the earth, the rigid embrace of the coffin, the blackness of absolute night and the silence. Like an overwhelming sea.”
Fear is a subjective thing. What haunts one man may make the person beside him smile with glee. Edgar Allan Poe was very good at grasping ideals that the common person could almost always identify with. Especially one overwhelming fear above all others. Death. "You might be a king or a little street sweeper, but sooner or later, you dance with the reaper". But, not just death, no, that wouldn’t be enough. Struggling to cling on to sanity in the face of death and isolation were common themes. In the time of Poe, people were afraid of being buried alive, and Poe used this in his writings. Perhaps the most famous example (and my favorite short story of all time), is The Cask of Amontillado. I can picture the drunken Fortunato wailing inside of a brick wall, "For the love of GOD, Montressor!". I like to picture American International Pictures veteran Vincent Price on the other side of that wall, trowel embedded in his cement covered hands replying, calmly but still enthusiastically, "Yes, for the love of God!". AIP covered a lot of Poe’s writings, taking bits and pieces and writing around it in the fifties and sixties, but a lesser known Poe film of theirs is the topic of the day. The Premature Burial deals with the similar idea of being buried alive, but in a totally different manner.
The film begins in a foggy old graveyard where a couple of ghouls are robbing the plot of a recently deceased man all in the name of science. Guy Carrell (Ray Milland) is along with them, but it’s not quite the place a man such as him should be. You see, Guy is deathly afraid of, well, death. Not just death, but the thought of being buried alive. The thoughts have haunted him for years and if there ever were a time for them to rekindle full force, it’d be the present. There’s a little problem when the coffin is opened. Bloody scratches are imprinted on the inside lid. This gentleman was buried alive. And is staring right at Guy Carrell.
Prior to these events, Guy had a relationship with a saucy lass by the name of Emily (Hazel Court). The relationship had gone sour due to Guy not wanting to bring her into his hell and his fate. Every person in Guy’s family had suffered horrible deaths, and his father the worst of all. He went through life with catalepsy and was eventually buried alive. Emily makes a trip to Guy’s mansion and convinces him everything is fine and his way of thinking is silly, and he temporarily throws away his fears and the two get married. But, soon after the vows are spoken, fate rears its ugly head. Thunder cracks during the I-dos and in a month or so, he’s completely gone out of his mind to try to cheat death. Guy builds a sanctuary where he is to be laid to rest when his time is up, complete with supplies and gizmos to survive should he be buried alive. But, all is not as it seems and Guy ends up dying and is buried in a regular grave. Who is the rat slinking around the graveyards that caused Guy to live his worst fear – a premature burial?
The Premature Burial sounds a lot better on paper than what turned up on the screen. Poe’s original story offers much more introspection into the lead character, which this version sorely misses. It’s not a travesty or anything of that nature, but the main problem of the film is that there just isn’t much to go around. You can only hear Guy speak of his phobia of being buried alive so much. When his lines are culled from Poe’s story, it’s fine and dandy, but other aspects tend to come across as a bit weak. Typical for Corman-Poe flicks, you have your nice little twist ending that just doesn’t pack the pop that it normally does. Also typical of these flicks are great sets and some dreary, dank boneyards and spider web covered crypts sure to tickle the fancy of gothic horror fans.
What made many AIP films so great is the fact that Vincent Price is such a great character actor. The guy could breath life into almost any role. Ray Milland is more of a classical actor and as a result of this, the main character comes across as somewhat of a bore. It doesn’t help his case that Vincent Price is one of the all time king of the porkers, he could ham it up with the best of them. But, I won’t fault Milland for not being Vincent Price, he plays the part moderately well and it’s not him that makes or breaks the film. Hazel Court is great as the busty Emily (although she’s not her usual bouncy self!) and the end twist is a lot of fun when the common Poe revenge motif comes into play and Guy is relieved from his premature burial to wreak havoc on those who wronged him. And, yes, we finally do find out just who that rat is.
I would say half of the film teeters on moderate excitement (with the standard LSD-inspired, wavy dream sequence, of course!) and the other half is kind of a bore. MGM doesn’t worry that the film isn’t quite up to snuff, though, as they present The Premature Burial on DVD with The Masque of the Red Death as a part of its Midnite Movies line in its original scope aspect ratio. These guys never disappoint as the film looks quite stunning with very few blemishes and a standard mono track. That’s not all, folks; they also include the theatrical trailer and a nine minute interview with Roger Corman that is a real hoot. Originally, Corman opted to do The Premature Burial for Pathe (over monetary issues, although he is quick to point out AIP were a lot more honest than most studios at the time) and that is the reason why Vincent Price is absent from the movie. His contract was with AIP at the time. Soon after production began, AIP purchased Pathe and they were once again working with Corman on his Poe story! So, The Premature Burial doesn’t quite get out of the ground like other entries in the series, but there’s enough positives that you really can’t go wrong in giving it a watch. Especially since the double feature includes a true classic on the flipside of the disc. Rent it!
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