August 23, 2020

Roger Corman's Price-less Poe Picture

Poster - The Premature Burial (1962)
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The Premature Burial (1962)

Pros: As usual for a Corman Poe adaptation, the cinematography and production design make for a sumptuous and expensive-looking B-movie.
Cons: Adds a lot of padding to a simple story, resulting in slow pacing and dull stretches; the reveal at the climax is predictable and disappointing.

The idea of being mistaken for dead and buried alive seems so antiquated to us advanced lifeforms living in the 21st century. Medical science has progressed way beyond the hoary old cliches of checking for a pulse and holding a mirror up to the nose to detect a faint breath. We can diagnose brain death now, and all those crude methods for determining death were long ago buried by history and science.

Or so we thought. I don’t want to scare you, but for all our vaunted technology and expertise, misdiagnosed death is still a thing. In 2014, there was a case of a 78 year old hospice patient who was declared dead, only to wake up the next day in a body bag in the morgue. The same year, a woman who was declared brain dead at a New York hospital revived just as she was being prepared for organ harvesting.

Fortunately, such cases of Lazarus Syndrome are rare -- only 38 cases have been reported since the syndrome was first described in the medical literature in 1982. [Honor Whiteman, “The Lazarus Syndrome: When the ‘Dead’ Come Back to Life,”, May 2017]

But that’s cold comfort for anyone who has been unlucky enough to be prematurely given up for dead. The same Medical News Today article describes the hair-raising experience of a UK woman with “locked-in syndrome,” a form of catalepsy wherein

“...a patient is aware of their surroundings, but they experience complete paralysis of voluntary muscles, with the exception of muscles that control eye movement.

In 2014, The Daily Mail reported on 39-year-old British woman Kate Allatt, who had locked-in syndrome. Unaware of her condition, doctors declared her brain dead. Medics, family, and friends stood by her bedside and discussed whether or not to switch off her life support. Allatt heard everything, but she was unable to tell them that she was fully conscious.

‘Locked-in syndrome is like being buried alive,” said Allatt. “You can think, you can feel, you can hear, but you can communicate absolutely nothing.’” [Ibid.]

With knowledge of such uncomfortably recent documented cases, the protagonist’s obsession in The Premature Burial becomes more relatable and less dated.

Ray Milland plays a wealthy middle-aged bachelor, Guy Carrell, who lives with his sister Kate (Heather Angel) in a gloomy mansion located in the fog-shrouded countryside somewhere in England. Guy’s mood is as gloomy as his surroundings, as he has recently witnessed the disinterring of a body for medical research purposes. To his horror, he saw that bloody scratches on the inside of the coffin and a look of abject terror frozen on the corpse's face indicated the poor man had been buried alive.

This poor fellow is the star of Premature Burial's pre-titles sequence.

This sends him into a deep depression. When Guy’s beautiful fiancee Emily (Hazel Court) shows up uninvited at the mansion, he tries to send her away, telling her that due to a family curse, they can never be married. It seems that his father was subject to cataleptic episodes, and when Guy was 13, the man slipped into a trance, was declared dead of a heart attack, and was promptly interred in the family vault below the mansion.

That night, Guy heard his father’s cries dimly echoing from the vault, but he couldn’t get anyone to believe him. Guy is morbidly afraid that catalepsy runs in the family, and that at any moment he will have an episode and share his father’s terrible fate. Sister Kate sternly dismisses the notion that their father was buried alive, and Emily is able to convince Guy that he will fare much better with her by his side.

They are soon married, with many well-wishers in attendance, including Emily’s father, Dr. Gideon Gault (Alan Napier) and family friend Miles Archer (Richard Ney). The happy mood is quickly dispelled, however, when the new bride, prompted by the guests, sits down to the piano to play. She picks an old folk tune, Molly Malone, which coincidentally, one of the gravediggers was whistling when they dug up the man who had been buried alive.

Ray Milland and Hazel Court, The Premature Burial (1962)
Guy and Emily relax by taking a walk in a fog-shrouded cemetery. Uh-huh.

This sets Guy off into another bout of paranoia, and instead of going to Italy on a honeymoon, he uses his time and resources to construct a mausoleum with more fail-safe ways for a misdiagnosed “dead” man to free himself than you can shake a gravedigger’s shovel at.

Emily, chafing at being holed up in the gloomy house with her obsessed husband, teams up with Miles to convince Guy to tear down the mausoleum and free himself of his gnawing fear. But when they try to seal the deal by opening up Guy’s father’s crypt to prove he wasn’t interred alive, it backfires spectacularly, and Guy’s worst nightmare comes true.

All the elements of Roger Corman’s justifiably admired Poe adaptations are present in The Premature Burial (except for one -- Vincent Price -- which we’ll get to in a moment). The lush cinematography was by Floyd Crosby, who had lensed The Pit and the Pendulum the year before and would carry on with The Raven, Tales of Terror, and The Haunted Palace in the next couple of years.

Art director/production designer Daniel Haller was a genius at making Corman’s Poe pictures, budgeted in the mid $100,000s, look like a million bucks (or two).

Two very talented writers contributed the screenplay. In addition to Premature Burial, Charles Beaumont penned The Haunted Palace and The Masque of the Red Death for Corman, as well as some of The Twilight Zone’s most beloved episodes for Rod Serling, before his untimely death in 1967. Ray Russell was also a celebrated master of horror, whose credits include the source novel and screenplay for William Castle’s Mr. Sardonicus, and X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (a Corman cheapie that has gained an authentic and loyal cult following over the years, and features one of Ray Milland’s best performances).

In spite of all the talent behind it, The Premature Burial suffers from a lack of energy and suspense compared to Corman’s other Poe adaptations. The problem stems partly from the need to pad the main elements from the original short story -- a horrible discovery in a reopened crypt and the building of a “fail-safe” tomb to avoid a similar fate -- with filler to bring it up to feature length.

Investigating the crypt in The Premature Burial (1962)
Raiders of the Lost Tomb, aka Guy and friends and family.

The film passes on too many spine-chilling opportunities. Guy relates a story about hearing his supposedly dead father crying out from the vault, but we don’t hear it directly (unlike Corman’s first Poe film House of Usher, where the audience, along with Roderick, hears his sister scratching and screeching in her tomb). The intermittent use of the Molly Malone tune that sends Guy into paranoid fits doesn’t quite cut it.

Premature Burial uses up most of its energy in a scene where Guy, manic with anxiety, shows off his new mausoleum to Emily and Miles. They stand there gaping as he demonstrates a trick coffin that opens from the inside, a belltower that can be rung by the “dead” man after he’s woken up, an escape hatch on the roof and rope ladder for access, and if all else fails, dynamite to blast the tomb open. And if that fails, there's poison on hand for the ultimate exit. It’s all so elaborate, it would make Wiley Coyote's head spin.

This is quickly followed by an hallucinogenic nightmare sequence in which Guy is trapped in the mausoleum -- seemingly years after he’s been placed there -- and every fail-safe contraption fails spectacularly. That really reminded me of poor Wiley.

Guy demonstrates his fail-safe mausoleum to Emily & Miles, The Premature Burial (1962)
Guy's mausoleum is the work of the finest designers on the planet:
Wiley Coyote and Rube Goldberg.

From there, the film grinds down to an ending that, for all its morbid imagery, lacks any real suspense, and features a “twist” that you can see coming for miles.

It’s tempting to conclude that much of the film’s problems lie with the absence of Vincent Price in the title role. Ray Milland was a talented, award-winning actor, and he would prove just how much he could do with a B horror role with his inspired performance in The Man with the X-Ray Eyes. But Price was born to star in Corman’s Poe pictures, and his absence is a letdown. On the other hand, I suspect Vincent would only have made a nominal improvement. The script spends too much time with various characters trying to talk Guy down from his morbid delusions (not to mention the time spent showing off the mausoleum contraptions), and not enough on the horrors that have driven the man to near-insanity in the first place.

Corman wanted to make The Premature Burial with Vincent Price and without the involvement of American International Pictures, but again, like a Roadrunner cartoon, his best laid plans went astray. As Corman biographer Beverly Gray recounts:

[The Premature Burial] was a direct result of the Corman brothers’ [Roger and Gene’s] business relationship with Pathé American. Pathé’s owner, William Zeckendorf, had originally agreed to distribute The Intruder [Roger Corman’s social message movie about racial tensions in the Deep South] in exchange for Roger’s promise to shoot a Poe adaptation for his company. When [AIP head] Sam Arkoff got wind of the arrangement, which threatened the AIP monopoly on the highly lucrative Poe films, he warned that AIP would retaliate by withdrawing its business from Pathé’s respected film laboratory. Zeckendorf capitulated, and Corman was surprised to see Nicholson and Arkoff show up on the set of The Premature Burial, cheerfully informing him that he was once again working for them.” [Beverly Gray, Roger Corman: An Unauthorized Biography of the Godfather of Indie Filmmaking, Renaissance Books, 2000, p. 76]

To add insult to injury, when Corman started the project with Pathé’s backing, Vincent Price’s exclusive contract with AIP prevented him from appearing in the film. AIP took over anyway, and filming went ahead with Milland.

Guy (Ray Milland) is carried away to be buried alive, The Premature Burial (1962)
"I'm so glad I went with the sunroof option on this coffin!"


A redeeming feature of the film is the presence of Hazel Court, who always brought elegance and class to her roles. By this point in her career, Court had established her horror credentials by appearing in Hammer’s groundbreaking Curse of Frankenstein and the less groundbreaking but nonetheless atmospheric The Man Who Could Cheat Death.

On the set of The Premature Burial she was the consummate trouper, to the point that she became uncomfortably familiar with the feeling of actually being buried alive. In her autobiography, Court recalls that she nixed the idea of a stunt double for the climactic scene:

“At the end of the picture, I had to be buried alive. Roger asked me if I would do it or if I would rather have someone double for me. I said, ‘Heavens no! I will do it.’ Well, I lay on the ground, with a straw in my mouth so that I would have air, as they shovelled the earth over me. The straw was removed when the director said ‘Action!’ I was to hold my breath for as long as possible. I made it for over one minute -- long enough to get the shot. As I got to the end of the minute, the pressure on my body began, as the claustrophobia was setting in. It was one hell of an experience.” [Hazel Court, Horror Queen: An Autobiography, Tomahawk Press, 2008, p. 112]

Acknowledging that The Premature Burial was not as successful as the other Poe films, Court offered her own theory.

“Some critics felt it was because Vincent Price wasn’t in it. I felt it might have been because a lot of people have fears of being buried alive -- or of developing the condition of catalepsy in which one would be alive but presumed dead. The film was kind to me, and as I’ve mentioned, a very good part.” [Ibid., p. 115]

Hazel Court in the climactic scene of The Premature Burial (1962)
Hazel rests after a hard day on the set.

Regardless of its deficiencies -- or its effectiveness in bringing on queasiness at the thought of being buried alive -- The Premature Burial features a talented cast, delivers a couple of morbidly imaginative scenes, and looks absolutely fabulous.

Where to find it: For the moment, The Premature Burial is streaming free for Amazon Prime subscribers, or own it on DVD or Blu-ray with an assortment of interesting extras.  

August 11, 2020

The Sunshine Blogger Award

Many thanks to Paul Batters at the Silver Screen Classics blog for recognizing Films From Beyond with a Sunshine Blogger nomination. The award is a great, communal way to raise awareness of and appreciation for the labors of love out there that keep classic (and in my case, not-so-classic) movies alive and appreciated in what often seems like a mad, mad, mad, mad world.

Banner - Sunshine Blogger Award

I first interacted with Paul via a blogathon he co-hosted in April 2020, Classic Literature on Film; go check it out, there’s a cornucopia of fascinating posts there. It was the first blogathon I’d participated in in several years, and I was happy to get out of my solitary bubble and participate in some team blogging for a change.

Since reviving Films From Beyond in October 2018 (after a two year hiatus), I’ve been steadily increasing my involvement with fellow film bloggers, but I suspect my interactions are still paltry in comparison with very involved people like Paul.

The Award guidelines encourage recipients to pass along the sunshine by recognizing up to 11 of their worthy nominees and in turn asking them 11 questions. Since several people I’d like to recognize have already received the award recently, I won’t ask them to repeat -- but I’d still like to give them a shout out (see below).

Here are the guidelines:

  1. Thank the person who nominated you and provide a link to their blog.
  2. Answer the eleven questions from the blogger who nominated you.
  3. Nominate up to eleven bloggers.
  4. Create eleven new questions for your nominees to answer.

Now, to dive into Paul’s questions:

What British or International film would you recommend to a friend who has never seen one?

Many years ago I saw a screening of Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962; now part of a new Criterion set), and was blown away by it. Zeman had an uncanny ability to make live action film look like fantastic, colorful illustrations brought to life. It’s hard to imagine even the coldest stone heart not melting, at least a little bit, at seeing this unique fantasy.
Still from The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962)
A film "painting" from The Fabulous Baron Munchausen.

 Which classic film director do you prefer and what is your favorite of their films?

Anthony Mann did it all, from B noirs like T-Men and Side Street to sumptuous epics (El Cid, Fall of the Roman Empire). Along the way he directed some of the greatest westerns of all time starring Jimmy Stewart -- Winchester ‘73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur. My favorite, however, stars Gary Cooper in one of his last roles. Man of the West (1958) is a western re-telling of Orpheus’ descent into Hades (sort of).

Gary Cooper in Man of the West (1958)
Gary Cooper delivered one his great performances
in the twilight of his career.

Which character actor or actress do you think would have made a great lead?

Wallace Ford seemed to be in half or more of the B movies made in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Like my other favorite character actor Dick Miller, Ford was always good for a smile or a chuckle with his characters' bravado and wisecracks masking their urge to turn and run. I would have loved to see Ford do a lead turn as a classic film-noir P.I. like Philip Marlowe. One thing I like about noir is that the protagonists have feet of clay and mess up quite a lot. Ford’s shaky bravado combined with the hard-boiled wisecracks and questionable judgment would have made for an interesting and enjoyable hero.

Publicity still, Wallace Ford
Wallace Ford cleaned up quite nicely from time to time.

What child actor do you believe should have had success as an adult but didn’t?

I recently saw Our Vines Have Tender Grapes with Edward G. Robinson and Margaret O’Brien, about the lives of Norwegian immigrants in 1940s Wisconsin. Jackie “Butch” Jenkins was so natural and believable as O’Brien’s neighbor friend, I looked him up. He made a few more films and then he was done at the age of 10 or 11.

Jackie Jenkins and Margaret O'Brien in Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (1945)
"Butch" Jenkins was an uncommonly good child supporting actor.

What film do you love, but dislike the ending?

Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon (1957) is one of the great horror films, but like many fans, I think the producer’s insistence on inserting close-ups of the demon puppet at the climax was unwise and spoiled the carefully-crafted atmosphere.

Close-up of the demon, Curse of the Demon (1957)
"Okay Mr. Tourneur, the demon is ready for his close-up."

Whose onscreen wardrobe do you covet and would like to claim for your own?

Robert Quarry rocks that blood-red smoking jacket in Count Yorga.

Robert Quarry in Count Yorga, Vampire (1970)

Which original film do you think could be improved as a remake and who would you cast?

In Blue Sunshine (1977), Zalman King portrays a young man who is mistakenly accused of multiple homicide when a woman friend suddenly goes insane and kills a couple of people at a party. As he tries to clear his name, he discovers that a bad batch of LSD is turning people into homicidal monsters years after they took it. While the film is still very effective, I’d be tempted to update it with a more contemporary twist ripped from the headlines: a millennial who’s been kicked off of social media is blamed for a series of murders that his friends have committed. He soon discovers that the murders are triggered by an experiment in subliminal social media messages conducted by a demented CEO who wants to prove the mind-controlling power of her platform to the government. I’d cast Tom Holland in the Zalman King role and Charlize Theron as a Sheryl Sandberg-inspired villain.

Facebook is today's Blue Sunshine.
Blue Sunshine meets that social media platform
everybody loves to hate.

Which classic film actor or actress do you think would be successful in today’s film industry?

Barbara Stanwyck - tough, independent, attractive; she’d fit right in. During the westerns phase of her career, she did her own stunts, sometimes taking on things even the stunt people were leery of doing. She would give Charlize Theron a run for her money as an action heroine.

Barbara Stanwyck in The Furies (1950)
Anything you can do, Barbara can do better!

What film trope do you never tire of seeing?

I love the protagonist who is unwittingly drawn into a sinister conspiracy and then suddenly realizes his/her life is in danger from knowing too much.

If you could adapt a piece of classic literature that has not yet been made into a film, what book would you choose and who would you cast in the main roles?

Although it’s supposedly in development, I wonder if the project to do a feature-length version of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness will ever get off the ground. In my version, I would lure Daniel Day-Lewis out of retirement to play Dyer, the geologist and head of the fateful Antarctic expedition. The mysterious Rooney Mara would be great as Dyer’s assistant. Lovecraft is notoriously hard to translate to film, but with my cast and $100 million or so (don’t want to get too greedy), I’d give it a shot.

Daniel Day-Lewis and H.P. Lovecraft
"Dan, this is Howard."

Which of today’s modern actors or actresses do you think would have been successful in classic films and why?

With his distinctive looks, lankiness and versatility, I think Ty Burrell (of Modern Family fame) would have made a great supporting character actor in noirs and light comedy, and would even have been a nice fit for ‘50s sci-fi.
Ty Burrell, photo by Eva Rinaldi / CC BY-SA (
Ty is ready to get in his time machine.

Here are the blogs I’d like to give a shout out to, some that have been sources of entertainment and inspiration since I took my first faltering steps at Films From Beyond, and others that I discovered more recently. (Some of these bloggers are also recent Sunshine Blogger awardees.) You should check them out:

Cinematic Catharsis

Classic Film & TV Cafe

The Dwrayger Dungeon

Grand Old Movies

Krell Laboratories

The Last Drive-in

Mike’s Take on the Movies

Synthetic Cinema

And my questions for any willing nominees:

Many classic A-list actors appeared in sci-fi or horror films, especially in the twilight of their careers. To whom would you give the award for “Best former A-lister performance in a B horror or sci-fi film?”

You can tap any film figure (actor, actress, director, producer, etc.), living or dead, for a lengthy, no-holds-barred interview. Who would you pick?

What actor living or dead, who never played the role, do you think would have made a great Dracula?

You get the go-ahead to remake The Bride of Frankenstein. Who do you cast as the Bride?

You are a screenwriter, and due to a glitch in the space-time continuum, you can claim any screenplay from any movie made during your adult life as your own, and the world will forever remember it as your work. Which one do you choose?

What is your least favorite performance by a child actor?

You can wave a wand and magically prevent any film from ever being remade. What do you choose?

You’re given $20 million to make any adaptation you want from Shakespeare, Stephen King, or H.P. Lovecraft. What’s it gonna be?

What is your worst example of a miscast lead?

What one forgotten or underappreciated movie do you think the world (or at least the blogosphere) needs to know about?

What “bad” movie do you nonetheless enjoy and have taken the trouble to see several times?

August 6, 2020

“Welcome to my parlor,” said the spider to the sci-fly

Arachnophobia is an abnormal or pathological fear of spiders. I don’t happen to share that fear, but I understand it. Spiders, especially in magnified close-up, look positively unearthly. They don’t have faces, per se, they have way too many legs, and many are bristly and hairy and have wicked-looking fangs. They look like they’ve been engineered to grab and eat other living things in the most nightmarish way possible.

Public domain image, an impressive looking arachnid
"You look absolutely mahvelous dahling!"

I love weird things, so I’m more fascinated by spiders than afraid. I suppose this won’t reassure arachnophobes, but house spiders are great at pest control, consuming ticks, fruit flies and cockroach larvae.

Like most things in nature, if you leave it alone, it will leave you alone (and maybe work doubly hard at consuming the truly irritating household pests). Plus, the chances of accidentally being bitten by a honest-to-goodness venomous spider are vanishingly small.

Keep repeating: "spiders are our friends, spiders are our friends..."

Because of their size, “hairiness,” and menacing look, tarantulas have gotten a particularly bum rap in popular culture. There are some tarantula relatives in Central and South America and Australia that are more aggressive and highly venomous, but by and large tarantulas are shy creatures who bite only as a last resort, and even then may only deliver a “dry” bite absent any venom. Most venomous tarantula bites are very treatable -- you don’t want to get one, but they’re not usually life-threatening.

When I was a kid, tarantulas often popped up in movies and TV, and in every case the implication was that one bite meant instant death. Villains were always turning their pet tarantulas loose on people as they slept or on heroes chained up in some dank dungeon. These scenes were guaranteed to make people’s skin crawl, but it’s hard to think of a more inefficient way to kill a person.

A high point for tarantulas in the movies (or low point, from the tarantula’s perspective), may be the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, when one of the villain’s henchmen slips an evil-looking specimen into Bond’s bed. The poor creature, a pink-toed tarantula, gets the brush off and the heel of a slipper for its troubles, even though that particular spider has small fangs, is reluctant to bite, and is not dangerous to humans.

"The name is Antula... Terry Antula."

Whereas Dr. No’s eight-legged would-be assassin seems feeble in hindsight, vintage sci-fi doubled down on the misunderstood tarantula’s skin crawl factor and blew it up to fearsome proportions, to the point where venom was an afterthought -- these gigantic creatures could literally eat you alive. Some were space-age cousins hiding out in caves on the moon, and others were terrestrial, their gigantism the result of radiation or some other misbegotten experimentation. And one was an ordinary house spider dwelling in a basement, patiently waiting for some mysterious radioactive cloud to turn a human into bite-sized prey for him.

Here are clips of some of my favorite retro sci-fi arachnids. As always, this is a select list. If I’ve overlooked any of your favorites, please share in the comments!

The astronauts of a pioneering moon mission discover a cave on the dark side of the moon with breathable air, but the cave also comes with not one but two (count ‘em!) giant, man-eating spiders!

Missile was a remake of Cat-Women (both distributed by Astor Pictures). The giant moon spider in this one makes his appearance much later in the movie, but the thing’s comically bulging eyes and huge, elongated mouth make it worth the wait.

Okay, so this is more of a rat-bat-spider hybrid, but I love how the astronauts at first mistake the creature for an odd-looking Martian tree. See also an earlier blog post with details about how Rat-Batty was brought to life by the effects artists.

Earth vs. the Spider (aka The Spider, 1958)

In a nod to The Blob, teenagers alert a rural town to the threat of a monster -- in this case, a giant mutant spider. Check out the monster spider’s web, which looks more like a net used in a circus high-wire act.

Tarantula (1955)

The King of ‘50s sci-fi monster spiders! This is one of the more effective scenes, set at night, with the added suspense of the horses sensing danger. At first the monster is only seen in silhouette, then it advances menacingly on the stable.

"Hey, go find your own sewing project!"