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,” MedicalNewsToday.com, 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!"

WARNING: AN IMPORTANT PLOT POINT REVEALED BELOW

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.  

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