September 6, 2021

Don't Tempt Fate: I Bury the Living

Poster - I Bury the Living, 1958
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I Bury the Living (1958)

Pros: Brilliantly builds mood and tension; Top notch performances; Great visual design and music score.
Cons: The pat, conventional ending spoils the mood for some people.

This post is part of the “No True Scotsman” blogathon hosted by the inimitable Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews. The purpose of the blogathon is for participants to present, for good or ill, a movie or TV episode featuring a Scottish character played by a non-Scot. I jumped at the opportunity, since one of my very favorite B horror films of the ‘50s, I Bury the Living, features an Austrian by birth, Theodore Bikel, playing a sly old Scottish cemetery caretaker for all he’s worth. But more on that later…

My wife thinks I need a hearing aid. I can hear just fine -- it’s not so much a hearing problem as it is a case of selective attention. I hear what I need to and filter out the rest. Okay, so I don’t always zero in on the important stuff the first time, but is it really that hard to repeat things once in a while?

She also hates it when I turn on the soundbar with the TV and crank it up. But I keep insisting that the sound engineers on these movies and TV shows have labored mightily at their craft, and it would be doing them a great disservice not to catch every nuance of their work.

Soundbar or no, hearing loss or no hearing loss, lately I’ve had to admit that I may not be the greatest at picking up on those subtle auditory nuances. Even acknowledging that “U.S.” entertainment production is (and pretty much always has been) an international enterprise, with financing, management and talent coming from all parts of the globe, I still have those “well, duh!” moments, especially when an actor I assumed to be American on a domestic show is revealed to be a Brit or Aussie or some other nationality.

I love mysteries and crime dramas. For example, I’ve seen almost every episode of the original Law & Order, some of them multiple times. For the last three seasons of the show, Linus Roache played Assistant DA Michael Cutter with what to my untrained ear was a flawless New York accent. (I suppose the name Linus was a big clue that he wasn’t raised in the U.S. -- what American kid could possibly have survived into adulthood with a name like that?) I was channel surfing one day, and came upon an interview with Linus, who responded to questions with his born and bred Manchester English accent. Surprise!

Vintage photograph of an enhanced ear trumpet
The Acme Accent Amplifier allows you to detect fake accents in movies, TV shows and real life.

More recently, I somehow missed the memo about Tom Payne, the star of another late, lamented show, Prodigal Son. It was deja vu all over again as I stumbled upon one of his interviews and realized that I’d been fooled by yet another Brit with a great American accent. Huh. I’ve got to get out more.

On the flip side, professional actors whose job it is to get these things right butcher accents all the time. If you Google “worst movie accents,” you’ll find a lot of American actors there, but a fair number from other countries as well. Here, in no particular order, are a few of the more regrettable examples that pop up in multiple lists:

  • Dick Van Dyke’s legendarily bad Cockney accent in Mary Poppins
  • Keanu Reeves’ surfer-dude English accent playing Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s Dracula
  • Kevin Kostner’s English accent that comes and goes in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
  • Tom Cruise’s far from adequate Irish brogue in Far and Away
  • Sean Connery, a Scot playing a Spaniard, and Christopher Lambert, a Frenchman playing a Scotsman, in Highlander (commence head-scratching)
  • And of course, in keeping with the No True Scotsman theme, Aussie Mel Gibson’s take on Scottish legend William Wallace in Braveheart. Gibson’s Scottish accent is so bad that true Scots voted it the second worst in cinematic history, edged out only by Lambert’s attempt at being a Scots Highlander.
Mel Gibson in Braveheart, 1995
Is Mel Gibson the worst fake Scotsman of all-time, or just the second worst?
Here he is pictured hurling abuse at his critics. 

Which brings us to our faux Scotsman of the hour, Theodore Bikel, born in Vienna Austria in 1924, playing cemetery caretaker Andy McKee with a thick Scottish accent in I Bury the Living (1958).

McKee, who has been the caretaker of the Immortal Hills town cemetery for 40 years, has a new boss. Bob Kraft (Richard Boone), the manager of the local department store, has been strong-armed by his uncle and the other town elders into taking over chairmanship of the community cemetery.

Kraft, who insists that he’s too busy for the added responsibility, reluctantly stops by the cottage on the cemetery grounds to get an orientation from McKee. McKee shows him a very large and detailed map of the grounds, explaining that plots marked with black push-pins are already occupied, and those with white ones are reserved for the not-yet deceased.

When Kraft learns of Andy’s longevity on the job, he informs him that he will be retired with a full pension, and offhandedly asks him to look around for his replacement. After some mild protest, Andy seems to take the news in stride, but in an ominous passive-aggressive gesture, he takes a pistol from the desk, telling Bob that it’s available in case of an emergency.

The tension is defused when a young newly married couple, Stu and Elizabeth Drexel, drive up to the cottage. Stu happily informs Bob that one of the stipulations of his trust fund was that when he got married, he would buy his-and-her cemetery plots (!?). After the deal is done, Bob casually grabs some pins to mark the newly sold plots -- black ones.

The next day, Bob is shocked to learn that the couple have been killed in an accident. He meets up with Andy and Jessup (Herbert Anderson), the local newspaper reporter who is on obituary assignment. When Bob asks Andy to change the Drexel plot pins to black, the caretaker observes that they were already black. Kraft admits to the error, and also to an eerie feeling about the incident. McKee drily observes that it’s as if he’d marked the couple for death.

Still bothered by the eerie coincidence, Kraft distractedly puts a black pin in a random plot on the map and draws the white pin out. The plot owner, an elderly toymaker, soon collapses and dies in his workshop.

Now thoroughly freaked out, Kraft tells his uncle George (Howard Smith) that he’s quitting the chairmanship immediately -- he’s put 3 black pins where they shouldn’t be, and 3 people have died. George laughs off Kraft’s concerns, and to show him there’s nothing more to it than coincidence, he drives his nephew out to the cottage to have one more go at the map. George takes out the white pin of one of the other cemetery committee members, Henry Trowbridge (Russ Bender), and persuades Bob to put a black one in its place.

Later that night, in a cold sweat Bob calls Trowbridge’s house. His wife answers and goes to get her husband. After several suspenseful seconds, she’s back on the phone, panicked, saying that her husband isn’t breathing.

Trowbridge’s untimely death sends Kraft reeling, convinced that somehow, with his black pins, he has the power of life and death over the town. He goes to the police, but with no evidence of foul play, there’s nothing they can do.

With one of their own dead and their chairman spiraling towards a nervous breakdown, Uncle George and the surviving members of the cemetery committee, themselves rattled by events, nonetheless double down and insist that Bob put black pins on their plots to prove once and for all that it was all just a series of terrible coincidences. Needless to say, this is a very bad move.

Even as Kraft is descending into madness and the town elders are questioning their own sanity, Andy, the grizzled caretaker, is seemingly a rock of stability and sanity, always at the ready to with a piece of advice or to help with things like locating a space heater for the bitterly cold cemetery cottage.

At the beginning, in the light of day, the old Scotsman seems genial and genuinely helpful. But as the pins work their black magic and things turn dark and anxious, Andy, with his mop of nearly white hair and cemetery pallor, becomes a ghost-like presence, as if he were haunting Kraft to remind him of his sins.

As the bodies start to pile up, Andy is happily chiseling names into the tombstones, softly singing old English folk tunes to himself. Soon, Kraft starts hearing the clinking of the chisel everywhere he goes.

At the point where Kraft is obsessed and possessed, unable to tear himself away from the map as he broods over its (his?) powers, Andy shows up in the middle of the night at the cottage door, just a portion of his face bathed in eerie light as Kraft blocks his entry. His thick Scottish brogue cracking with anxiety, he pleads with his boss to let it go:

It’s quite an effective little monologue, reminiscent of previous famous horror film warnings to not dabble with things better left alone, but with its own unique, spooky spin. If there was ever an actor who could make your skin crawl with a fake Scottish accent, it was character actor-extraordinaire Theodore Bikel.

Born in Vienna to Jewish parents who had the presence of mind to emigrate when Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, Bikel started acting in his teens, and attended London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in his early ‘20s.

His first big break in the theater came in the London production of A Streetcar Named Desire with Vivien Leigh, when one of the actors he was understudying came down with the flu. The multitalented Bikel, who was also a great singer, would go on to establish the character of Captain Von Trapp in the original production of The Sound of Music, take over for Zero Mostel as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, and record dozens of folk and contemporary albums.

Theodore Bikel and Charles McGraw in The Defiant Ones (1958)
Theodore Bikel (left) earned an Academy Award nomination for his
portrayal of a Southern sheriff in The Defiant Ones (1958).

As a folk singer, Bikel was able to sing in 21 languages, and in the movies and TV, he became a specialist in portraying characters from all kinds of places and backgrounds.

“[O]n television Mr. Bikel played an Armenian merchant on 'Ironside,' a Polish professor on 'Charlie’s Angels,' an American professor on 'The Paper Chase,' a Bulgarian villain on 'Falcon Crest,' the Russian adoptive father of a Klingon on 'Star Trek: The Next Generation,' and an Italian opera star on 'Murder, She Wrote.'

He also played a Greek peanut vendor, a blind Portuguese cobbler, a prison guard on Devil’s Island, a mad bomber, a South African Boer, a sinister Chinese gangster, Henry A. Kissinger and a misanthrope who gets his comeuppance on 'The Twilight Zone.'

In movies he played several German officers, beginning with 'The African Queen' (1951); a compassionate Southern sheriff in 'The Defiant Ones' (1958), for which he received an Academy Award nomination; the king of Serbia in 'Moulin Rouge' (1953); a Russian-speaking submarine commander in 'The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming' (1966); and an effusive, overbearing Hungarian linguist in 'My Fair Lady' (1964).

… Some time later he told The New York Times: ‘Some actors are what they are no matter what name you give them. Clark Gable looked, walked and talked exactly the same in every picture. I like to change shape, accent and gait. That way I never get stale.’” [“Theodore Bikel, Master of Versatility in Songs, Roles and Activism, Dies at 91,” New York Times, July 21, 2015]

Such a talented chameleon was a natural to take on the role of the crusty old Scotsman -- not only did Bikel deliver a creditable Scottish brogue, but he was also only 34 at the time, playing a character easily 30 years his senior.

Of course, I would be remiss not to mention the other stars of I Bury the Living. Tough guy Richard Boone is in almost every scene, and his descent from an upright, no-nonsense businessman to a terrified, gibbering madman running and stumbling through a graveyard in the middle of the night is something to behold. The film, which starts out with brightly lit office scenes and affectionate exchanges between Kraft and his fiancee (Peggy Mauer), steadily gets darker as an uncanny dread takes over, and the locale shifts exclusively to the cemetery and the cottage, which becomes a waiting room in Hell.

Bob Kraft (Richard Boone) answers the phone in I Bury the Living, 1958
Bob Kraft learns the hard way never to answer the telephone in a horror movie.

At this point in his career, Boone, who had specialized in movie tough guy and villain roles, was transitioning over to leading man roles in TV. He had just finished a stint as Dr. Konrad Styner in the TV series Medic, and he was just getting started as the suave Old West PI/gunfighter Paladin in Have Gun Will Travel.

Boone is perfectly cast -- it’s doubly interesting to see such a rock-solid, tough character unravel through the course of the film, and it’s a bravura performance.

Also noteworthy is the team of producer/director Albert Band (father of Charles Band, of Full Moon Pictures fame) and production/visual designer Edward Vorkapich (son of pioneering filmmaker and montage master Slavko Vorkapich). It’s not easy to make an inanimate object into a terrifying monster, but they pull it off with a sort of surreal panache.

As the film progresses, the cemetery plot map starts to take on a life of its own. We increasingly see it, and the dread black pins, in extreme close-up as Kraft becomes more and more obsessed. By the climax, it’s burning with its own demonic light, and in some striking long and medium shots, the details are obscured with only the roads running through the cemetery standing out, looking like abstract eyes glaring at Kraft. If there was a B-movie hall of fame for frightful inanimate objects, the map would be a founding inductee.

Kraft (Richard Boone) sets fire to a stool as the cemetery map looks on in I Bury the Living, 1958
"I can't shake the feeling that somebody's watching me!"

I Bury the Living was one of Band’s first credits, and he would go on to produce and direct dozens of highly entertaining B’s and direct-to-video releases under the Empire Pictures and Full Moon banners. Vorkapich joined Band for one more film, the excellent but very obscure horror drama Face of Fire (1958; based on a Stephen Crane short story), before going on to other things.

Kudos too to composer Gerald Fried, whose score sets an ominous mood from the get-go and pulls out all the stops, including refrains from the folksong that McKee merrily sings, to ratchet up the tension. Fried, who got his start composing for such ‘50s B horror and sci-fi movies as The Vampire, The Return of Dracula, and The Flame Barrier (not to mention collaborations with Stanley Kubrick on Killer’s Kiss and Paths of Glory), has over 140 credits, and is still composing!

Some people think that I Bury the Living’s uninspired ending breaks the mood and suspension of disbelief that was so carefully built up. The first time I saw the film, I was inclined to agree. However, with my latest viewing, I now think that the ending is actually quite brilliant. It’s so drearily pat and conventional that you could see it, and not the preceding supernatural events, as all in Kraft’s mind, a desperate attempt to explain the unexplainable and hold on to his sanity.

Whichever way you look at it, I Bury the Living is a wild, surreal ride, unlike any other B horror movie of the 1950s.

Where to find it: Streaming | DVD/Blu-ray  

Theodore Bikel gets a chance to do a little folk singing in I Bury the Living:


  1. Thanks for bringing this film to my notice... Bikel does have an amazing international accented CV, so some of his other appearances do sound like ones to check out. Thanks for bringing him to the blogathon.

    1. Thank you Gill for hosting this very unique blogathon! Bikel was the ultimate craftsman, and he's one of those actors who, whatever the role, brings a smile to my face whenever I see him.

  2. I enjoyed learning about Bikel through your excellent post. I have seen him on several occasions (even in Little House on the Prairie when I was little) but never knew his name or his background. Very interesting! The film sounds perfect for a spooky night in, especially with Halloween just around the corner.

    1. You can probably tell from my site that I'm a Halloween kind of guy. I was happy to have the opportunity, with the holiday approaching, to write about one of my all-time favorite spooky B movies, and get a plug in for a pretty good faux Scotsman in the bargain! :)

  3. I adore Theodore Bikel. It began with my first viewing of The Little Kidnappers wherein his accent was that of a Dutch doctor in turn of the 20th century Nova Scotia. He and Boone are mesmerizing actors and I'll be checking this out soon.

    1. Bikel was the original International Man of Mystery, capable of taking on just about any kind of character or accent. I'd recommend saving I Bury the Living for a dark and stormy night closer to Halloween. :)

  4. I love this film! I do need to re-watch it. Maybe in October. BTW, I didn't realize Theodore Bikel was that young. WOW! A wonderful character actor! Anyhow, great review!

    1. Yes, the 30-something Bikel is buried under a wig and a lot of make-up to turn him into 60-something Andy McKee. I Bury the Living is definitely something to put into a Halloween season queue. Enjoy!