16 October 2011

A DEGREE OF APPALLING AND INTOLERABLE HORROR FROM WHICH THE MOST DARING IMAGINATION MUST RECOIL

Premature Burial, the third of the Edgar Allan Poe adaptations directed by Roger Corman and released by AIP, is by common consent regarded as being the ugly stepchild of the franchise. There's one tremendously obvious reason for this: it's the only one of the Corman Poe pictures not starring the stalwart Vincent Price, replacing him instead with Ray Milland. That Milland is an excellent actor should not be in doubt; but Price is Price, and removing his particular brand of theatrical B-movie excess from the equation certainly does Premature Burial no favors, fewer even than the continued, and continually perplexing, insistence on removing the word "The" from the onscreen titles of these movies (it remains, comfortingly, THE Premature Burial on the poster).

That's hardly the only curiosity in the film's production history: initially, it wasn't going to be an AIP movie at all. Owing to a financial disagreement with AIP honchos Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, Corman went elsewhere to make a Poe movie & hit them where it hurt; he'd gotten as far as the first day of shooting before they sniped the project right away from him (that is, incidentally, why Price was not in the film: he was under contract to AIP & thus unavailable during the casting phase).

Even so, and deprived of key collaborator Richard Matheson to adapt the screenplay (though cinematographer Floyd Crosby and production designer Daniel Haller came along, thereby ensuring the film's visual continuity with the other films in the cycle), Premature Burial feels a lot like House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum. Like, a lot a lot. "We have absolutely no ideas and are recycling the ones we have as desperately as possible" a lot. The film significantly underperformed relative to the first two, which I take to be significantly a function of Price's absence, but it was enough to trigger a new direction in the Poe cycle.

But that's for next time. Right now, let us join Emily Gault (Hazel Court), who has journeyed to a decaying old estate in the country - the third time this gambit has been used in three films - to see her missing fiancé, Guy Carrell (Milland). Kate Carrell (Heather Angel), Guy's sister attempts to dissuade the girl, but it's Guy himself who has to break the bad news that he wants to call things off, on account of a family curse - the third time this gambit has been used, and while several of the tropes that get obsessively recycled in this film after have already been trotted out twice have enough of that Poevian flavor that they're mostly invisible, thing about ancestral curses is that they're not all that typical of Poe's fiction. Common as dirt in the work of Poe's spiritual successor & the second great American horror author, H.P. Lovecraft, but it's not one of Lovecraft's stories ostensibly getting adapted.

The curse that so freaks Guy out is catalepsy (for my readers not up on their old-timey medical conditions, a tendency to fall into death-like deep sleep at no provocation), which he believes his father suffered from; moreover, he specifically believes that his father was merely in a cataleptic state when he was interred; buried prematurely, if you will. Nobody in the Carrell household besides Guy harbors this belief, nor have Guy or Kate ever evidenced the slightest trace of cataleptic tendencies, for as Emily's doctor friend, Miles Archer (Richard Ney), and doctor father, Gideon (Alan Napier), point out later, catalepsy's not heritable anyway.

Nonetheless, Guy's obsession with this condition is all-consuming, and he's convinced it will lead to a life of pure misery for Emily; she thinks this is so much horseshit and pushes on with the wedding. This changes nothing - indeed, just after the wedding, Guy proudly shows Emily and Miles his brand-new premature burial-proof mausoleum, tricked out with so many escape hatches that it plays rather like the "let me show you the exploding playing cards" scenes with Q in the James Bond movies. The doctor, convinced that Guy's paranoia is going to turn into a psychosomatic case of actual catalepsy, feels that keeping such a grim novelty on the premises can only encourage his delusion, and in short order Guy is pressured to destroy the thing.

When this doesn't work, Miles finally decides that Guy needs to see his father's corpse, see that it's not frozen in a rictus of desperation trying to escape, and be done with this fantasy once and for all. This is a bad idea: the sight of the mummified remains shock Guy so much that he dies of a heart attack. Or does he? Obviously not, since the thing we've been leading up to all this time is Guy's burial while still living, and it turns out that the shock simply pushed him into exactly that psychosomatic coma that he's been flirting with all film. When a pair of convenient grave robbers in Dr. Gault's employ dig him up, the result is a genuinely insane man with revenge on his mind - and revenge it is, for we now learn that all along, someone was manipulating Guy's paranoia into a complicated plot to kill him and it's pretty ludicrous even for a Poe-inspired story when we learn the details.

"Poe-inspired", I say, for there is very little of the story "The Premature Burial" to be seen in this movie; the original was mainly a catalogue of grotesque "true" stories of premature burials with a comic twist ending, and the only detail taken besides the title was the marvelous escape-ridden crypt. Maybe it's for that reason that the tour of all the mechanical marvels that Guy has built into his burial chamber is by a commanding margin the best part of the movie; it's certainly the only scene in which Milland is so animated, and keyed-in to the weirdness of Poe's worldview, that it's hard to see that Price could have done it better (whereas everything from the moment he is saved from his grave is a perfect crystallisation of why Price was as important a component of these movies as anybody else, including Corman himself: it's played too seriously, without any feeling of the florid & melodramatic).

In this, Premature Burial simply continues down the path Pit and the Pendulum forged: title, one incident, and make up the rest as you go along. The real problem lies elsewhere than in a distinct lack of fidelity to the source material: it's the unimaginative and uninspired way the film retreads House of Usher yet again, with even less of a compelling plot. Virtually all of the film consists of Emily haranguing Guy about his morbid fantasies, and the only thing that keeps it from being absolutely leaden is that Court manages to fill her boilerplate scenes with an intensity that breathes at least a bit of humanity into the shellacked cast - Court, incidentally, was in Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein, and thereby makes the first direct link between the studio that kickstarted the Gothic horror craze (and revived English-language horror from its 15-year sleep) and the studio that brought the Gothic style to America.

All of this is made with approximately the same atmosphere as the previous two films, but after three goes, nobody involved seems terribly excited about what they're doing, and Corman likely had the additional misery of being outplayed by Arkoff and Nicholson to explain why the visual invention of Pit and the Pendulum is nowhere to be found: shadowy lighting and an army of fog machines can create mood, but they cannot by themselves make a great horror picture. Price might have been able to tie all this together, though I think the rot goes deeper than simply the lack of the hugely charismatic star. It's simply a tired movie, and while Premature Burial can't rightly be called bad, it's certainly damned uninteresting.

Reviews in this series
House of Usher (Corman, 1960)
Pit and the Pendulum (Corman, 1961)
Premature Burial (Corman, 1962)
Tales of Terror (Corman, 1962)
The Raven (Corman, 1963)
The Haunted Palace (Corman, 1963)
The Masque of the Red Death (Corman, 1964)
The Tomb of Ligeia (Corman, 1964)

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