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Director: Albert Band
Starring: Richard Boone, Theodore Bikel
“Once upon a time there was a cemetery caretaker who discovered that if he put black pins into the vacant plots on his cemetery map, the people who owned those plots would die. But when he took out the black pins and put in white pins, do you know what happened? The movie turned into a big pile of shit! Wasn’t that funny?”
Stephen King is no stranger to an underwhelming ending himself, but he was bang on when he wrote about 1958’s I Bury The Living.
Written by Louis Garfinkle, who would go on to have a hand in the Oscar-nominated script for Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and directed by Albert Band who would go on to er…Zoltan, Hound Of Dracula, this is one of the most frustrating films ever committed to celluloid.
Think I’m being over-dramatic? I’m really not. For the bulk of its run-time, I Bury The Living is an absolute masterclass in suspense, with a gripping central conceit that perfectly straddles the fine line between horror and mystery. Are we watching a supernatural story? Or is there a more down-to-earth explanation for what is going on?
Well, as the great Mr King points out, what goes on is one of the worst cop-out endings you will ever see. Seriously. It’s diabolical and made all the worse by the fact that up until then, I Bury The Living had been a stone-cold classic.
As part of his family business’ philanthropy work, Robert Kraft (Richard Boone) is rostered onto a post as chairman of a small-town cemetery. The centerpiece of the graveyard’s office is a map of all the plots: White pins signify those claimed, black pins those occupied. When Robert accidentally puts a black pin in the just-purchased plots of a friend (Glenn Vernon) and his new wife, they die in a freak accident. Robert’s uncle (Howard Smith) convinces him to make another switch, to see if it’s coincidence or something more sinister.
After his suspicions are doubted by his friends and co-workers, Kraft repeats the initial “mistake” with other plots and each time he places a black pin, the subject meets a quick demise, much to his horror. Does he have the power of life and death over anyone who’s name is on his graveyard map? And if putting a black pin on a living plot brings death,
I’m not going to go into what happens at the end of I Bury The Living, but suffice to say, it’s truly, truly abysmal. It’s the kind of “that’ll do” garbage that belongs in a much poorer film, one that hasn’t been absolutely gripping up until that depressing, groan-inducing denouement.
There’s a tense, brooding mystery at the heart of this film that makes it reminiscent of The Twilight Zone at its very best, albeit without any kind of morality play behind it all. Kraft’s experiments to “prove” his theory have a body count, but still he persists. He’s no hero, despite being front and centre in the narrative. Richard Boone brings a warmth to him though, meaning we care when he slowly realises his awful power and worry as his mind slowly unravels with the consequences of his actions.
The rest of the ensemble cast are functional, nothing more, nothing less, which in this case suits the story perfectly. This is a story about a man with potential god-like powers and the tiny space he inhabits while discovering them. It’s not that noticeable at first, but there’s very little action outside the graveyard in I Bury The Living. In fact, the bulk of the film is set in Kraft’s dark little office, which goes some way to building a dreadful feeling of claustrophobia as the horror of his situation starts to slowly dawn on him.
There is one other character that sticks out though and that is Groundskeeper Willie, or as he’s called here, Andy McKee. Scottish punters are rarely portrayed well or even remotely accurately by Hollywood and this guy is no different. To be fair, Theodore Bikel’s accent isn’t too bad, but the overall vibe of him is cartoon Scotsman and it jars. Worse, there’s not really any good narrative reason for him to have to be Scottish either. He just is.
The other main character is Kraft’s map of the cemetery. That’s the focus of the plot, but it’s also the focus of the entire film. Albert Band shoots it like it’s a living, breathing entity at times, malevolent and mysterious, while it’s striking design lends itself perfectly to the occasional psychedelic trippy effects when Kraft really starts to lose it. That kind of far-out weirdness would become commonplace in the following decade, but in 1958 it really stands out and hammers home the nightmare that Richard Kraft’s life has become.
Again, and I cannot stress this enough, what we have on our hands here almost to the final hurdle was an absolute classic that is turned into an absolute stinker by its finale. It’s astounding, it really is. I Bury The Living could have been renowned as one of the great horror films of the decade and instead its most remembered for its terrible ending.
Five stars for most of it, one star for the end, so…
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy