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Director: Roger Corman
Starring: Ray Milland, Hazel Court, Alan Napier, Heather Angel, Richard Ney
After his two Edgar Allan Poe stories for American International Pictures were hits, Roger Corman decided to go it alone for the third entry in what would become known as his Poe Cycle.
Sourcing funding from Pathé Lab, AIP’s printers and sometime backers, the director initially tried to cast Vincent Price once again, only to find his contract tied him to American International. Production would move ahead with Ray Milland in the lead role of The Premature Burial, a reworking of Poe’s classic 1844 short story.
AIP weren’t just proprietorial about their leading man though, with studio heads Sam Arkoff and James H. Nicholson turning up on the first day of shooting to pressure both the director and financiers to make the film with them.
After the death of his father, Guy Carrell has become obsessed with the idea that he will be buried alive. The fear has become so much that he tries to cancel his impending marriage to his fiancé Emily, but when she arrives at his secluded home, she demands an explanation and convinces him to go through with the nuptials.
Carrell is convinced that he heard his father screaming after he was interred in the family tomb and now is sure that he too will suffer the same fate, as he has inherited a similar catalepsy. To mitigate against this terrible fate (that he has no actual evidence will be the case), he obsessively constructs a series of devices in the tomb that will let him either raise the alarm or escape should he find himself buried alive.
His mania proves almost too much for Emily, who encourages him to choose either life with her or what is fast becoming a living death with his obsessions, but there are forces at work that might prove Carrell’s fears justified after all…
Let’s get it out of the way early…Vincent Price is a huge, huge loss here. Ray Milland is not a bad actor by any stretch of the imagination, but he’s somewhat basic in his talents. For most of its run time, The Premature Burial is very much a character-driven piece, full of anguish, hand-wringing and tragic monologuing, all of which Price had already proven himself to be quite adept with in Corman’s House Of Usher.
It’s that kind of performance that really would have shone here, especially as Carrell is a much more sympathetic character than Roderick Usher. We can only imagine what Price could have done with the role, but instead we have Ray Milland, delivering a workmanlike performance. It’s perfectly acceptable, but it could have been so much more.
Luckily, there’s more than enough going on in The Premature Burial to make up for the lack of its initially-intended star.
For the third time in his three Poe Cycle films, Corman gives us the same kind of dramatic opening, with someone arriving unbidden at an imposing gothic mansion and demanding to be announced. The difference this time is we have just been treated to an incredible prologue where we have seen the aftermath of a premature burial, with bloody finger trails on the inside of the coffin and the luckless corpse’s face frozen in a rictus scream. It’s absolute nightmare fodder and gives real weight to Carrell’s obsession. He may seem mad at times, but we have seen first hand the consequences of what happens if he is right, making him hard to dismiss completely.
Again, the sets are stunning, from the fog-laden graveyard and arcane family tomb to the sumptuousness of the Carrell mansion, beautifully contrasting the two worlds Guy is torn between. It’s only really when Corman takes the action out on the moors during the day that the wheels come off, with low-lying dry ice covering the studio floor and sparse trees failing to convince and if anything distracting from the creeping dread he is trying to instil.
For the most part, it’s a slow burn of a film, gradually showing us the deterioration of Carrell’s already fragile psyche and it’s all the better for it. Our sympathies are very much with poor Emily, forced to helplessly watch her husband’s descent into darkness. Look how chipper and animated he is when he’s in his tomb, proudly showing off his collapsing coffin, secret doors, ladder to roof, tools, even dynamite. He’s like a child showing off his toys to his horrified wife and as much as we empathise with his plight, it’s hard not to feel for the woman.
As the loyal (and seemingly very much in love) new bride Emily, Hazel Court does a fine job getting us onside, coming over both strong and passionate as well as tragic in her own way, making her eventual revelation as a different kind of character altogether all the more shocking. It’s a brilliant twist in the tale, perfectly executed by Corman and scriptwriters Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell and Court sells it magnificently.
It’s all part of an ending that is all the more effective after such a gradual build-up.
We’ve already seen Carrell’s fears brought to life via a gloriously psychedelic dream sequence, all pinks, purples and greens, with rats scurrying around and even an incongruously-placed tarantula, so end. We get to his inevitable real premature burial, it’s predictably horrific, his eyes fixed open as we hear his terrified thoughts pleading ya be heard. You could have been forgiven for predicting that being the obvious end to a story like this, but nothing could be rather from the truth. A pair of unwitting graverobbers disinter him while he is still breathing, leading to a rampage of murder and revenge.
It’s absolutely gripping stuff, with Milland in full-on deranged, tragic monster mode. Watching him come crashing through the window of his duplicitous wife as she admires herself in a mirror in homage to a certain Frankenstein’s monster and it’s obvious where our sympathies are now meant to lie. His love is unrequited and all that is left now is horror. Wonderful.
For a long time, The Premature Burial looks to be about a man’s grim obsession and the impact it has on his loved ones, but turns out to be far from one-dimensional. Sure, we can but wonder what Vincent Price would have done with such rich pickings, but even without him, Roger Corman delivers another vivid and compelling, if not quite great, adaptation of a Poe classic here.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy