OCTOBER 15 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : I BURY THE LIVING (1958)
I’ve been itching for years to see I Bury the Living, ever since I first read this shorthand synopsis in Stephen King’s Danse Macabre:
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?
Now that’s a seduction, there— you know what I’m saying? And old Steve is right on the money, too. I Bury the Living does indeed turn into a big pile of shit once our hero gets it into his head to try the white pins, but up until then, it’s one of the coolest, most imaginative horror films of its decade.
The Krafts— owners of the Kraft’s department store chain— are in all probability the most prominent family in the smallish New England town of Milburn. Naturally they are phenomenally rich, but their status doesn’t derive from money alone. The family also maintains a number of philanthropic concerns, which the members of the department store’s five-man board of directors take turns managing on a yearly basis. One of these volunteer projects is the caretaker-ship of the Immortal Rest cemetery, and this year, that duty falls to the board’s newest member, Robert Kraft (The Last Dinosaur’s Richard Boone, who was also the voice of Smaug in The Hobbit), who took over the post vacated when his father died a couple of years ago. Kraft would just as soon have nothing to do with the place, but a family obligation is a family obligation, and besides, all he’ll really be responsible for is the paperwork. The hard stuff— maintaining the grounds, carving names on the headstones, digging the actual graves— is handled by a Scottish immigrant named Andy McKee (Dark Tower’s Theodore Bikel), who has held the job since before anybody can remember. Kraft wants to pension him off and replace him with a younger man, but McKee prefers to stay on. And since Kraft puts McKee in charge of finding his own replacement, it seems a safe bet that none will be forthcoming any time soon.
The little cottage that will serve as Kraft’s office when he’s performing his duties as caretaker is dominated by a gigantic wall-map of the cemetery, which positively bristles with black- and white-headed straight pins. As McKee explains, the pins enable the caretaker to see at a glance what the status of any individual plot in the graveyard is. Black pins indicate where someone is already buried; white pins signify that a plot has been purchased, but is currently empty. And speaking of people buying plots, an acquaintance of Kraft’s by the name of Stuart Drexel (Glen Vernon, from The Screaming Woman, who had a brief but conspicuous onscreen turn as the gilded boy in Bedlam) stops by Immortal Rest with his new wife, Elizabeth (Lynette Bernay, from The Pit and the Pendulum and The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent), to claim one each for himself and his bride. But Kraft isn’t paying attention when he sticks pins in the map to designate the couple’s plots as spoken for, and he uses black pins rather than white to mark them. You’d have known that was significant even if I hadn’t quoted that passage from the King book, wouldn’t you?
The very next day, Robert learns that both of the Drexels are dead, killed in an auto wreck mere hours after he sold them their plots. And after the funeral, when he goes to the map to change their pins, he notices the black ones already stuck in the map, and realizes the mistake he made the preceding afternoon. It gives him an eerie feeling, as if he himself had marked the couple for death, but he understands that he’s not being rational even before he bounces the idea off his reporter friend, Jess Jessup (Herbert Anderson), who works for the Milburn Herald. In fact, the only person who seems to get the way Richard feels about that mix-up with the pins and the subsequent sudden deaths of the Drexels is Andy McKee, who still has enough of the superstitious Old World in him to be unnerved by the coincidence.
Kraft’s and McKee’s respective cases of the wiggins only intensify when it happens a second time. Again, a customer comes in to buy himself a plot, and again, Robert isn’t watching his hands when he picks up a pin with which to mark the transaction on his map. Kraft’s customer has a fatal heart attack that very night, and the caretaker just about loses it when he hears the news. This time, he goes to his fellow board-members with the story, and asks to be relieved of his duties at Immortal Rest. Naturally, none of his colleagues greet the tale of the killer map with anything but total incredulity, but Robert’s uncle George (Howard Smith) is at least perceptive enough to see how seriously the two incidents have affected him. George agrees to come with Robert to see the offending map, and when he does, he proposes a little experiment. All five members of the Kraft’s board of directors own plots at Immortal Rest; Robert will switch one of the men’s pins from white to black, and when the man so designated suffers no ill effects (as George is certain he won’t), then Robert will at last be free of this debilitating new obsession. George nominates Henry Trowbridge (Russ Bender, from War of the Colossal Beast and The Satan Bug) as the experimental subject, and Robert reluctantly changes his pin. I don’t think I need to tell you what news greets the Krafts when they report to work the next day.
Things escalate rapidly from there. The surviving members of the board are still not convinced, and they vote unanimously for Kraft to switch all of their pins the next time he goes to the cemetery. The theory seems to have been that three simultaneous deaths would be so unlikely a coincidence as to cross over into sheer impossibility, but all this newest trial produces is three more dead bodies. Then, when Kraft goes to homicide detective Lieutenant Clayborne (Robert Osterloh, who had previously played tiny parts in The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers) with the story of the deadly map, the cop insists on yet another test of its supposed power. Kraft is just about at his wits’ end when the results of Clayborne’s test turn out the same as all the others, but a few minutes later, he has a sudden flash of clarity. Whatever malign synergy exists between him and the map gives him the power to kill with the black pins, right? Then shouldn’t the same force, when acting through the white pins, have the opposite effect? In a virtual fugue state, Kraft pulls the black pins from all the plots in which his victims (if we may call them that) lie buried, and inserts white pins in their places. Then he wisely barricades himself in the office cottage, surmising that anyone who climbs out of the graves he sent them to earlier might not be in the best of moods when they emerge. Don’t get your hopes up, though. Screenwriter Louis Garfinkle reaches down into the big trunk marked “Bait and Switch” at this point, and pulls out a real whopper.
Not since The Beast with Five Fingers had a horror film gone out on a more annoying note. The parallel between that movie and I Bury the Living is made even stronger by the fact that both pictures, up until their disastrous final reels, are among the finest that their eras have to offer. I Bury the Living comports itself in the same manner as the very best episodes of the original “Twilight Zone,” and begins with just the sort of off-kilter premise that made that show so memorable when it was at the top of its game. But unlike “The Twilight Zone,” I Bury the Living never takes a preachy or sentimental tone, even for a minute. Albert Band’s direction is exceptionally crisp for a 50’s film, with nearly as much drive and energy as the rest of United Artists’ 1958 lineup combined. The cast is strong in an understated way, and benefits from including nobody whom I particularly recognize— and wonder of wonders, the Cartoon Scotsman isn’t unendurably annoying. Finally, I Bury the Living is well served by a highly distinctive score which draws just the right amount of attention to itself. You’re always aware of it, and of its lack of meaningful similarity to any other horror movie music you can remember, but it never distracts you from the action unfolding above it. If only it weren’t for that stupid, stupid ending…
OCTOBER 15 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : I BURY THE LIVING (1958)
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A low budget United Artists horror film from the late 50's, I Bury the Living is an interesting experiment that falls just short of greatness. An early directorial effort from Albert Band, it showcases some bizarre montages and experimental imagery. Despite a good performance from Richard Boone, a prosaic script keeps the chills from reaching full potential.
Small town businessman Robert Kraft (Richard Boone) reluctantly takes on the responsibility of managing the town cemetery, even though he's just gotten engaged to Ann Craig (Peggy Maurer). Together with gravedigger and stonecutter Andy McKee (Theodore Bikel), Kraft keeps things in order until a series of mysterious deaths appear to be linked to the disposition of black and white pins kept on a large wall-map layout of the cemetary plots. Robert's mental state crumbles as he suffers hallucinations of guilt and responsibility: placing a black pin on a name seems to result in the death of that person. Suspected by the police for behaving oddly, Kraft develops the delusion that replacing the black pins with white ones will actually raise the dead!
After a budget western he made with partner Louis Garfinkle fizzled in 1956, Albert Band moved on to horror territory for this United Artists offering. Prior to his involvement in his son's Empire Pictures and the later (just recently defunct) Full Moon Pictures, Albert made movies in Sweden, Italy and Spain. He is best known as a side-joke in Lillian Ross's book Picture, 1 in which she covered the production of the ill-fated The Red Badge of Courage with a savage honesty. As an assistant on the show Band was nailed by Ross as the original sycophantic wannabe, crowded among major players like Huston and Louis B.Mayer and getting nowhere.
But Band also comes off as being creatively motivated, a trait that shows in I Bury the Living. Much of the film plays like other United Artists quickies of the time, such as the mostly self-aborting Robert E. Kent programmers. The ending of the movie is a particular let-down, opting for a mad-killer finale instead of the supernatural apocalypse promised by the artsy, weird sequences. Let loose to pursue its premise, I Bury the Living might have wandered into a horror dreamscape like the cosmic ending of Lucio Fulci's The Beyond.
Morose hero Richard Boone has dull personal problems that pad the picture out and set up red herrings for the uninteresting mystery. The picture finally comes to life in the scenes where the cemetery plot map begins to warp Boone's mental state. Already as visually arresting as a piece of modern art, the large rectangular wall map undergoes a number of visual transformations that reflect Boone's dementia. It glows menacingly and gets bigger, until it fills the entire wall. As Boone loses his grip on reality the nightmare visuals take off, leaving the dull 'normal' scenes of the film far behind.
Boone's delusion is that when he assigns a black pin to a reserved gravesites on the map, a supernatural force is willing the death of the plot owner. He's overwhelmed by guilt. His motivations aren't well established, but when the nightmares begin that doesn't matter ... as in The Tingler, we expect to find out that someone's been slipping Boone doses of LSD.
To Gerald Fried's pounding music, 2 the map undergoes changes both subtle and gross. It's basically a pin-board. The lighting alters its appearance so that it at times resembles the creepy mosaics in Robert Altman's 3 Women. It really comes to life during the montages that cut frenetically between the map and the cemetary gravestones, to extreme macro close-ups of map pins and details. Curly ironwork in the cemetary gates plays a big part in these montages as well. The visual association between the hellish map and the gate makes both seem like living demonic entities, exactly the effect the montage maker was after.
I Bury the Living really comes to life whenever these mind-warping montages start up - the patterns and rhythms of images nail us to the screen, and along with the relentless beat of the music, give a good approximation of losing one's mind! 3 The visuals introduce some elements paid off only tangentially in the film - the erupting earth that suggests that corpses may be coming back to life ultimately means nothing, unless it's part of the Bikel character's digging. What might have been an extension of the scary montage in Abel Gance's J'accuse (where the war dead return to accuse the living) doesn't materialize. We are left with some really arresting visuals, including a moment where Boone becomes a high-contrast figure silhouetted against the all-powerful map. It's very much like a graphic concept in the same year's Vertigo, put together by the famous designer Saul Bass. The film's credit for visual design goes to E. (Edward?) Vorkapich. 4
Don't expect this show to be a horror milestone, but these sequences do indeed chill the blood in a cinematic way that's pretty remarkable, if not unique. If you're not a horror aficionado, but enjoy experimental movies, this might be for you.
MGM's DVD of I Bury the Living is a repurposing of a good transfer done for their laser release late in the '90s. As such, it is full-frame when it could have been redone 16:9 at a higher resolution. On a standard monitor, be aware that much of the empty head and foot room is meant to be matted away.
A trailer is included but unfortunately it is a textless copy meant for foreign-language optical use. Thus it has no text graphics, and tends to have big empty sections, especially at the ending. If I Bury the Living's cover art looks cluttered and junky, compare it to the tiny one-sheet reproduction on the back of the DVD box. United Artists' key art for its fantastic films in the late '50s was just terrible!
OCTOBER 15 VHS MOVIE REVIEW : I BURY THE LIVING (1958)
It probably wouldn’t be unrealistic to posit that Albert Band’s greatest contribution to current cinema was the procreation and education of his son, the exuberant genre schlockmeister Charles “Full Moon” Band. Albert’s directing and producing career spanned five decades, but if you ignore those later features which he either directed or produced for his son’s various companies, most of Band pere’s output was in disposable and forgettable European-made drive-in fare.
If any one movie in his list of credits has a shot at immortality, though, it’s this one. Unlike the spaghetti westerns and peplums (yes, that’s an acceptable plural) which were his bread-and-butter, I Bury the Living is a quiet and sombre little horror tale which both revolves around a singular gimmick, and yet opts for some surprising psychological depth.
I have a duty, though, to harp on the epigram which follows the opening credits:
Science has learned that man possesses powers which go beyond the boundaries of the natural.
This is the story of one confronted by such strange forces within himself.
By definition, what science deals with IS natural. If it can be measured, quantified, and reproduceably studied, it’s the purvue of science. Whereas if something is “beyond the boundaries of nature,” all that science can do is shrug and say, “Not my department.”
[Pedantic little complaint aside, he proceeds with the review.]
The “one” referenced in the preamble is Bob Kraft (Richard Boone), upstanding community member and department store owner who has just been reluctantly elected the chairman of the “Immortal Hills” cemetery committee. Not that he’s got anything against civic service, or any problem with the cemetery as such; he’s been a member of the committee for years. But the revolving chairmanship comes around to him at crunchtime: His business is picking up; his impending marriage to Ann (Peggy Maurer) is, well, impending; and the old caretaker, Andy McKee (Theodore Bikel), is being retired with full pay, meaning that a replacement needs to be found. (Bikel, who was thirty-four at the time of shooting, plays the role under a white wig and moustache and some fairly obvious age makeup. This is, of course, the result of the famous “Hollywood Shortage Of Aged Actors Who Could Fake An Adequate Scottish Accent” of 1958.) But Bob is the realistic sort, and he’s willing, if not eager, to put in his time for the greater good.
But Bob soon has occasion to show the less methodical, more intuitive side of his personality. McKee shows Bob the office cottage, where a huge map on one wall shows all of the plots of the cemetery, with names on all those that have already been sold. White pins mark the plots whose owners are still living; black pins mark those whose tenants have moved in, so to speak. When a just-married couple (Glen Vernon and Lynette Bernay) comes by to fulfill the terms of his trust fund and purchase their plots (“But honey, I wanted a toaster!”), Bob mistakenly plants two black pins for them in the family plot. Later that same day, he receives news that the couple was killed in a traffic accident. And when he returns to the board to change their pins and discovers the black ones already there, an unsettling notion occurs to him: That maybe, somehow, he marked them for death with the black pins.
It’s not the sort of idea that an upstanding businessman entertains idly, so to disabuse himself of the notion, he picks a purchased plot at random — for a man named Isham — and replaces the white pin with a black one.
And that night, Mr. Isham (Cyril Delevanti), the kindly old toymaker, dies at his workbench of a cerebral hermorrhage.
But if the underused intuitive side of Bob’s personality can’t shake the irrational suspicion that the pins are causing the deaths, the pragmatic side of him insists on more concrete proof. After all, previous chairmen, including his own Uncle George (Howard Smith), have used the map for years with many a misstuck pin, and never an ill-timed death. So with George’s encouragement, Bob replaces the pin for the previous year’s chairman, Henry (Russ Bender), who they know to be in excellent health. And Bob almost persuades himself that his suspicions are mere imagination when he calls Henry’s house that evening and finds his wife in good spirits… until she goes to bring him to the phone and finds him dead in bed.
It seems Bob’s pragmatic side has bequeathed all of his imagination to the other half of his brain, because his next move is to call the police, a plan of action which seems particularly ill-thought out. What is Homicide Lt. Clayborne (Robert Osterloh) going to make of a tale of a sinister cemetery map, connecting two traffic fatalities, a cerebral hemorrhage, and a heart attack? At least Bob doesn’t get locked in a rubber room, but those close to him, like Ann and George, start to worry about his mental equilibrium, and even go so far as to arrange a Miami vacation which he soundly refuses. Seems to me like getting out of town would have been the best course of action: if it’s all coincidence, then a trip would clear his mind and calm his nerves; and if, as he begins to suspect, it’s some unwanted ability inherent in him rather than in the map, getting the hell away from the map which seems to trigger his Grim Reaperesque tendencies would still be prudent.
But no, he sticks around, obsessing about the pins and refusing even to resign, until the three remaining members of the committee make him an ultimatum: he can keep his chairmanship, if he will that very evening go back out to the cemetery and plant black pins in the graves of those three men. While I admire the scientific method as much as anyone else, I do think there’s a point at which the costs of proof beyond a reasonable doubt outweigh the satisfaction of a well-supported conclusion. Perhaps I’ve just got a lower tolerance for death-tempting risks than these guys. (Or perhaps I’m not a character in a movie.)
You might think that the string of “Well, let’s be REALLY sure” deaths would get a little redundant, and it’s true that the movie is almost in danger of becoming comical as the bodies pile up and get planted. But the story doesn’t concentrate on the deaths so much as on their effect on Bob, who can’t shake the fatalistic guilt of responsibility that comes with each death, even as each new attempt to disprove the crazy idea offers less and less probability of exoneration. And eventually, the idea which has been obvious to viewers from about the fifteen-minute mark springs into his fevered lobes: If placing a black pin in the plot of a live person kills them… what will a white pin in a decedent’s plot do?
I Bury the Living was Albert Band’s second outing as both producer and director, and there’s an energetic spirit of storytelling experimentation to his direction which balances out the sometimes crude and unsuccessful techniques. Visual tricks to depict Bob’s state of mind — hazy heatlines obscuring his vision, high-contrast shots of the cemetery map that almost leave it looking like an abstract depiction of staring eyes — are surprisingly effective, given how obvious and overt such techniques look today. In some respects, the limitations imposed by the budget on the polish of the production actually add to the visual style. Scenes of Bob in his professional offices are uniformly, even banally lit; in contrast, the lighting is almost minimal in the cottage housing the cemetery office, with splashes of light aimed only at those areas of the set necessary to the scene, leaving the rest sunk in claustrophobic darkness. It’s a better movie for being a small and cheap movie.
But without being intensely spoileriffic, I must opine that the ending of the movie lets the air out of the whole feature, with as bad a case of Scooby-Dooism as I ever recall seeing. I watched this movie for review in the same week as the contemporary feature House on Haunted Hill (1959), and can’t keep from comparing their approaches to the supernatural: House on Haunted Hill maintains a well-balanced ambiguity between ghostly and naturalistic explanations for the strange goings-on, so that the climax, while not exactly an airtight conclusion to the preceding events, still seems to be of a piece with the rest of the movie. I Bury the Living, on the other hand, spends so much time “proving” the supernatural explanation, that the last-minute revelation of a naturalistic explanation elicits a hearty “oh, come on!” rather than the intended catharsis and renewal of faith in the natural order.
I know, that’s a lot of big words devoted to a cheap drive-in movie. It’s just a shame when the last five minutes overshadow and emasculate the dramatic effect which the preceding seventy minutes set up.
Given how many classic B-movies have been given the remake treatment in recent years (including the aforementioned House on Haunted Hill), I can’t help but wonder if Charles Band has considered acquiring or simply asserting the remake rights to his late father’s film. It’s certainly a production which could be mounted within the confines of the current range of Full Moon’s direct-to-video budgets. On the other hand, there are no characters from which a collectible toy or action figure could be derived, and the insertion of such into a re-imagined plot would likely destroy whatever magic might have rubbed off the original into the remake. So perhaps I’d better shut up and not give anyone ideas.