It wasn’t anything personal. Roger Corman just wanted a change. Or more money. Probably both. After the runaway success of The Fall of the House of Usher (1960) and The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Corman was growing dissatisfied with his contract at American International Pictures. He’d proven to be a profitable director, and with his two Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, he was a critically acclaimed director as well. The Poe films more or less single-handedly lifted the reputation of AIP out of the realm of the drive-in circuit and established them as a genuine studio that made genuine movies with genuine class (at least among the people who didn’t dismiss horror out-of-hand). Corman’s Poe films also lifted the flagging reputation of horror, which since its heyday at Universal during the 1930s had sunk low, almost replaced entirely by science-fiction and Communist paranoia films. Hammer’s Horror of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein had gone a long way to revitalizing the horror genre, but Corman’s Poe films contributed a great deal to solidifying the resuscitation, both int he United States and across the globe, especially in Europe.
While Corman was basically getting along with AIP honchos, Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson, he thought that maybe in light of this critical and financial success, he might be entitled to a better contract. Arkoff and Nicholson disagreed, and so Corman took himself—and his idea for a third Poe film—elsewhere. No hard feelings.
Corman secured financing for the film from Pathé Lab, a company that processed film for AIP, as well as dabbling in funding a few movies. Because Vincent Price was under contract to AIP, Corman couldn’t cast him in the lead role. Looking for a new lead for the new Poe film, an adaptation of The Premature Burial, Corman came up with Ray Milland—blissfully ignorant at the time that, one day in the future, AIP was going to graft his head to Rosie Grier. Milland agreed to take on the role of a man obsessed with the belief that he will be buried alive, as was his cataleptic father. Richard Matheson, who had written the scripts for both or Corman’s previous Poe films, was also under contract to AIP, so Corman turned to screenwriters Charles Beaumont (7 Faces of Dr. Lao) and Ray Russell (X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes).
The Long and Weird Catalogue of Human Miseries
Despite these changes, the essence of the Poe films came with Corman. Like the previous two films, The Premature Burial was steeped in the signature atmosphere of the Poe films: billowing fog tumbling across eerie landscapes, tormented souls, a psychedelically-tinted nightmare sequence, creepy old houses, brooding characters, and as is obvious from the title, a thing or two about being buried alive. With the new crew and cast—which also included horror mainstay Hazel Court and future Batman butler Alan Napier—settled. Roger Corman prepared himself for the first day of shooting. And then something funny happened on the way to the set.
The day The Premature Burial was scheduled to begin shooting, Corman was pleased to see Arkoff (or maybe Nicholson, or maybe both of them—it’s one of those stories) show up on the set to wish him good luck despite the contract negotiation differences they’d had. Differences, hell! It turned out that AIP had just purchased the studio for which Roger Corman was making the picture, so The Premature Burial was going to be an AIP film after all.
Resigned to his fate with good humor, Corman now had access once again to Vincent Price and Richard Matheson but decided to stick with Ray Milland, Contracts, after all, and Milland was still thought of as an Academy Award winning actor and not as “the other guy from The Thing with Two Heads.” His participation gave The Premature Burial an added air of sophistication to crow about, even if the part, like all other leads in the Poe films, was tailor-made for and ultimately would have been better played by Vincent Price.
Milland plays Guy Carrell, an upstanding member of the gentry who has just one small quirk: a near-crippling fear of being buried alive. Now no one wants to be buried alive, except maybe show-off escape artists and people competing on a reality show, but Guy’s fear of being entombed while still among the living goes beyond the usual healthy fear of having dirt piled on top of you. So terrified is he of being buried alive that it threatens to ruin his new marriage to Emily Gault (Hazel Court, from The Curse of Frankenstein and who would appear in two more Corman Poe films, The Raven and The Masque of the Red Death). As his mania builds, Guy shuns his wife and friends in favor of building the most elaborate tomb ever devised.
I’m not exactly certain what Guy’s occupation is, but it must have something to do with being an architectural, engineering, and mechanical genius, because the fail-safe tomb he constructs is a marvel. If I set out to build my own premature-burial-proof tomb, it would probably end up looking like a couple of pieces of plywood nailed together with a hole cut in the back so I can crawl out if I should happen to find myself mistaken for a corpse. Buy Guy’s tomb is utterly lavish. In fact, it’s seems even nicer than his home. It comes stocked complete with a break-away coffin so that, should one wake up and find oneself in such a pine box, one need only tap the side to have the whole thing spring open or fall to pieces. A variety of levers sound various alarms to let everyone know he’s been mistakenly buried, just in case the escape hatch doesn’t open. And should he have to wait for someone to hear the alarm bells, he can while away the time reclining in a plush overstuffed chair, drinking brandy, and flipping through the tomb’s selection of reading material. And should all of these redundant escape plans fail, he’s also stocked the tomb with poison, so that when he’s finished all his sausages and books, he can just kill himself rather than be bored.
Struggles Within the Coffin
You’d think that would be the end of it, but strange things keep happening that inflame Guy’s preoccupation with premature burial. His wife and the local quack think that if he’s ever going to make any progress in combating his phobia, he needs to, among other things, destroy the tomb. You’d think that since the tomb has brought him an unparalleled peace of mind, they’d just let it be. I mean, it is a nice crypt, after all, so why not keep it around? Even if he isn’t buried alive, it’ll be a swell place to just be buried regular and dead.
This being a Corman Poe picture, it’s no great leap to figure out that someone is plotting to exploit Guy’s fear of premature burial to drive him mad and thus achieve some small sort of financial or property gain that hardly merits such a lavishly complex and psychologically difficult scheme. Some people would just whack him on the head with a candelabra and blame it on Colonel Mustard, but these people always have to construct intricate “drive them mad” intrigues that are as complicated as Guy’s crypt.
Like the previous two Poe films, The Premature Burial has a tendency to get bogged down beneath the weight of its own exposition-heavy plot. Unlike the previous two films, however, it doesn’t have Vincent Price on hand to liven up the material. Milland gives it the ol’ college try, but he seems lost with this type of material despite his commitment to delivering a solid performance. Perhaps to solid. He goes at it with classical Hollywood professionalism when what is needed is a bit of the imp. Where Price would have had no problem taking the script and making it work for him, Milland’s portrayal comes across as whiny at times and dull at others. Still, at least Milland puts effort into the role and delivers a few strong scenes, which is more than could be said for the shameful display put on by a listless Jason Robards when, some years later, he too found himself filling in for Vincent Price in a Poe film, that one being Gordon Hessler’s Murders in the Rue Morgue.
If nothing else, The Premature Burial proves that it wasn’t just fan bias toward Vincent Price that kept Milland and the movie from earning a more cherished spot. Price was more than a fan favorite: he was an integral ingredient in making the Poe films successful. His absence very nearly causes them to cease being Poe films. Exactly why Price is so indispensable to Corman’s Poe pictures is a little difficult to explain, but if you see them, well then you just understand. Part of it, naturally, has to do with the fact that Price was a marvel at turning a bad script into a good movie, and while the script for The Premature Burial isn’t bad per se, it is perhaps something worse: a bit dull.
Fearful Indeed the Suspicion—But More Fearful the Doom!
Corman pours on the atmosphere. There is more fog here than in the previous two films combined—and believe me those films had a lot of fog in them—but Ray Milland simply doesn’t have Price’s knack for making you want to listen to him talk even during the slow spells. He never manages to invest the character with any sort of spark, and as such no real sympathy for him or his story ever develops. It’s a perfectly serviceable performance, and Milland has nothing to be ashamed of (unlike you, Jason Robards!), but, well, just watch the end, when Guy emerges from his inevitable “buried alive” scene and has gone completely bonkers and is hell-bent on vengeance. Milland is fine, but you can’t help but thing about how great the whole scene would have been if Price had done it.
The rest of the cast performs with the usual competency one has come to expect by this point from Corman’s Poe films, though some of the characters seem to be involved in subplots that never go anywhere or get fully explained (why was Guy out there helping steal a corpse in the beginning of the film anyway?). Hazel Court gets more of a chance to act here than she did in Curse of Frankenstein (and has one of the best scenes in the movie, during which she explains to Guy that he’s already dead, and his obsession with being buried alive has, in a way, already buried him alive). Familiar faces Alan Napier and Dick Miller (The Terror, Truck Turner, Gremlins, and about ten million other movies) are on hand to round out the cast with their solid character acting. Unfortunately, the script tends to let the performers down, and almost all of the characters are either undeveloped, underdeveloped, or just plain unlikable. Without Price to liven things up, the weakness screams at you like one of those screaming skulls. You know the ones. The ones that scream.
Poe was himself possessed of a similar fear of being buried alive, which is why it figures so frequently into his stories and thus so frequently into the Poe movies. The short story, “The Premature Burial,” is partly a review of premature burial cases and causes, layered upon a story more or less similar to the one presented in the movie. Still, after seeing a buried alive plot in both of the previous films, one can’t help but hope for something a little different the third time out. Instead, we get the “total package” buried alive movie, one in which interment of the living isn’t just a part of the plot, but the entire plot. And speaking of plots, did I miss the part where they tell us exactly why shadowy characters are attempting to drive poor Guy insane? Plus, you’d think that after the guy has gone on and on about catalepsy for the whole movie, when he actually does lapse into a cataleptic state, the people not in on the plot would do more than shrug and go, “Well, he looks dead. Let’s get to burying’.”
The lack of freshness combined with some lack of explanations (odd in a film so full of exposition) keep The Premature Burial situated firmly around or maybe, if I’m feeling good, slightly above mediocre. Plus, it’s just not scary. Even with the gnarled old trees and fog, there are never any chills, and certainly nothing on par with the rampaging sister in The House of Usher or any number of scenes in The Pit and the Pendulum. Opinion on the film was tepid compared to the previous two, relegating The Premature Burial to the status of ignored entry, more or less skipped over as people hastened to get from The Pit and the Pendulum to Tales of Terror, Masque of the Red Death and The Raven, when everything was back as it should be and Vincent Price was once again stalking across the screen in period costumes.
Premature Burial is a misfire—not a major misfire, or an unwatchable one, but a misfire never the less. The pieces—Corman, Poe, Price, Matheson, and musical composer Les Baxter—clicked so perfectly in the first two films that it becomes obvious something is amiss in The Premature Burial. The film does have its moments, chief among them Milland’s exquisitely enthusiastic tour of his “buried alive-proof tomb,” but the thing never fully gels. It was obvious that there just shouldn’t be any tinkering with the formula, so AIP made sure everything was back in place for the fourth film, the anthology Tales of Terror.