Guy Carrell is a miserable party guest. Born into a family susceptible to catalepsy—the misfortune of periodically falling into a torpid state resembling death—he is consumed by the fear of being buried alive. He forbids his doting wife from playing a song on the piano because he heard a gravedigger whistling it; he swoons and must be carried off to bed because of his macabre obsession—and that’s all on his wedding night.
Because of his monomania, Guy plans the construction of a mausoleum equipped with a series of redundant features that will allow him to escape from his final resting place should his rest prove not final.
Granted, being buried alive is a horrible fate. If you haven’t given it much thought before you begin the Edgar Allan Poe story “The Premature Burial”, or the 1962 Roger Corman film it inspired, after consuming either, you won’t be able to help considering its principle torments: “the unendurable oppression of the lungs / the stifling fumes from the damp earth / the clinging of the death garments / the rigid embrace of the narrow house / the blackness of the absolute Night / the silence like a sea that overwhelms”, as Poe vividly puts it, and as the script has Guy repeat almost word for word.
That primal horror carries the story along in a way that character can’t. Guy (played with weary gusto by Ray Milland), making the most of a rare starring role in the twilight of his career) repairs to his mausoleum to paint increasingly horrific canvases, reclines limply on his bed in an over-decorated boudoir, and speaks with a stilted diction unheard outside of a period B-film soundstage.
“My beautiful, my perfidious, my treacherous love!” he exclaims after discovering he has been betrayed. So burdened is he by the trappings of horror convention that you marvel he doesn’t smother on the spot, even though he is safely above ground.
It doesn’t matter. Joe Dante, in an interview included among the Blu-ray extras, says as much. The teens who flocked to the film in its initial release didn’t care that Milland was too old to be a believable partner for the voluptuous Emily (Hazel Court), or that he was a film cliché. They were watching the latest installment in Corman’s series of Poe adaptations!
The gaping graves; the dry ice fog; the creepy score by Ronald Stein based on the Irish folksong “Molly Malone”; rats, maggots, and a tarantula!; and the inevitable moment when Guy finds himself placed alive in a coffin (with a glass window over his face to reveal his wide-open eyes, no less): variations on beloved horror conventions were the payoff for the initiated.
These cinematic sophisticates no doubt also thrilled to the set-piece of the film, a clever turn on one of the few passages of the story adapted faithfully by Corman. Guy smugly shows off his mausoleum’s counter-measures: a handle that releases the lid of the coffin, a cord in the middle of the space that rings a bell on the roof to summon aid, a hidden mechanism for opening the mausoleum door, a cache of food in case the other measures fail, a carafe of poison as a last resort.
As did the hormone-addled Boomers fidgeting in their seats in the film’s first run, we know that we’ll see the obsessives’s failsafes fail, and we do, in a scene that looks like a bad acid trip equivalent to the DT sequences of Milland’s Lost Weekend. Corman deploys distorting lenses, gels, pulsing light, and canted camera angles to render the nightmare scenario in which, one by one, Guy’s hopes for escape sputter. Heavenly harp glissandos vie with hellish, dissonant brass runs in the scene’s disorienting soundtrack, which drowns out the sound of Guy’s cries for help. This is thoughtful filmmaking on a budget—Corman’s forte.
Another example: a scene featuring Emily’s seeming concern for her husband begins with a shot of her from the waist down performing an almost animatronic pirouette from the perspective of the fireplace. Flames fill the bottom of the screen, providing an ironic counterpoint to her ostensibly earnest discussions about Guy with a confident.
There’s a structural balance to the film that touches on the primal. Once Guy experiences the unthinkable, the tortured man entombed inside his own head becomes all action, packing as much mayhem into the final quarter of the film as he exhibits ennui in the first three. Then, it’s Emily turn to swoon.
Like Psycho, which Dante remarks was occasionally paired with Premature Burial as a double-feature in theatres, the horror is psychological, not supernatural, despite the ghost story trappings. Behavior is ultimately explicable, the acting out of primitive impulses. “You don’t fear a burial alive because you already are buried alive,” as Emily tells Guy.
The film ends with a body count appropriate for the final act of a Shakespearean tragedy. It’s funny, since “The Premature Burial” comes as close as any Poe story to a happy ending.
Two interviews with Corman round out the disc extras. In each, the director explains how contractual disputes kept him from using Vincent Price, his go-to lead for Poe adaptations. The content of the two shorts is so similar, it seems an odd choice for Kino Lorber to include both.