More of the same isn’t a bad thing in this case.
* * *
Guy Carrell is a newlywed who’s obsessed with catalepsy–a paralytic condition whose victims often appear to be dead, even though they’re not. Guy believes his father was mistakenly interred during a cataleptic attack (a belief his sister Kate vehemently denies), and is plagued by the fear that he, too, will suffer from it and be prematurely buried (dun dun dunnnn!) as a result. When Guy begins to experience strange hallucinations and fearsome encounters with a pair of local gravediggers, it turns out his fears may not be entirely irrational…
Between 1960 and 1964, Roger Corman directed somewhere between seven and nine films based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. (The number of films varies depending on who’s doing the counting; some people count The Terror and/or don’t count The Haunted Palace.) I don’t want to say that the movies are all alike, that if you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all, because that’s not really true. What I will say is that most if not all of them (I’ve seen, if I recall correctly, four of the seven-to-nine) are pretty much cut from the same cloth: what you can say about one of them can generally be applied to the series in general. I’ll defend Corman as being a better filmmaker than his reputation suggests, but I’ll also readily admit that he didn’t seem to have drawn from a particularly deep well of ideas. (For example, the main thing that may stand out about The Premature Burial is that it doesn’t star Vincent Price.) Which isn’t always a bad thing–it’s a fun movie (and I’ll gladly eat up ’60s AIP/Hammer Technicolor Gothics and ask for seconds), but there are times when the films do tend to feel a bit…samey
If there is one aspect of filmmaking at which Corman (along with longtime D.P. Floyd Crosby) could reasonably be described as a genius it’s in his use of Technicolor. The Premature Burial, like pretty much all of Corman’s color period pieces, is lush and beautiful almost to the point of being over-the-top. Apart from the occasional bit of obvious matte work, there isn’t much on display that betrays the film’s AIP budget; if there’s a second way in which Corman might be a genius it’s in penny-pinching.
Ray Milland is our leading man as Guy and while he’s not bad in the role, there’s something in his performance that just feels a bit…off…to me. I don’t know whether it’s an objective problem (maybe Milland is just a tiny bit miscast?), or if it’s just me (the role is so Vincent Price-y that it’s impossible not to fantasize about how he might have tackled the role). The rest of the cast fares a bit better, with the fantastic Hazel Court (in her first of three Corman/Poe appearances) as Guy’s new wife Emily, Heather Angel as the gloomy-and-doomy Kate, Alan Napier (Alfred in the Batman TV series) as Guy’s father-in-law Dr. Gault, and Richard Ney as Gault’s associate Miles Archer.
Overall I’d say the weakest aspect of the production is the script, written by the usually reliable Charles Beaumont (prolific contributor to The Twilight Zone) and Ray Russell (X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes and the short story that forms the basis of Mr. Sardonicus). It’s a bit too meandering in its early phases. It’s one thing for a film not to telegraph where it’s going; it’s another thing entirely for it to feel like the filmmakers have much idea themselves, and for the first act (and much of the second) The Premature Burial seems to suffer from the latter problem. The shift from Gothic mood piece to straight-up mystery is a bit jarring, or at least it was to me–although I’ve been known, in the past, to notice supposedly obvious plot twists. Once the narrative path is set, however, it’s a riveting exercise in suspense and atmosphere, culminating in a strong conclusion.
As much as I enjoyed The Premature Burial, I do have to admit that there’s not enough to distinguish it from Corman’s other (as Stephen King dubbed them) Poe-pictures. Fans of either Corman or the lush-Technicolor-Gothic subgenre will get the most out of it; otherwise, you might want to put it off in favor of The Masque of the Red Death or House of Usher.Have You Read...?