Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Within The Coffin I Lie...Alive!

The Premature Burial(1962)
Director: Roger Corman
Cast: Ray Milland, Hazel Court, Richard Ney

The most off-beat of the Corman-Poe films and the only one not to star Vincent Price, may account for the film's relative obscurity and smaller fan base. It's an odd film, at times resembling The Pit and the Pendulum(1961) with it's double cross and descent into madness. Milland appears at first an odd choice for the lead, but is fine in the lead, anchoring the film in a seriousness that probably would not have been had Price taken the lead, where it's certain this would have been far more manic(not that that's a bad thing!) but it makes for a very different sort of Poe picture.

The film has a great opening in a quiet fog enshrouded cemetary, complete with that wonderful color palette that was part of the Corman-Poe mystique. Only a lovely melody whistled by a grave robber and the sound of earth being dug is heard on the soundtrack, before we discover that the man being dug up was buried alive and the music begins. It's a trult atmospheric and creepy vignette and one that the film fails to really match for most of the running time. Ray Milland plays a disturbed man who lives in a foresaken area of the world where it seems to always be dark and foggy(seriously, the fog machines had to be working overtime on this production) and he's constantly depressed that he will suffer the same fate as his father, that of being buried alive. He believes that catatonia runs in the family and even busty Hammer-babe, Hazel Court, whom he marries, can dissuade him. So, he constructs a really cool mausoleum with all manners of escape, ranging from a set of tools, a rope ladder, dynamite and even poison, in case all else fails! However, with the help of a doctor(Richard Ney) and his loving wife, he is on the way to recovery. All appears to be well, until Milland is asked to finally face his fears and discover if his father was truly buried alive. When the tomb is discovered tampered with, he goes into a catatonic stupor and is predictably buried alive! That dosen't keep Milland down though, since he returns and goes crazy, killing Court's father(Alan Napier) with electrocution, murders a grave robber and buries Hazel Court, before being shot in the back by his own sister(Heather Angel) who reveals that Court was actually a gold digger that was trying to drive him mad to gain his inheritance.

Roger Corman was always an underrated talent behind the camera. Corman had a genuine feel for gothic horror and his screen realizations of this genre are among the best on film, even though he is chiefly remembered for his no-budget wonders rom the 1950s. The Premature Burial is a handsome looking film, betraying it's low budget origins. Alot is done with very little, in the best Corman tradition and the ever rolling fog and grim atmosphere, make this one of the creepiest films of the early 1960s. Despite, not having the wonderfully, over the top histrionics of Vincent Price(who in all fairness, gave beautifully restrained performances in the superb Masque of the Red Death(1964) and House of Usher(1960), Ray Milland fills his shoes quite admirably, giving a tortured, psychological portrayal that also has a hint of the romantic. Milland was a fine actor and was capable in nearly every genre and this has to be one of his more underrated performances. His mania towards the conclusion is the most fun, as he goes all wild eyed and crazy as he stalks Hazel Court and tries to rationalize his madness to Richard Ney.
Hazel Court is typically lovely and delicate, as she was in all of these gothic pictures that she appeared in, starting with Hammer's The Curse of Frankenstein(1957). She is able to give touches of romanticism and concern that makes her sympathetic, while also imbung subtle bits of treachery that underscores her actual villainy. Heather Angel is mysterious and vague as Milland's sister and makes for a fine red herring, her heroism at the conclusion, genuinely surprising and Ney is adequate in the role of the sympathetic doctor who believes he can cure Milland of his chronic phobia.

While not as memorable as the other Poe adaptions of the period, this is a still a finely atmospheric and strange little movie, filled with disturbing images, including one of the best intros in any of the films and a particularly effective dream sequence involving Milland's fears of his mausoleum not being escapable. It's not in the top handful of Corman's films, but it is well deserved of more attention and is alot of fun for the gothic horror fans who might want something a little different.

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