I Bury The Living: Excellent, until that finale

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsI Bury The Living directed by Albert Band horror movie book reviewsI Bury The Living directed by Albert Band

Featuring a story line worthy of inclusion in the soon-to-premiere Twilight Zone TV show on CBS, 1958’s I Bury the Living would seem to be a natural pick for “sleeper” status, and indeed, the reputation of this minor classic has only grown over the years. Deservedly so? Well, having just watched the film for the first time, I would have to say “yes” and “no.” The film is a surprisingly effective thriller for most of its 76-minute length, but unfortunately – for this viewer, anyway – wraps up most disappointingly. More on this in a moment…

In the film, the viewer meets the head of the Kraft Department Store, Robert Kraft (extremely well played by Richard Boone), who has just received a piece of bad news from his board of directors: It is his turn, at least for the next year, to be the manager of the town of Milford’s Immortal Hills Cemetery. While ensconcing himself in the necropolis’ seedy little office and conversing with the groundskeeper/custodian, Andy McKee (Theodore Bikel, a great Austrian actor whose superthick Scottish accent here is just barely understandable), Kraft absentmindedly places two black pins (denoting a deceased and interred resident) instead of two white pins (which denote people who have purchased plots but have not yet expired) near the names of two friends on the large cemetery map. To his great consternation, the couple is killed the next day in a car crash, and when the guilt-ridden Kraft tries the trick again, the same unfortunate thing happens, as one of the cemetery’s future residents suffers a fatal stroke. Goaded to try the experiment again and again by his Uncle George and fellow board members, Kraft reluctantly sticks more black pins into the map … with increasingly fatal results! Convinced now that either he or the map harbors some kind of supernatural power, Kraft soon realizes that he might have an opposite ability, as well; i.e., using white pins, he might be able to bring the dead back to life…

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsIntelligently scripted and increasingly suspenseful, I Bury the Living benefits from an immensely likable performance from the charismatic Richard Boone. With his homely good looks and naturalistic acting style, is is no wonder that Boone would prove so popular as Paladin on television’s Have Gun, Will Travel, which had premiered the year before and would go on till 1963. The film also features some impressive directorial touches by Albert Band, such as the utilization of extreme close-ups, slow zoom-ins and zoom-outs, and superimposed images. Band makes the cemetery map seem almost like a living thing; in one scene, it glows brightly with an eldritch light; in another, it is shown wavering and shimmering, as if through heat waves; in still another, it seems to grow while Kraft shrinks, almost appearing to swallow him. Kudos must also go out to the film’s cinematographer, Frederick Gately, for his wonderful use of light and shadow and overall terrific B&W lensing, as well as to the film’s composer, Gerald Fried, whose tinkling harpsichord and blaring horns contribute greatly to the creepy atmosphere. The film also boasts at least two exceptionally well-done scenes. In the first, Kraft anxiously sits by the telephone, waiting to hear of the fates of his three fellow board members, for each of whom he has just stuck black pins into that sinister map; in the second, Kraft attempts to raise the recently deceased using white pins, and runs about the cemetery in the early dawn, to ascertain if they have indeed risen. These are remarkably suspenseful sequences, and it is amazing how much the filmmakers manage to accomplish, and on the smallest of budgets. Indeed, for its first 70+ minutes, I Bury the Living must be deemed an unqualified success.

And then comes that ending, a wrap-up that is so disappointing in its mundanity that it effectively fritters away all the many frissons that had preceded it. Do you remember the 1935 film Mark of the Vampire, in which all its supernatural elements are torpedoed at the end by a boring, rational explanation for all the proceedings? Well, it is just such a banal, cop-out kind of ending that we get here. This ending is not only a letdown, but also contradicts and befuddles many of the incidents that had gone before. In an effort to inject an element of realism to his very original script, screenwriter Louis Garfinkle only manages to wreck what had otherwise been a dynamite exercise in the otherworldly. I cannot tell you how disappointed I was by this more-than-ho-hum denouement. Still, I suppose a solid triple is almost as good as a full-fledged home run. On another note, the DVD that I Bury the Living currently appears on, from Brentwood Communications, features a very nice print of the film; sadly, however, with no extras to speak of whatsoever. And on the flip side of this disc, for contrast, resides the 1965 Barbara Steele movie Nightmare Castle. Now THERE’S a film that never copped out on a supernatural finale!

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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One comment

  1. Hmm… I like Richard Boone and the idea of the special effects map is intriguing, but I think I’ll pass. To many good books out there!

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