Sunday, May 11, 2014

I Bury the Living (USA, 1958)

We all have to start somewhere, and here is almost where B-movie producer and director Albert Band (7 May 1924 — 14 June 2002) began: I Bury the Living was his second directorial effort, a horror film after his mildly interesting debut, The Young Guns (1956), the latter of which is unique in being perhaps the first teenage-rebel western. (We'll conveniently overlook the very first credit of his we could find, that of c-scriptwriter of John Huston's The Red Badge of Courage [1951 / trailer].)
By the time Band had made his first two films, he had also already procreated, and he and his son Charles Band eventually went on to form the production company Empire Pictures and, after that firm collapsed, Charles went on to found Full Moon. The twenty fingers between them have been in many a pie, be it as producer or un-credited extra, including (to list only those reviewed here at A Wasted Life): Tourist Trap (1979), Re-Animator (1985), Creepozoids (1987), Shadowzone (1990), Castle Freak (1995), Head of the Family (1996), Blonde Heaven (1996), Retro Puppet Master (1999), Killjoy (2000) and The Dead Hate the Living! (2000).
With I Bury the Living, Band and his screenwriter Louis Garfinkle (who went on to one day supply the story for The Deer Hunter [1978 / trailer]) crafted an intriguing psychological horror story that, despite some directional dull spots and occasional questionable acting, definitely chills for almost the entire film — only to resolve in an ending that stinks worse than a diarrhea-soaked fart in a windowless subway on a hot summer day.
Filmed over nine days partly on location in a Los Angeles cemetery, I Bury the Living features a stalwart Richard Boone (of The Last Dinosaur [1977 / scene] and Vicki [1953 / trailer]) as the manly businessman, Robert Kraft, of the small town of Milford who, thanks to the vagaries of a local rotating advisory committee, takes over the management of the "Immortal Hills" cemetery just as the cemetery's friendly gravedigger of 40 years, Andy McKee (Theodore Bikel of 200 Motels [1971 / trailer]), is pensioned. The less-than-comfortable management office is dominated by a large map of the cemetery, almost modern art in its design, on which the empty and occupied graves are marked by, respectively, white or black pins. Kraft accidentally mixes up the colors of the pins when visited by an old friend and new wife, Stuart (Glen Vernon of I Saw What You Did [1965 / trailer] and So I Married an Axe Murderer [1993 / trailer]) and Elizabeth Drexel (Lynette Bernay of Night of Evil [1962 / trailer] and The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent [1957 / trailer]), and soon comes to realize that he can cause the death of others simply by placing a black pin on their plot on the map...
It is a power that he does not gladly have, and that no one he tells believes him, be it his ready-to-trot fiancé Ann Craig (Peggy Maurer), the police in the form of Lt. Clayborne (Robert Osterloh of The Prowler [1951 / trailer] and Wicked Woman [1953 / trailer]), the local reporter Jessup (Herbert Anderson), or his three business partners, which include his uncle George Kraft (Howard Smith, the narrator of Ecco [1964 / trailer]). But confronted with the power of God and an ever-increasing feeling of guilt, Robert slowly begins to lose his marbles — especially after the disastrous results of his business partners' unwise attempt to dissuade Robert of his conviction by forcing him to mark all their graves with black pins.
The story and its development of I Bury the Living is interesting and not lacking in suspense, and the movie often displays an effectively moody atmosphere and unnatural aura interjected by an occasional prick of black humor and, almost as rarely, an almost baroque twirling of a scene into black (symbolizing, one assumes, the whirlpool that is Robert's mind). In truth, most of the time Band's camerawork is rather staid if not almost boring and static, but the occasional experimental directorial touches like the twirl to black or overlapping dissolves are pleasant and do serve to break the monotony of the normally unmoving camera. A stroke of visual and symbolic brilliance, however, was his decision to make the map gradually larger with each scene it's in, a surrealistic touch that does well in symbolizing Robert's crumbling grasp on reality and the map's growing control over him.
Aspects like those mentioned manage to carry the film above the oft-weak acting turns of those involved. Richard Boone, a graduate of the John Wayne School of Acting, is no better or worse than normal, but as to be expected most of the surrounding B-actors are relatively stilted. Special mention must be made of Theodore Bikel, nominated for an Oscar the same year as this film for his appearance as Sheriff Max Muller in The Defiant Ones (1958 / trailer), who does an excellent job in regard to his facial and physical acting, but negates his whole performance with a hilariously incomprehensible and unconvincing Scottish brogue. What was he ever thinking, and how did he convince anyone it would work?
But then, one also wonders what the fuck they all were thinking when the film finally reaches its culminating plot twist that sets up its shockingly emasculated, cop-out resolution. At the point that Robert, following the logic that if he can kill them he must be able to bring them back, decides to test his power by replacing the black pins with white, I Bury the Living suddenly reveals a total disrespect for its viewers as well as the entire supernatural scenario established thus far. At the point upon which the gravestones topple and the ground is seen being pushed up from below, viewers are well advised to turn off the film and simply imagine the ending that they would like to see, for the real ending given is stupid, disgusting, aggravating and a total raspberry that ruins the movie.
Full film:

No comments: