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DVD SAVANT

I Bury
the Living


I Bury the Living
MGM Home Entertainment
1958 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 76m. / Street Date November 20, 2001
Starring Richard Boone, Theodore Bikel, Peggy Maurer, Robert Osterloh
Cinematography Frederick Gately
Visual Design by E. Vorkapich
Film Editor Frank Sullivan
Original Music Gerald Fried
Written by Louis Garfinkle
Produced by Albert Band & Louis Garfinkle
Directed by Albert Band

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A low budget United Artists horror film from the late 50's, I Bury the Living is an interesting experiment that falls just short of greatness. An early directorial effort from Albert Band, it showcases some bizarre montages and experimental imagery. Despite a good performance from Richard Boone, a prosaic script keeps the chills from reaching full potential.

Synopsis:

Small town businessman Robert Kraft (Richard Boone) reluctantly takes on the responsibility of managing the town cemetery, even though he's just gotten engaged to Ann Craig (Peggy Maurer). Together with gravedigger and stonecutter Andy McKee (Theodore Bikel), Kraft keeps things in order until a series of mysterious deaths appear to be linked to the disposition of black and white pins kept on a large wall-map layout of the cemetary plots. Robert's mental state crumbles as he suffers hallucinations of guilt and responsibility: placing a black pin on a name seems to result in the death of that person. Suspected by the police for behaving oddly, Kraft develops the delusion that replacing the black pins with white ones will actually raise the dead!

After a budget western he made with partner Louis Garfinkle fizzled in 1956, Albert Band moved on to horror territory for this United Artists offering. Prior to his involvement in his son's Empire Pictures and the later (just recently defunct) Full Moon Pictures, Albert made movies in Sweden, Italy and Spain. He is best known as a side-joke in Lillian Ross's book Picture,  1  in which she covered the production of the ill-fated The Red Badge of Courage with a savage honesty. As an assistant on the show Band was nailed by Ross as the original sycophantic wannabe, crowded among major players like Huston and Louis B.Mayer and getting nowhere.

But Band also comes off as being creatively motivated, a trait that shows in I Bury the Living. Much of the film plays like other United Artists quickies of the time, such as the mostly self-aborting Robert E. Kent programmers. The ending of the movie is a particular let-down, opting for a mad-killer finale instead of the supernatural apocalypse promised by the artsy, weird sequences. Let loose to pursue its premise, I Bury the Living might have wandered into a horror dreamscape like the cosmic ending of Lucio Fulci's The Beyond.

Morose hero Richard Boone has dull personal problems that pad the picture out and set up red herrings for the uninteresting mystery. The picture finally comes to life in the scenes where the cemetery plot map begins to warp Boone's mental state. Already as visually arresting as a piece of modern art, the large rectangular wall map undergoes a number of visual transformations that reflect Boone's dementia. It glows menacingly and gets bigger, until it fills the entire wall. As Boone loses his grip on reality the nightmare visuals take off, leaving the dull 'normal' scenes of the film far behind.

Boone's delusion is that when he assigns a black pin to a reserved gravesites on the map, a supernatural force is willing the death of the plot owner. He's overwhelmed by guilt. His motivations aren't well established, but when the nightmares begin that doesn't matter ... as in The Tingler, we expect to find out that someone's been slipping Boone doses of LSD.

To Gerald Fried's pounding music,  2 the map undergoes changes both subtle and gross. It's basically a pin-board. The lighting alters its appearance so that it at times resembles the creepy mosaics in Robert Altman's 3 Women. It really comes to life during the montages that cut frenetically between the map and the cemetary gravestones, to extreme macro close-ups of map pins and details. Curly ironwork in the cemetary gates plays a big part in these montages as well. The visual association between the hellish map and the gate makes both seem like living demonic entities, exactly the effect the montage maker was after.

I Bury the Living really comes to life whenever these mind-warping montages start up - the patterns and rhythms of images nail us to the screen, and along with the relentless beat of the music, give a good approximation of losing one's mind!  3 The visuals introduce some elements paid off only tangentially in the film - the erupting earth that suggests that corpses may be coming back to life ultimately means nothing, unless it's part of the Bikel character's digging. What might have been an extension of the scary montage in Abel Gance's J'accuse (where the war dead return to accuse the living) doesn't materialize. We are left with some really arresting visuals, including a moment where Boone becomes a high-contrast figure silhouetted against the all-powerful map. It's very much like a graphic concept in the same year's Vertigo, put together by the famous designer Saul Bass. The film's credit for visual design goes to E. (Edward?) Vorkapich.  4

Don't expect this show to be a horror milestone, but these sequences do indeed chill the blood in a cinematic way that's pretty remarkable, if not unique. If you're not a horror aficionado, but enjoy experimental movies, this might be for you.


MGM's DVD of I Bury the Living is a repurposing of a good transfer done for their laser release late in the '90s. As such, it is full-frame when it could have been redone 16:9 at a higher resolution. On a standard monitor, be aware that much of the empty head and foot room is meant to be matted away.

A trailer is included but unfortunately it is a textless copy meant for foreign-language optical use. Thus it has no text graphics, and tends to have big empty sections, especially at the ending. If I Bury the Living's cover art looks cluttered and junky, compare it to the tiny one-sheet reproduction on the back of the DVD box. United Artists' key art for its fantastic films in the late '50s was just terrible!


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, I Bury the Living rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: December 8, 2001

Footnotes:

1. Ross, Lillian, Picture, Rinehart NYC 1952
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2. Fried's I Bury the Living music is very much like his pounding score for Stanley Kubrick's The Killing the year before. It sounds like yet another variaton on Dies Irae, but gravedigger Theodore Bikel sings a folk song at one point that might be the source of the demonic-sounding melody. Unfortunately, it's too repetitive to maintain its initial impact through the whole film.
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3. In fact, it's not far removed from the feeling of the They're Coming To Take You Away! novelty song from the early '60s.
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4. "E. Vorkapich" is apparently not the same person as Slavko Vorkapich, the famous montage designer and experimental filmmaker. Or is it a name Slavko Vorkapich used when not doing high-profile design work? Vorkapich was an interesting and witty film theoretician who received SRO attendance when he brought his multi-week seminar to the UCLA film school in the '70s. His hard-line ideas about what in movies was cinematic and what was not, were at the time out of fashion. Vorkapich was unconcerned about content and intensely critical about the visual properties of moving images and how they cut together. For Vorkapich, the Cut was King. He lectured that cutting between talking heads may facilitate drama but that it wasn't moviemaking. He had a wicked habit of showing classic film clips with the sound turned off, and pointing out the screwed-up dynamics of cutting from giant faces to giant faces. When he showed us the Herbert Lom tent scene in Spartacus, we saw that he was right; at every cut the actors just popped foolishly around the frame.

Whether or not we properly appreciated all of his ideas, the montages Vorkapich showed were powerful masterpieces. He designed the earthquake scene in MGM's 1935 San Francisco, where many of the most dramatic effects were not elaborate opticals but simple camera moves and editing-rhythm tricks. He also did the locust attack in The Good Earth, so he must have been one of Thalberg's artistic favorites. One of his last, and fairly successful job was creating the elaborate 3-D sequences in the 1963 Canadian horror film The Mask. But the best sample we saw of his work is a breathtaking stand-alone prologue to the 1934 Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur Crime Without Passion. In it, a trio of terrifying harpies are born from the blood of murder victims. They fly through the canyons of Manhattan, laughing at the sinners inside the windows.
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