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Roger Corman's relationship with American-International Pictures was mutually beneficial... except that Sam Arkoff had difficulties coming through with monies owed to many of the independent producers he contracted with. That's not the same as being a thief, because the distribution business at that time operated on what could be called "Carny (Carnival) Rules" -- sometimes the exact amount someone owed was a subjective decision. You know, this business is based on trust, not contracts!
Convinced that he could make a perfectly good Edgar Allan Poe movie on his own, Roger Corman made deals with a lab, actors Ray Milland and Hazel Court, and got ready to roll cameras. On the first day of shooting AIP's Arkoff and Nicholson reportedly showed up and reasserted their position of control: they'd bought out the lab's interest in the movie. Roger Corman always tells this story with a smile on his face -- it was technically an ethically clean move, an end run to counter Corman's own end run. Surely Corman was thinking, I'm on the wrong end of this business!
It's not difficult to praise Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe movies. No matter how he elaborated on the slight plotlines of the various stories and poems, the result was always in keeping with Poe's originals - his House of Usher, unlike earlier versions, didn't sidestep the issue of incest. When he gave up being faithful and made a comedy out of The Raven, the result was more sentimental than sacrilegious.
The Premature Burial was the first Corman/Poe picture not to expand on the formula, so it is often left behind in the celebration of the series. The story is exceedingly simple. Guy Carrell (Ray Milland) romances and marries Emily Gault (Hazel Court), all the while obsessed with the fear that he's inherited a family curse -- catalepsy. Terrified that he'll be buried alive like his recent relatives, Guy constructs a crypt with numerous escape mechanisms, and starts living in it.
Critics of Premature blame the substitution of Ray Milland for Vincent Price. Milland is the acting equal of Price, no doubt, and he does nothing wrong here -- he's sympathetic and engages fully with the morbid material in the script. He'd do great work for Corman the next year, holding up "X" practically by himself. But Price's flamboyant theatrical presence makes him perfect for fantastic and Gothic characters; even when he overacts (Pit and the Pendulum) he does no harm. Milland can be verbally eloquent and he expresses poetic moods nicely, but he's a rational, down-to-Earth practical guy. In The Premature Burial he just seems too reasonable a fellow to behave so erratically.
But the real culprit is Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell's screenplay, which makes Guy Carrell repeatedly change personalities. His attitude toward Emily makes rapid switches from amorous enthusiasm, to cold indifference. He celebrates his morbid obsessions one moment, and then, with a few words from his bride-to-be, is seemingly cured. Everyone talks about Guy's inconsistency, but nobody intervenes when he spends a fortune on a marble crypt to indulge his fantasies. He installs 101 fanciful escape aids, and then tortures himself with a dream in which they're all rendered useless. Literary analysts have been diagnosing Poe's mental state through his writings for over a hundred years: Guy Carrell behaves like a classic manic-depressive. The movie follows an erratic path that substitutes mood swings for incident, but prefers to leave Guy's incipient madness poorly defined.
But in 1962 all we cared about was the uncertainty that Guy Carrell might really be buried alive. But nothing tops the main extended horror set piece, with its swirling colors and focus tricks, when Guy awakens to find himself locked in his coffin. This irrational horror content is the only delirium encouraged in The Premature Burial, which gives us a lot of morbid talk on the way to an action climax. Guy Carrell is morbidly afraid of being buried alive yet his best solution for the problem is to arrange a life-in-death by living in his own custom crypt. It's a clever but undeveloped idea that would seemingly make The Premature Burial ripe for a re-invented remake.
The movie itself is claustrophobic, with single interior set representing all the grounds of the Carrell estate. The standing sets are also on the somewhat over-familiar side of things. We tend to notice things like Guy's bright red twisty candles, and the fact that the creepy artwork he's painting look like the work of the same artist who did the portraits in House of Usher. Maybe that's how Guy makes his living!
Although there's not a great deal of chemistry between Hazel Court and Ray Milland, Emily Galt is a good role for the underused actress. She's the 'other' horror queen of the 1960s, with a head start at Hammer Films. A fine Gothic heroine, she enlivens what might have been a fairly colorless show. Horror fans remembered well the scene in Terence Fisher's Dracula when Melissa Stribling was tossed alive into a grave. The same thing happens here, and it's pretty unnerving. How many actresses would accept the idea of having to scream in close-up, while somebody throws dirt in your face?
The supporting actors are reasonable in stock parts. Corman regulars Dick Miller and John Dierkes generate at least a little fun with their goofy gravedigger characters. Fun! is what Price added to the other Poes, even when he played everything straight. His accumulated persona assured us that he was an amiable maniac at heart. As I'm a fan of Ray Milland, I like Premature Burial quite a bit. I remember being spellbound the first time I saw that dream scene, when all the escape tools failed to work. But perhaps it could use a little more humor.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of The Premature Burial follows the HD releases of the Vincent Price Poe features by more than a year, but the wait is worth it. The transfer is much improved over the old DVD, with excellent sharpness. Some scenes look brownish, as if the colorist had to work hard to bring back hues to faded elements, but most of the movie is fine for color. The generic fog and naked trees pop to life again, while Hazel Court dazzles in her glamorous close-ups.
An interview with Roger Corman has been carried over from the old DVD, plus a Trailers from Hell trailer with a Corman commentary, and a prime-quality direct trailer transfer.
A fun new item is an upbeat intro featurette for the film called Buried Alive ! Joe Dante digs into his memories to explain the film's appeal. The Kino-produced item is short (about ten minutes), sweet and to the point.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
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T'was Ever Thus.