Tuesday, November 16, 2021

American Gothic Week: The rigid embrace of the narrow house


Directed by Roger Corman
Written by Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell (based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe)

Spoilers: moderate

It is seemingly incumbent upon any latterday reviewer of Roger Corman's third adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe, Premature Burial, to assure you that, no, it isn't really that bad, and it has every right to be considered in the same breath as Corman's other seven Poe films.  Certainly, we can recognize the unfairness of its soft reception in 1962, when audiences wondered aloud, possibly in the middle of the movie, "where the hell is Vincent Price?"  It's a testament to Price's star, presently in ascendance as the greatest horror icon of his age, that audiences were able to manage this reaction, even though this was only the third film in Corman's Poe cycle and they could not have yet known that it was a cycle, let alone that Price would return for five more.  But this had the unintended outcome of leaving Premature Burial to languish as the underseen curio of the Corman Poes, the film that never gets archived with the rest because there is no "Corman Poe" collection, only Vincent Price collections of varying degrees of temporal, thematic, and industrial coherence.  Noting this injustice, those who've sought it out since have done so with a certain pitying compassion.  Indeed, its rehabilitation has been going on long enough now that the danger might be more to overrate it rather than otherwise.  But it remains the case that although it finally received a blu-ray release a few years ago, it was the last of the Corman Poes to get one, and that release has the least amount of pampering in terms of special features (it is the only one without a commentary track, either Corman's own, or a historian's); draw what conclusion from that you wish.

Rude it may be, but I can't help but point out the glaringly obvious: it would be better if Price were in it.  Though it led to an interesting phase of Milland's career, it's also not like Corman wouldn't have cast Price if he could've; Premature Burial is the bastard of the AIP Gothics for more than just Price's absence, and it shouldn't be an AIP film at all.  It exists because Corman, having proven himself a profitable maker of Poe-inspired horror films, decided that more of that profit should've been his.  He absconded to make one for himself, leaving Price behind, and teaming up with the printing company who'd done the color for Pit and the Pendulum, Pathé, as they attempted to organize their own production company.  On the very first day of shooting, however, James H. Nicholson and Samuel A. Zarkoff arrived to congratulate Corman on his movie, which he initially attributed to honor amongst thieves, though he grew warier as their smiles grew wider.  That's when they informed Corman that they'd bullied Pathé into giving them Corman's production, and it would be an AIP film, whether he liked it or not.

It's tempting to think this demoralized Corman, but that's not really borne out (whatever else you can say about him, Corman was a pretty meticulous planner and "the first day of shooting" would be too late to affect much), and, besides, as he recalls the incident later, he seems to have taken it fully in stride.  But as that is the actual answer to our question about Price, it would be foolish for us to dwell on it.  There's no sense in letting the perfect be the enemy of the good: it might be difficult to agree with Corman's generous estimate that Premature Burial's actual star, Ray Milland, was actually a better fit for this particular filmPrice's unparalleled ability to render overwhelmed fear would've been a boon to a character for whom getting overwhelmed by fear is pretty much his whole dealbut Milland isn't bad in his own evocation of a less-showy and more-interiored nervous exhaustion.  To get it out there, Premature Burial is still a good filmthere's at least one Corman Poe with Price that's worse.  If it doesn't reach the thrilling heights of House of Usher or Pit and the Pendulum, maybe it's that Milland's just a little too grounded.  But a viewer in 1962, or any time since, might as well have asked, "where the hell is Richard Matheson?"

Perhaps it was the combined loss of both of Corman's key collaborators that consigns Premature Burial to the second tier, and unless Matheson's replacements, Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell, are quoting Poe directly, there's a certain stiffness to the dialogue and situations here (no pun intended, I swear), so that they don't quite capture the erudition, floridity, and punchiness that had made Matheson's writing on the first two Poe films sing in a register that felt authentic, if only Poe had written screenplays rather than summaries of events colored by descriptions of unsettled mental impressions.  (And this despite Matheson's admission that he was no particular fan of Poe in the first place.)  In either case, when Milland waxes lyrical upon the horrors of living sepulture, and the unendurable terror of being conscious to face the writhing attack of the conqueror worm, it's fantastic, because that is verbatim or near-verbatim from Poe's "The Premature Burial."  When Premature Burial is not verbatim, which is necessarily most of the time, it tends to have a somewhat tentative feel to it, and while several scenes that required the screenwriters or the director to exercise their imagination are genuinely pretty great, it's not always as engaging as it should be.  But maybe that's not down to any of the above: maybe it's just that on his third time around, Corman was coming up a little dry.  Even so, Premature Burial has the decency to again resist being a pure retread.  It is, like Pit before it, another variation upon the classic Poe (or, by this point, Corman Poe) themes, of reckless in- and exhumation, mental fragility, and general despicability.  Gracious, this Hollywood treatment of the text somehow winds up a much grimmer tale than Poe's actual "Premature Burial," whichamusingly enoughmight be his most life-affirming work.

"The Premature Burial" was bound to pose issues in the first place.  Like with "The Pit and the Pendulum," but somehow moreso, it offers almost no narrative.  It's not until halfway through that it develops any "plot"; the first stretch is a compendium of purported true stories of wrongful interment (I've never been entirely clear on how much Poe was exploiting his readers and how much he actually believed in the prevalence of deathlike comas, but "The Premature Burial" suggests that it was at least slightly tongue-in-cheek).  I can see why Corman might've balked at the expense, but frankly Premature Burial would have done well to have incorporated Poe's vignettes; given Tales of Terror around the corner, anthologies must not have been far from Corman's mind.  But that wasn't in the cards, and Beaumont and Russell naturally focus on the second part of the story.  In their attempts to build it out, they wind up with a lumpy script, and it doesn't totally hide that it's lumbering from scene to scene under an external requirement to hit 80 minutes.

Poe's narrator, of course, is given a name here, and our man is Guy Carrell (Milland), a wealthy and aristocratic medical doctor whose late father's struggles with catalepsy have traumatized him, so that he not only suspects that his father was in fact buried alive, but that he has inherited the condition, and could be victimized by the same inutterable fate.  It is for this reason that he has broken things off with his fiancée Emily Gault (Hazel Court), asserting that his preoccupation could only make her miserable.  She disagrees, making this the Corman Poe where a woman journeys through a foreboding countryside to an isolated mansion to inquire about a man.  Yet I promise that they're all actually pretty easy to tell apart.  It hasn't helped matters that Emily's father, Dr. Gideon Gault (Alan Napier), has spent the last few months digging up corpses with the help of a pair of grave-robbers (John Dierkes and, hey, it's Dick Miller) in the name of science. (In Premature Burial's most subliminally-unsettling gesture, it presents this as completely normal.  Hell, it practically agrees that Guy's the weirdo for being bothered by it.)  Upon the last exhumation, Guy was sent into a faint by the corpse's obvious signs of struggle against the coffin lid.  Nevertheless, Emily convinces him to marry her.

Talk about a premature burial!  (Ray Milland is like 55 in this movie.)

Unfortunately, Guy isn't able to feign wedded bliss past his own reception, berating Emily when she carelessly plays the tune he'd previously heard the grave-robbers whistling.  This sends him panting off to his sick-bed, and he only gets worse, spending their honeymoon building an elaborate life-proofed mausoleum for the event of his demise.  In almost the same moment that he finally promises his suffering wife that he'll try to give up his obsession with death, he is wrenched back, taking one step too far when he opens the crypt beneath his house (of course the crypt is beneath his house) to prove to himself that his father did not awake to the unspeakable horror of a closed tomb.  Guy is shocked to "death" when he discovers he did, though I assume you shall not find it a spoiler were I to suggest that our hero is, in fact, buried prematurely.

I have bitched a lot about Premature Burial so far, but even as I've done so, I've found myself smiling at it, even the confused ending that only somewhat succeeds in recasting the movie as having been a thriller all along, not dissimilar to Pit before it.  It's less dumb than Pit, but almost anything would be, and it's easier to notice the clumsiness here because Premature Burial has less to distract you from it, like, say, the fervid horror of an inquisitorial torture chamber.  Not for nothing, it would be a more interesting movie if the plot Guy finally perceives didn't exist at all, and instead the film invested totally in his insanity.  I mean, I understand that Guy must go on a vengeful rampage, but you could get there either way.

In fact, Premature Burial hasn't ever sympathized all that much with its hero, and whether that's Corman and his screenwriters simply not finding an in, or (more likely) the result of Milland's cool reserve, it allows the film to occupy a mode rare amongst the Corman Poes: dark comedy.  Maybe that seems strange to say, and perhaps "dark comedy" isn't the phrase, given that Corman's next Poe adaptation turned to avowed comedic horror.  But this kind of curdled, contemptuous humor wasn't a mode the AIP Gothics usually touched more than lightly, happier to have Price anchoring a rather goofier tone.  I still treasure that tone, mind you, but there's something uniquely funny about Premature Burial's almost sarcastic presentation of its hero.  Milland's a less inviting psychotic than Price's villain-victims, but that also means his performance never attempts to totally determine your reaction to, for example, Guy laying out his absurd mausoleum in all its baroque, exhausting detail.  Yet I would defy you not to laugh at Guy (and certainly not with him, as you might had Price played the role) by the time he gets to his sixth or seventh back-up plan, which turns out to be a whole case full of dynamite.  It's even funnier, in its horribly bleak way, as he lapses into a nightmare, done up with Corman's now-customary kaleidoscopic psychedelia, where every single protective measure fails him anyway.

There is the matter, too, of the unique mood of Premature Burial, which does not lean on the same feelings of decay and inescapable history as its predecessorsthe Carrell mansion is even pretty nice, albeit done up by returning art director Daniel Haller with shades of green and red that feel oppressive, rather than cheerful.  (Does Guy also paint gruesome paintings?  Yes.)  But a surprising amount of the action takes place instead out in the surrounding woods, "atmospheric" in the most literal sense thanks to Corman's decision to toss several tons of dry ice at his set, in an overboard but rather loveable gesture that reminds you that Premature Burial is spooky but still fun.  Even so, the balance always favors "spooky," with the fog so obscuring that it's never entirely possible to determine where the Carrell estate ends and the graveyard begins.  It's captured with a beautiful wintry chilliness by Corman's trusty cinematographer Floyd Crosby, who uses the diffusion and whorls to occasionally make something damned near painterly out of Corman's stagebound, deceptively-chintzy effects.  Their imagery works wonders in conjunction with some remarkably long dialogue-free stretches devoted to showcasing the film's real secret weapon, reprised again and again, either as the grave-robbers' funereal whistle or as a motif to Guy's madness in Ron Stein's great score.  This is "Molly Malone," a very pleasant Irish song, here rendered not only as haunting (not the hardest thing to do with any traditional Celtic music, of course), but so subtly sinister that you, like Guy, must wonder if you're only imagining that it's evil.

Altogether, despite backing off hard at the end, it may be the most successful yet of the AIP Gothics at cold-blooded psychological horror.  It retains the thrills and spills you'd expect from Corman (Hazel Court ate dirt a half century before Dafoe, but where's her parade?), but it's clinical in its self-fulfilling delusions and the distance it prefers to keep from its protagonist, who, after all, justifies this reticence when he seeks out his vengeance and you realize you can't entirely root for him the way you could with Price, even if he'd gone on the exact same horrible spree.  Premature Burial has problems big and smallJesus, I'm not usually a stickler for such things, but a movie about "catatonia indistinguishable from death" places itself under a singular obligation to make very sure that when an actor's playing dead, they shouldn't fucking breathe, and yet Milland and Corman can't manage to satisfy this obligation even for a five second shot.  Moreover, it represents the erosion of the possibilities of the Corman Poe formula, at least as it stood in 1962.  Yet in the ways it departs from that formula, it has its own off-brand charm.

Score: 7/10

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