Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Film Review: Premature Burial

"Premature Burial"
** 1\2 (out of ****)

Roger Corman's "Premature Burial" (1962) starring Ray Milland is a one note movie. It has an interesting idea but doesn't know what to do with it.

The film was part of Corman's "Poe Series", a collection of movie adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe stories Corman directed. These movies rank among Corman's most acclaimed works and are the only movies by Roger Corman that I have reviewed. Other adaptations included "The Pit and the Pendulum" (1961) and "The Masque of the Red Death" (1964).

"Premature Burial" is about taphophobia, the fear of being buried alive. Ray Milland plays Guy Carrell, a man who firmly believes his father was buried alive and fears the same thing will happen to him. The fear has followed Guy ever since he was a child and says he would hear his father's voice screaming for help after being buried in the family's crypt, which is in the basement of Carrell's mansion. This was actually a running gag in Corman's Poe films. There is always a dead body buried in the basement of the home.

Guy lives with his sister, Kate (Heather Angel), who has tried to help her brother over come his fears. This fear affects his relationship with Emily (Hazel Court), whom he says he loves but refuses to marry, eventually telling her of his fear, which now has turned into an obsession, and informing her they could never live a happy life together. She persist and Guy relents.

The problem with "Premature Burial" is it immediately sets up Guy's fear in the very first scene. After it does that, it has no place to go. There is nothing to lead up to. The movie is 80 minutes and only has one idea going for it.

What would have made "Premature Burial" a better movie is starting at the beginning, showing Guy as a child, showing the incident with his father and the trauma that followed from that experience. Show Guy as a child hearing his father's screams at night and then show Guy as an adult, as a man with secrets. A man who begins to court Emily but soon realizes it can never be and stops seeing her. She persist and they marry and then he tells her his secret. And we slowly learn of his plan to prevent it from happening to him. Don't throw everything at us in the first scene. Let the story develop naturally. Give it time. Now you have a first, second and third act. The first scene of this movie should have been the second act.

There may be some who will protest but that is not the way the Poe story is. I will admit I never read "Premature Burial", but even if I did, it doesn't matter. Even if this movie is a faithful adaptation you have to understand this is a movie. Different rules apply for a novel and a feature film. Perhaps as a piece of fiction Poe's story worked but cinematically it is weak.

Next there is the issue of Ray Milland's performance. Milland was a very good actor. He won an Academy Award for best actor for his performance in Billy Wilder's "The Lost Weekend" (1945), it won the Academy Award for best picture as well. Milland was also in a good horror/supernatural story, "The Uninvited" (1944) and Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M For Murder" (1954). He brings "respectability" to the role. In another movie that would have been a good thing but this is a Roger Corman movie. Corman's film had a bit of camp to them. Corman worked with Vincent Price often, who was a better actor for these kind of movies. Price wasn't afraid to go over the top and try to "one up" the material. Milland is much more grounded. He doesn't project a man dealing with demons. We don't sense a tortured soul. The screenplay by Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell doesn't allow the actor to take that direction. This isn't a character study, which normally would have suited Milland better though I don't think it worked well in Corman and Milland's next picture together, "X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes" (1963) either.

The other performances in the movie are acceptable. Hazel Court appeared in a few other Corman movies such as "The Raven" (1963) and does a nice job portraying herself as a sweet, innocent, young, understanding woman who loves this disturbed man and will do what she can to help him. Heather Angel, who may be known to some audiences for her role in "The Undying Monster" (1942), plays the protective sister, who wants to keep her brother's secret hidden. Though, the movie never makes us suspect her as a villain. Alan Napier (best known as Alfred on the TV show "Batman") plays Emily's father. Quite frankly, he is the weakest of the bunch. He has a few scenes and does nothing with him. And finally there is Richard Ney as Miles, a man who knew Emily before she met Guy and loved her. He is now a doctor and at Emily's request attempts to help Guy over come his fear. Ney doesn't have leading man qualities in my opinion and gives a neutral performance. It didn't make much of an impression on me either way. He says his lines adequately but isn't memorable.

Corman is a competent filmmaker. The movie looks good. Corman knew how to get the most out of the budget he was working with and knew how to get the most from his hectic shooting schedule. "Premature Burial" was shot in 15 days, which is actually a longer shooting schedule than Corman usually worked with. On the technical side the movie is okay but the plot development is weak and you get the feeling Ray Milland is almost "too good" for a movie like this.