by Sam Juliano
While the 1950’s are rightly known as the decade where the term “art house” really came into being, and a period that produced some of the greatest musicals and strong sociological statements from Hollywood, it is also a time when science fiction and low-budget horror made its mark. Films like Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Robert Wise’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, Howard Hawks’s The Thing, and Fred M. Willcox’s Forbidden Planet were seminal and influential works in their genre, while horror films like Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, Hammer studio’s Dracula, and camp cheapies like William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill, were all the popular rage. Films like Roger Corman’s Attack of the Crab Monsters seemed to blend characteristic elements of both genres, adding to the mix an unmistakable strain of tongue-in-cheek humor.
Humor, however, is nowhere present though, in an atmospheric chiller from 1958 called I Bury the Living, which along with a British witchcraft film starring Christopher Lee from 1960 called City of the Dead, and the eerie Carnival of Souls (1962) were the three films that obsessed me as a young child during mid-1960’s re-runs. While the witchcraft film may well be the one that had entranced me the most in those impressionable years when horror was my medicine, the other two are as vivid in my mind as when the first times I saw these decades ago. I can’t even count the times I’ve seen them since, as they initially were television staples, until the advent of home video. I Bury the Living, directed by Albert Band, and starring Richard Boone and Theodore Bickel, is an atmospheric horror piece with a central premise that is as terrifying as anything conjured up before or since. Stephen King himself made reference to the 75 minute film in his famous volume Danse Macabre:
Once upon a time there was a cemetery caretaker who discovered that if he put black pins into the vacant plots on his cemetery map, the people who owned those plots would die. But when he took out the black pins and put in the white pins, do you know what happened? The movie turned into a big pile of shit! Wasn’t that funny?
King’s summary judgement in retrospect though was inordinately harsh and the rushed and somewhat ludicrous denouement of I Bury the Living almost seems like an inconsequential matter, since for its first 65 minutes, this is one of the most claustrophobic and terrifying films out there. I remember once watching this alone when I was twelve late at night, and I was frantic with fear, imagining that someone was trying to prying open a basement door to the outside. Band’s crisp and imaginative direction makes excellent use of the kinetic visual possibilities of a rectangular wall map that documents who is alive in the town where the rural cemetery is located, as well as those who are dead an buried there. Boone plays Robert Kraft, the cemetery’s paperwork caretaker, who spends a number of nights in a small cottage located within the grounds. This structure, which serves as Kraft’s office when he’s performing his duties as caretaker is dominated by the gigantic map, which uses black and white pins next to the names of the living and the dead. As the Scottish sounding caretaker of the place, Andy McGee explains, the pins enable the caretaker to see at a glance what the status of any individual plot in the graveyard is. Black pins indicate where someone is already buried; white pins signify that a plot has been purchased, but is currently empty.
When Kraft replaces some white pins with black ones, out of morbid curiosity, a string of deaths ensue, culminating with a trio of men who are all serving as members of the cemetery’s board of directors, including Kraft’s uncle, George. This leads to the film’s most effective set piece, an arresting and horrifying sequence where the map begins to warp Kraft’s mental state to the point of implied dementia. During this bravura sequence the map undergoes a series of visual transformations that are actually part of Kraft’s mental breakdown. Band and cinematographer Frederick Gately use renowned horror veteran Gerald Fried’s discordant music to spine tingling effect in conveying unease and discombobulating uncertainty. Outdoor stock shots of surface dirt moving on graves takes on added terror, and even when the final events reached the level of absurdity, one has been taken through the ringer of supreme cinematic fear.
With the use of montage and some experimental camera angles, Band did much with a tiny budget, and over 50 years later this modest throwaway looks better than it ever did.
Richard Boone gives a compelling performance as Kraft, but as the lumbering caretaker, Bikel is rather bland and fraudulent. Part of the problem of course is the pedestrian script by Louis Garfinkle, which certainly breaks no new ground in horror film writing, or for any writing for that matter. But wisely, the screenplay in in full service of the film’s elaborate visual scheme, which uses small spaces and shapes to electrifying effect.
I Bury the Living is nightmare-inducing.