by Sam Juliano
The boundaries which separate life and death are shadowy and vague. Who is to say where exactly the one ends and the other begins? In certain mysterious maladies all functions of vitality in the human body seem to stop. And then some unseen force sets the magic pinions and the wizard wheels in motion once again. The silver cord has not been cut, the golden bowl has not been broken. And the soul? One wonders. What, meantime, has happened to the soul? -Edgar Allan Poe
The most terrifying phobia known to man in both a literal and figurative sense is the contemplation of being buried alive. The possibility has long captured the attention of some of literature’s most celebrated figures in hair-raising tales that offer their own spins on the rare condition known as catalepsy. Poe’s chilling story “The Premature Burial” has always been the most all-encompassing work on this theme, but it was also a central focus in Dickens’ Bleak House, where Mrs. Snagsby’s violent spasms morph into this dreaded condition; in George Eliot’s Silas Marner, where the titular character frequently endures cataleptic fits and seizures and in Emile Zola’s “La Morte d’Olivier Becaille” where the central protagonist is buried alive. Other stories by Alexandre Dumas and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have showcased it, while it’s been re-current in Poe’s other works like “The Fall of the House Of Usher,” where Madeline Usher is entombed alive by her unstable brother Roderick, and in the lesser known “Berenice.” Film directors have been no less fascinated with the fearful malady and it’s various narrative possibilities and perversions. In the latter category is George Sluizer’s horrifying The Vanishing, a depiction of a depraved sociopath whose modus operandi is to chloroform his victims and then bury them, and imagine their reactions when they realize they are under the ground nearing suffocation. A more traditional visualization of the condition appears in Val Lewton’s Isle of the Dead, one of the later entries in his classic 1940’s horror series for RKO, where a cataleptic woman played by Katherine Emery is entombed on a Greek island during a plague amidst some shuddery atmospheric trappings. In that film’s most striking sequence a camera moves in on Emery’s face to show us what everybody else in the cast has missed – the quiver of her nostrils. Then there was the popular television series Dark Shadows, which featured Elizabeth Collins Stoddard (Joan Bennett) guarding against the unthinkable with some precautionary measures. Jan Svankmajer’s 2005 surrealist and visceral film Lunacy is also based on the subject. In any event Poe himself wrote: To be buried while alive is, beyond question, the most terrific of these extremes which has ever fallen to the lot of mere mortality.
Such insurance policies are a central concern in a second season episode of Thriller, a creepily effective show that retains the name of the Poe Story, though like the Roger Corman film version that followed it, only used the idea to forge a different narrative path. Corman’s film offers up splendid atmosphere, but the script is one-note and underdeveloped. Guy Carrell’s incipient madness poorly defined, and his personality swings are unconvincing. Ray Milland is a great actor, but he’s no worthy substitute for Vincent Price in a role that begs for flamboyant theatrics, and as a result the character comes off as a manic depressive. The idea of living in a custom crypt to avert the unconscionable terror that would follow a premature entombment is given an interesting transcription in Thriller’s “The Premature Burial,” which released only months before Corman’s theatrical version. The teleplay, written by William D. Gordon, from a story by the show’s director Douglas Heyes, like the Corman version is loosely based on Poe, with the adoption of the names of most of the central characters (Edward Stapleton, Victoria Lafourcade and Julie Bossuet) the physical descriptions of the vault, coffin and escape mechanisms, and the restorative use of the the device -a galvanic battery- that “awakens” victims overtaken by the condition.
The story opens at the funeral of Edward Stapleton (Sidney Blackmer) on a rainy day. The pictorial elegance of the scene is striking, with Bud Thackeray’s razor sharp monochrome perfectly complementing the sublimely somber string-laden music of Morton Stevens. First seen is the lovely Victorine (Patricia Medina) who is soon revealed as the past object of Stapleton’s romantic interests. Holding wide umbrellas that shield them from an overstated downpour (this was the object of some ridicule in the generally engaging commentary on the episode in the Thriller set) are Dr. Thorne (Boris Karloff) and his assistant Dr. March (William Gordon, the screenwriter). The former has serious doubts about his “friend’s” demise, since there was no sign of serious health issues, and that when he saw him last, Stapleton was in very good health. After the service, the camera slowly zooms into the coffin, which begins to rock till it falls, and a hand emerges. Karloff then appears as the host intoning the Poe passage copied above, and then introducing the main characters a la William Castle’s House on Haunted Hill ‘s handgun distribution by having their faces superimposed in coffins.
Thorne and March return to the vault to inspect the body, and to subsequently employ the aforementioned galvanic battery in the hope of resuscitating Stapleton. The procedure works and the patient awakens looking like a man engulfed with unspeakable terror. After a few steps he collapses but is again revived in short order. Thorne relates the past happenings as a result of being mired in a cataleptic trance, and Stapleton answers with the chilling admission that he has been conscious from the time them pronounced his dead all the way through his interment in the vault. Thorne laments with knowing cognizance of the incomparable horror informing such a fearful event to which Edward loudly wails out: “Put the knife in my heart! Don’t let this happen again! Help me to die!”
The theme of adultery -a favorite for Thriller screenwriters- is again at the center of this episodes’s narrative structure, with the ravishing Victorine seen as the lover of Scott Marlowe’s Julien Boucher, a destitute artist who is set on Stapleton’s fortune, and whom encourages a measure of foul play to attain it. After Thorne tells Victorine that Edward is alive, but will forever be haunted by the thought another unutterable episode, she makes public her decision to marry him, though her intentions seem clear enough for all to figure. After the marriage Edward convinces a reluctant Victorine to accompany him to the vault, where he has devised a seemingly infallible safeguard against another medical oversight that could conceivably occur far from his home base. In a scene that is ominously macabre Stapleton tells Victorine that a cord is to be wrapped around his fingers to enable him to yank the bell on the vault in case he is again incarcerated. Despite Thorn’s implicit warnings to Victorine that Edward is not to be encouraged to engage in physical activities like hunting -as this will contribute to another seizure- she encourages him during a vacation, and Edward collapses. She then treacherously removes a necklace and a bracelet that were given to him by Dr. Thorne, both of which advise any attendants to his person not to bury him, and hides then under a nearby rock. Again, shed of his protection Edward appears dead and is buried under the ground in the film’s most unforgettable sequence, a eerie “corpse eye’s view” shot that is unabashedly indebted to Carl Theodore Dreyer’s masterwork Vampyr, where the glass panel on the front of the coffin turns to darkness after several gravediggers throw dirt to cover the small ray of light. Like Dreyer’s film it visualizes the psychological state of the person in the coffin, in this case a recurrence of a dreaded scenario.
Upon her return to the Stapleton estate, Victorine is soon told by Dr. Thorne -who by now is certain of her guilt- that the two items of jewelry were missing from Edward’s person. Victorine denies the suggestions that she was involved with a fit of defiance, but Thorne announces the bombshell news that Edward’s body is to be transferred from his faraway plot to the vault again, with all Edward’s precautionary specifications in place. When Victorine protests, Thorne tells her that the will clearly stipulates that Edward’s fortune will go to his cousins if his final wishes are not strictly adhered to. Uneasily Victorine signs the papers that will grant clearance for the exhumation, and later in the evening the hair-raising happenings commence, while Victorine is with Julien. The bell begins to toll and a ghost-like figure in a white shroud is then seen leaving the vault and encircling the house during a wind-swept night. Victorime becomes unnerved and her sanity begins to break down, even while Julien authoritatively tells her that Edward has been under the ground for six weeks – “a time that’s enough to kill anyone,” – and correctly figures out that this is an attempt by Thorn to have both come clean. Victorine further becomes unhinged after finding Edward’s necklace on her bed, and after Thorn arrives she acknowledges that Edward is really alive in progressing dementia. The visage of Edward (really Dr. March wearing Stapleton’s death mask) is finally convincing enough to elicit a confession from Julien, and a Norma Desmond-styled plea from Victorine to return the necklace to Edward.
Admittedly the easily enough telegraphed ending that unveils the plot to trap the schemers detracts a bit from this atmospheric tale of coffins, burial plots, and resurrection detracts from the mood so well sustained for nearly all it’s running time, “The Premature Burial” is superior Thriller, one that’s simultaneously suspenseful and generous in horrific images. Sidney Blackmer, who is best known for his role as the over solicitous neighbor in Rosemary’s Baby, did very fine work as a presidential candidate in Outer Limits’ “The Hundred Days of the Dragon” gives his role aristocratic theatrical heft, while Patricia Medina, cool and calculating does a great job descending into madness. This is actually Medina’s second appearance on the show (the first was in the excellent “The Devil’s Ticket”) and it’s the second time she played a woman having an illicit relationship with an aspiring artist. Karloff never succumbs to comedy, and that works well for what is probably on balance his second-best performance as an actor in the series behind his Konrad Markeson in “The Incredible Doktor Markeson.” It’s the kind of role that the great Hammer star Peter Cushing could have done in his sleep, but Karloff’s charismatic touches are always welcome. Of less consequence are William Gordon and Scott Marlowe, both of whom are no better or no worse than any other actor that may have been given the roles.
Heyes went on to direct “The Dead Man” – the fine first episode of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery about ten years later, and found himself again with similar material, but his most notable television work in a prolific career were probably his direction of four classics episodes of The Twilight Zone: “The Eye of the Beholder,” “The After Hours,” “The Invaders” and “The Howling Man” and one of Thriller’s greatest shows, “The Hungry Glass.” Despite the letdown at the end, “The Premature Burial” is Thriller at it’s best, and a prime example why the show’s appeal has stayed the course over nearly six decades.