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I Bury the Living(1958)

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I Bury the Living (1958)

It's the age-old story: boy gets assigned to manage local cemetery. Boy makes careless mistake at job, realizes his office equipment controls forces of Life and Death. Boy watches helplessly as this power decimates his town, destroys his sense of self, kills everyone he knows...

The key to the horror is a map of the cemetery, mounted on the office wall. The plots are marked with pushpins: white indicates a grave has been sold, black indicates that particular grave is currently, you know, occupied.

Bob Kraft (TV star Richard Boone) mistakenly stabs a black pin into a newly purchased plot, only to learn the young couple that bought the burial ground suddenly died as if on cue. But if the black pins can mark someone for Death, what would happen if the black pins were yanked out and replaced with white ones?

Stephen King cites I Bury the Living as one of his favorite horror flicks-and then in the same breath slams its ending, using words I oughtn't repeat here. Not to say the venerable Mr. King is wrong, but... he's wrong.

I Bury the Living was a low-budget thriller sent out to mop up some ready cash off the exploitation circuit in 1958, but its makers held higher ambitions for it than the usual B-movie fare, so this particular gem snagged some serious cult appeal. As it migrated off of hardtop theaters onto TV, it spent the next couple of decades winning fans, and worming its way into the memory of viewers. Eventually the home video age dawned, and I Bury the Living became a staple of bargain-bin public domain videos.

By that point, I Bury the Living had built up a generation's worth of good will and word-of-mouth praise, but was now competing with a different breed of horror movies, ones that traded on gore and shock appeal instead of good old fashioned storytelling. And it is at this point in the history of this film that it started to find some critics: at issue is the movie's ending, and reports that Louis Garfinkle's original script called for something substantially different.

As written, the film was to conclude with Richard Boone cornered in the cemetery office, surrounded by the walking corpses of all of the poor sods he'd unwillingly murdered with the black pins. Why, doesn't that sound like Night of the Living Dead (1968), ten years ahead of time?

Actually, the script does not call for anything like a zombie attack a la George Romero ten years early, and had this sequence been filmed it would instead have been more like a redux of Abel Gance's 1938 classic J'accuse, almost twenty years late. This was to have been a vision of guilt, a shuffling undead monument to Kraft's tortured conscience-like the various "ghosts" conjured up by Fritz Lang in his sundry American film noirs.

As lurid and exploitationist as that title is, I Bury the Living carries a lot of film noir-esque connotation in its declarative structure - think I Wake Up Screaming (1941), They Drive by Night (1940), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), They Won't Believe Me (1947), and so on. Lest that title fool you into thinking this is a flick about hapless souls buried alive, this is actually a psychological thriller about the deteriorating psyche of one man. On the surface, Bob Kraft seems to have it all - he's got money and position, a doting fiance, and plans for a happy future. But toss a few nasty incidents in his path and watch how quickly that sense of confidence is stripped away. By the end of the film, he's a haggard, suspicious wreck who can no longer be shocked by anything: he's seen the worst in everyone, including himself, up close and personal.

In the final tally, it doesn't matter why these terrible deaths occur-whether by supernatural forces or human venality. Notice that Bob's greatest fear isn't so much that he might have a paranormal power over the forces of Life and Death, but that if he has such gifts they have revealed in him a callous, homicidal streak. The mere fact that Bob can believe the worst about himself is enough, and that is the true horror of the story - anything else would be a hollow gimmick. In 1957 and '58, England's Hammer Studios cranked out revamped, sexed-up blood-drenched versions of Frankenstein and Dracula, reviving interest in Gothic chillers. A few years later, Roger Corman would specialize in garishly opulent stagings of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations - rife with unlucky individuals buried alive. Yet when I Bury the Living was made, the key was still in the ignition for that genre. Conventional wisdom still had it that audiences had lost their taste for the cobwebby antics of old school monsters.

Instead, the fantasy films were all over sci-fi. Robots, alien invaders, spaceships - this was where the money was. Indie filmmakers looking for a quick buck could slap a diving helmet on a gorilla suit, call it a Robot Monster and be done with it. The flip side of this coin was that, when movie producers tried to handle supernatural horrors during the same period, the prevailing industry instinct was to ground it in scientific realism, or at least some scientifically convincing sounding mumbo jumbo. Had I Bury the Living fully embraced its supernatural premise, it would have been the rare film of its time to do so.

Just a few years earlier, the French import Diabolique (1955) had made an enormous splash, one of the most popular foreign films ever. Its depiction of what appears to be a supernatural return from the grave, ultimately revealed to be an elaborate criminal hoax, left an indelible mark on thriller-makers. Alfred Hitchcock set to making Psycho (1960) in the Diabolique mold. B-movie maven William Castle practically made a career in the mid-50s with Diabolique-inspired horror quickies.

So, when director Albert Band had writer-producer Louis Garfinkle rewrite the climax of I Bury the Living to affix a real-world explanation for the events of the film, it was not a "cop-out" but a response to audience expectations and market pressure: given a plausible, "realistic" ending, the film would be potentially more profitable, more popular.

Nonetheless, the distributors put together a campaign of textbook ballyhoo, promising any number of shocks, scares, and willies unlike the actual movie in question. The poster: a dead-eyed corpse crawling from its grave, its blood-dripping claw of a hand menacing a cowering blonde, her clingy dress about to lose its battle with her cleavage. The tag line: "Out of a time-rotted tomb crawls an unspeakable horror!"

But the movie itself is a work of atmospheric restraint. Director Band balances the extraordinary cinematic flourishes of the art design, soundtrack, and increasingly experimental editing against the dramatic realism of the characters.

This is the movie's power, not its weakness. Like Bob Kraft himself, we are never quite certain of what is going on, but we have every reason to suspect something impossible, beyond explanation. The movie absolutely depends on this near-uncertainty: because the thought that pushing white and black pins into an ordinary corkboard might actually control the forces of Life and Death is so unreasonable, so absurd, no amount of proof will ever suffice. And so, Bob is stuck in an endless loop, forever repeating the exact same test. Black pins go in, people drop dead, but that doesn't convince anyone (but him) so he has to do it again, and again, and again. He never moves forward, his plan never proceeds past Step 1. It's like a cruel Laurel and Hardy routine, the logic of a joke applied to a nightmare.

One doesn't need this story to end in a gaggle of zombies clustering around a shack like some angry customers wanting their money back - such an image belongs to a different movie, and that's why it isn't in this one. Garfinkle and Band wring enormous symbolic power out of a handful of everyday images: a map, a broken space heater, some pushpins. This is enough to create genuine horror, and that's the magic of this movie.

Producer: Albert Band, Louis Garfinkle
Director: Albert Band
Screenplay: Louis Garfinkle
Cinematography: Frederick Gately
Film Editing: Frank Sullivan
Art Direction: Edward Vorkapich
Music: Gerald Fried
Cast: Richard Boone (Robert Kraft), Theodore Bikel (Andy McKee), Peggy Maurer (Ann Craig), Robert Osterloh (Lt. Clayborne), Herbert Anderson (Jess Jessup), Howard Smith (George Kraft).
BW-76m.

by David Kalat

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I Bury the Living (1958)

Prehysteria! (1993), Prehysteria! 2 (1994), Robot Jox 2 (1993), Ghoulies II (1987), Dracula's Dog (1978)...these are the titles horror fans associate with Albert Band. Add in the ones he produced and you can append the likes of Castle Freak (1995) and Zarkorr! The Invader (1996) to the list. And as a writer, The Red Badge of Courage (1951) for John Huston.

Wait a minute!

Yes, Mr. Albert Band has a schizophrenic addlepated CV, reflecting a catch-all career that spanned six decades, four countries, and more genres than you even knew existed.

The Albert Band Story starts in Paris, where the artist as a young man first got his start in the movies as an editor for the world's first movie studio, Path. By 1940, Band had emigrated to the US to take work in Hollywood as John Huston's assistant, gopher, and punching bag. As Huston's mistreated factotum he helped make The Asphalt Jungle (1950), scripted The Red Badge of Courage, and then graduated to solo director for his debut The Young Guns (this is the 1956 Russ Tamblyn-Gloria Talbott-Myron Healey one, not the 1988 Emilio Estevez-Charlie Sheen-Kiefer Sutherland one).

A few years after making I Bury the Living (1958), Band moved back to Europe: first to Sweden, and then to Italy. There he would specialize in Sword-and-Sandal pictures and Spaghetti Westerns. It is on the set of Hercules vs. the Sea Monster (1965) and The Tramplers (1966) that his kids would grow up. Richard Band would eventually turn his talents to composing film soundtracks, while Charles Band would found Empire and Full Moon Entertainment, producing and directing a popular run of low-budget direct-to-video thrillers. Albert Band would come to work for his son, directing the likes of Dracula's Dog for Charles' company.

Of all these varied experiences, posterity has nominated I Bury the Living as Albert Band's claim to fame. It was written and produced by Louis Garfinkle, who had his moment in the sun as one of several Oscar®-nominated screenwriters on the 1978 The Deer Hunter. His work on I Bury the Living won him no awards, but it displays the sure hand of a talented writer with a gift for authentic dialogue.

Perhaps that "authentic dialogue" would have sounded bizarre or goofy in the mouth of lesser actors, but Garfinkle and Band took pains to cast some talented folks-chief among them, Richard Boone, a craggle-faced middle-aged TV star who was a direct descendant of pioneer hero Daniel Boone. You don't look at that asteroid-like visage and think "movie star," but that's precisely his appeal-the guy seems genuine. Think Dennis Franz or Jerry Orbach-big time TV stars with serious acting chops but no more glamour than a janitor.

From 1954 to 1956 he starred in the grittily realistic hospital drama Medic. Boone's performance as Dr. Konrad Styner was so iconic, he was nearly typecast in doctor roles-if he hadn't gone and been an even bigger star in a completely different kind of role shortly thereafter. As the star of Have Gun Will Travel, Boone played a gentleman sociopath, your friendly neighborhood contract killer, in one of the nation's top rated shows.

In the 1950s, Westerns were the top draw-the equivalent kind of pop cultural phenomenon that reality TV is now. And Have Gun Will Travel was among the most popular TV westerns. So putting Richard Boone in your low-budget horror movie is attention-getting stunt casting along the same lines as putting Paris Hilton in House of Wax (2005)....except Boone could act.

Man could he act. A couple of years later he'd get his own show, The Richard Boone Show, written by the brilliant playwright Clifford Odets, in which CBS basically paid Boone to come in each week and show off what a hotshot thespian he was.

He uses those skills well in I Bury the Living, which is really an 80-minute long study of his character's deteriorating sense of self. His corrugated looks and smoke-ravaged voice are so far off from conventional Hollywood, if you can get past the implausibility of his being engaged to Peggy Maurer (reasonably attractive, unblemished, half his age) you can actually start to believe these disquieting things are really happening.

In an odder casting choice, Theodore Bikel plays Groundskeeper Andy, the allegedly ancient Scots caretaker. We are told Andy has been at his job for over forty years, but Bikel is ten years younger than Boone. And he's no Scot, Bikel's Austrian. But instead of hiring an elderly Scots actor for the role, they put Bikel in "old man" makeup and had him talk in an almost cartoonish Scots brogue. Why? Because like Boone, Bikel was a Grade A actor, and the producers wanted to employ promising talents on the upswing of their careers.

Bikel could turn off his Austrian accent like a faucet, and managed to win an Oscar® for his role as a Southern sheriff in The Defiant Ones (1958). He holds the record for appearances as Fiddler on the Roof's Tevye, and was in the original Broadway cast of The Sound of Music. And he's still at it, as fans of the Star Trek and Babylon 5 franchises can tell you.

Making a spartan office decorated by little more than a corkboard into the setting of a psychological horror story would seem to be a tall order. We're not talking about Dracula's castle or Frankenstein's lab here, but an ordinary sort of space that needs to seem pedestrian and innocent at first, and accumulate darker dimensions as the story progresses. Designer Edward Vorkapich and cinematographer Frederick Gately were more than up to the challenge. Gately had recently lensed The Naked Dawn (1955) for cult movie legend Edgar G. Ulmer, and would go on to photograph such TV faves as Bewitched, The Bionic Woman and Trapper John, M.D. Edward Vorkapich lent his eye for design, special effects, and editorial experimentation to a wide spattering of Hollywood productions, from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) to Dancing Lady (1933) to Joan of Arc (1948). He and Albert Band headed off to Sweden together at the end of this production to reteam on 1959's Face of Fire, which would be Vorkapich's sole cinematographer credit.

Augmenting Vorkapich and Gately's striking comic book-inspired visual design is an equally evocative gothic score by Gerald Fried. A storied Oscar®-nominated composer, Fried's work spans early classics by Stanley Kubrick to TV series such as Gilligan's Island. If you listen to Fried's jarring, insistent orchestrations in I Bury the Living closely, expect to hear hints of the famed "Kirk vs. Spock" fight theme from his later Star Trek work.

These were talented men, brought together for the occasion of a small film. Each of its makers brought their best game, day upon day, to craft a movie whose accomplishments outstripped its ambition. It remains as strong today as ever, one of the treasures to be found when searching in the margins of Hollywood's history.

by David Kalat

SOURCES:
www.1000misspenthours.com
www.horror-wood.com
www.thespinningimage.co.uk
www.50footdvd.com
www.dvdverdict.com
www.cinescape.com
www.museum.tv/archives (The Museum of Broadcast Communications)
en.wikipedia.org
IMDB

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I Bury the Living (1958)

Director Albert Band later went on to serve as executive producer of Disney's Honey I Blew Up the Kid in 1992, while writer Louis Garfinkle went on to pen screenplays for The Doberman Gang (1972, a crime farce starring dogs) and Little Cigars (1973, a crime farce starring midgets).

Star Richard Boone trained as an actor alongside Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Eva Marie Saint and Julie Harris. After more or less retiring from movies, he settled in Honolulu - and had the odd distinction of convincing the makers of Hawaii Five-O to set up production in Honolulu rather than their original spot: San Pedro. One of his very last roles was as the voice of Smaug in the Rankin-Bass animated version of The Hobbit in 1977.

Meanwhile co-star Theodore Bikel was an Austrian-born American folk singer. He co-founded the Newport Folk Festival, along with Pete Seeger and George Wein, in 1961. The following year, he became the first singer to perform a cover version of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind."

When Gerald Fried recorded his score for I Bury the Living (written for harpsichord and orchestra) at Hollywood's Capital Studios, the movie was still called The Killer on the Wall. Distributors at United Artists opted to rename the film with something more exploitable and lurid.

Compiled by David Kalat

SOURCES:
www.1000misspenthours.com
www.horror-wood.com
www.thespinningimage.co.uk
www.50footdvd.com
www.dvdverdict.com
www.cinescape.com
www.museum.tv/archives (The Museum of Broadcast Communications)
en.wikipedia.org
IMDB

back to top
I Bury the Living (1958)

"I Bury the Living is actually a pretty tense little psychological thriller...I Bury the Living is an inexpensive, stark picture, but it succeeds through its dark style and its unbending, relentless pursuit of the oddly imaginative yet simple premise."
Josh Hickman, Film Threat

"Unjustly ignored by many books on the horror film, I Bury the Living is a bone-chilling little mood piece."
Hal Erickson, All Movie Guide

"A simple suspense melodrama with superb supernatural coloring."
Ed Naha, Horrors: From Screen to Scream

"One of the coolest, most imaginative horror films of its decade."
Scott Ashlin, 1000 Misspent Hours

"I Bury the Living has got to have one of the most ingenious, novel premises in the history of horror."
Judge Bill Gibron, DVD Verdict

Compiled by David Kalat

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I Bury the Living (1958)

ANDY: And though a bonny bride should have her thoughts far from doom, it's a lucky girl whose father provides from the beyond for her future.

BOB: Ann, I kept wishing we could keep our appointment.
ANN: "Rendezvous" if you don't mind. Your gray flannel is showing. Actually, do you know what made me turn around and come here instead of going home? Well, I was driving along, feeling rejected and then all of a sudden I saw you very clearly in my mind. Bob, it's just that you're too attractive! After all, president of a department store and in charge of the Immortal Hills-
BOB: Irresistible.
ANN:I saw you, and I heard you. "Lunchtime, Annie," that's what you said, distinctly.
BOB: "Lunchtime, Annie?" Well, I can do better than that I hope.
ANN: Oh you did. You said "I want you and I need you"... and a whole lot of lovely things I'd be embarrassed to repeat.
BOB: Yeah. You know, just about the time you were seeing me, I had you on my mind-
ANN: That's amazing.
BOB: No, I mean it. I don't blame you for not wanting me to repeat what I was thinking.
ANN: Darling, we better go to lunch-or get married!

BOB: I've been through all this before. The grass, and the quiet, and that sound... I never knew what it was. It's the sound of a name being cut into a headstone.

ANN: Bob, if you're talking about Henry Trowbridge, the poor man died of a heart attack. Heart disease is the country's Number 1 killer.
BOB: Maybe not in Milford.

UNCLE GEORGE: Stop looking at the map!
BOB: You're looking at it. I'm looking at you. And we're both waiting - aren't we? Waiting to see if you escape.

Compiled by David Kalat

back to top
teaser I Bury the Living (1958)

It's the age-old story: boy gets assigned to manage local cemetery. Boy makes careless mistake at job, realizes his office equipment controls forces of Life and Death. Boy watches helplessly as this power decimates his town, destroys his sense of self, kills everyone he knows...

The key to the horror is a map of the cemetery, mounted on the office wall. The plots are marked with pushpins: white indicates a grave has been sold, black indicates that particular grave is currently, you know, occupied.

Bob Kraft (TV star Richard Boone) mistakenly stabs a black pin into a newly purchased plot, only to learn the young couple that bought the burial ground suddenly died as if on cue. But if the black pins can mark someone for Death, what would happen if the black pins were yanked out and replaced with white ones?

Stephen King cites I Bury the Living as one of his favorite horror flicks-and then in the same breath slams its ending, using words I oughtn't repeat here. Not to say the venerable Mr. King is wrong, but... he's wrong.

I Bury the Living was a low-budget thriller sent out to mop up some ready cash off the exploitation circuit in 1958, but its makers held higher ambitions for it than the usual B-movie fare, so this particular gem snagged some serious cult appeal. As it migrated off of hardtop theaters onto TV, it spent the next couple of decades winning fans, and worming its way into the memory of viewers. Eventually the home video age dawned, and I Bury the Living became a staple of bargain-bin public domain videos.

By that point, I Bury the Living had built up a generation's worth of good will and word-of-mouth praise, but was now competing with a different breed of horror movies, ones that traded on gore and shock appeal instead of good old fashioned storytelling. And it is at this point in the history of this film that it started to find some critics: at issue is the movie's ending, and reports that Louis Garfinkle's original script called for something substantially different.

As written, the film was to conclude with Richard Boone cornered in the cemetery office, surrounded by the walking corpses of all of the poor sods he'd unwillingly murdered with the black pins. Why, doesn't that sound like Night of the Living Dead (1968), ten years ahead of time?

Actually, the script does not call for anything like a zombie attack a la George Romero ten years early, and had this sequence been filmed it would instead have been more like a redux of Abel Gance's 1938 classic J'accuse, almost twenty years late. This was to have been a vision of guilt, a shuffling undead monument to Kraft's tortured conscience-like the various "ghosts" conjured up by Fritz Lang in his sundry American film noirs.

As lurid and exploitationist as that title is, I Bury the Living carries a lot of film noir-esque connotation in its declarative structure - think I Wake Up Screaming (1941), They Drive by Night (1940), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), They Won't Believe Me (1947), and so on. Lest that title fool you into thinking this is a flick about hapless souls buried alive, this is actually a psychological thriller about the deteriorating psyche of one man. On the surface, Bob Kraft seems to have it all - he's got money and position, a doting fiance, and plans for a happy future. But toss a few nasty incidents in his path and watch how quickly that sense of confidence is stripped away. By the end of the film, he's a haggard, suspicious wreck who can no longer be shocked by anything: he's seen the worst in everyone, including himself, up close and personal.

In the final tally, it doesn't matter why these terrible deaths occur-whether by supernatural forces or human venality. Notice that Bob's greatest fear isn't so much that he might have a paranormal power over the forces of Life and Death, but that if he has such gifts they have revealed in him a callous, homicidal streak. The mere fact that Bob can believe the worst about himself is enough, and that is the true horror of the story - anything else would be a hollow gimmick. In 1957 and '58, England's Hammer Studios cranked out revamped, sexed-up blood-drenched versions of Frankenstein and Dracula, reviving interest in Gothic chillers. A few years later, Roger Corman would specialize in garishly opulent stagings of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations - rife with unlucky individuals buried alive. Yet when I Bury the Living was made, the key was still in the ignition for that genre. Conventional wisdom still had it that audiences had lost their taste for the cobwebby antics of old school monsters.

Instead, the fantasy films were all over sci-fi. Robots, alien invaders, spaceships - this was where the money was. Indie filmmakers looking for a quick buck could slap a diving helmet on a gorilla suit, call it a Robot Monster and be done with it. The flip side of this coin was that, when movie producers tried to handle supernatural horrors during the same period, the prevailing industry instinct was to ground it in scientific realism, or at least some scientifically convincing sounding mumbo jumbo. Had I Bury the Living fully embraced its supernatural premise, it would have been the rare film of its time to do so.

Just a few years earlier, the French import Diabolique (1955) had made an enormous splash, one of the most popular foreign films ever. Its depiction of what appears to be a supernatural return from the grave, ultimately revealed to be an elaborate criminal hoax, left an indelible mark on thriller-makers. Alfred Hitchcock set to making Psycho (1960) in the Diabolique mold. B-movie maven William Castle practically made a career in the mid-50s with Diabolique-inspired horror quickies.

So, when director Albert Band had writer-producer Louis Garfinkle rewrite the climax of I Bury the Living to affix a real-world explanation for the events of the film, it was not a "cop-out" but a response to audience expectations and market pressure: given a plausible, "realistic" ending, the film would be potentially more profitable, more popular.

Nonetheless, the distributors put together a campaign of textbook ballyhoo, promising any number of shocks, scares, and willies unlike the actual movie in question. The poster: a dead-eyed corpse crawling from its grave, its blood-dripping claw of a hand menacing a cowering blonde, her clingy dress about to lose its battle with her cleavage. The tag line: "Out of a time-rotted tomb crawls an unspeakable horror!"

But the movie itself is a work of atmospheric restraint. Director Band balances the extraordinary cinematic flourishes of the art design, soundtrack, and increasingly experimental editing against the dramatic realism of the characters.

This is the movie's power, not its weakness. Like Bob Kraft himself, we are never quite certain of what is going on, but we have every reason to suspect something impossible, beyond explanation. The movie absolutely depends on this near-uncertainty: because the thought that pushing white and black pins into an ordinary corkboard might actually control the forces of Life and Death is so unreasonable, so absurd, no amount of proof will ever suffice. And so, Bob is stuck in an endless loop, forever repeating the exact same test. Black pins go in, people drop dead, but that doesn't convince anyone (but him) so he has to do it again, and again, and again. He never moves forward, his plan never proceeds past Step 1. It's like a cruel Laurel and Hardy routine, the logic of a joke applied to a nightmare.

One doesn't need this story to end in a gaggle of zombies clustering around a shack like some angry customers wanting their money back - such an image belongs to a different movie, and that's why it isn't in this one. Garfinkle and Band wring enormous symbolic power out of a handful of everyday images: a map, a broken space heater, some pushpins. This is enough to create genuine horror, and that's the magic of this movie.

Producer: Albert Band, Louis Garfinkle
Director: Albert Band
Screenplay: Louis Garfinkle
Cinematography: Frederick Gately
Film Editing: Frank Sullivan
Art Direction: Edward Vorkapich
Music: Gerald Fried
Cast: Richard Boone (Robert Kraft), Theodore Bikel (Andy McKee), Peggy Maurer (Ann Craig), Robert Osterloh (Lt. Clayborne), Herbert Anderson (Jess Jessup), Howard Smith (George Kraft).
BW-76m.

by David Kalat

back to top