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Mind Games
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I Bury the Living

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 fiancée, 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).

by David Kalat



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