❉ We revisit Ray Milland’s cult triptych: ‘Premature Burial’, ‘X-Ray: the Man With the X-Ray Eyes’,and ‘Panic in the Year Zero’.
Few filmmakers can claim to have had a career as long, as varied or as prolific as Roger Corman. His first film – both as producer and actor – was 1954’s Monster from the Ocean Floor, a quickly turned out cash-in on the success of that year’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, and his directorial debut, Swamp Women, was released the following year.
He went on to produce countless low-budget genre films over the next six decades (his most recent credit – albeit as executive producer – was 2013’s Death Race 3), and in the 1960s and ’70s he gave several major directors their first forays into the industry. Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and Jonathan Demme (to name just four) all began their careers in the so-called “Corman School”, in return giving their former mentor cameo appearances in movies such as Apollo 13, The Godfather Part II and The Silence of the Lambs.
Corman’s most enduring legacy as a director, however, is the series of eight films he made based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, beginning with 1960’s House of Usher and ending with 1965’s The Tomb of Ligeia. These (often very loose) adaptations were made to capitalise on the recent success of Hammer’s The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and The Horror of Dracula (1958), both of which had been surprise hits with American audiences. There was a taste for full colour gothic horror, and in Edgar Allan Poe Corman found the perfect home-grown tales of terror to film.
While the first two entries in his “Poe Cycle” (House of Usher and The Pit and the Pendulum) starred genre stalwart Vincent Price, contractual issues forced him to look elsewhere when casting for 1962’s The Premature Burial, and thus marked the first of two successful collaborations with Welsh actor Ray Milland.
Poe’s original story, published in 1844, is less a straightforward work of fiction and more a catalogue of obsession, its unnamed narrator listing the various incidents in which men and women have been buried alive. As with many of his other Poe adaptations, Corman uses this as the springboard for a gothic shaggy dog story, with Milland’s Guy Carrell driven to extreme ends to conquer his fear of premature burial.
The theme is a common feature of Poe’s works – there was a considerable overlap between the author’s phobias and those of his characters – and crops up in The Fall of the House of Usher, The Cask of Amontillado and Berenice. This obsession with… well… obsession is what marks Poe’s work apart from that of such near-enough contemporaries as Mary Shelley or Charles Maturin. While their novels feature obsessed protagonists, few writers of the age plunged themselves headfirst into their characters’ psychopathologies as wholeheartedly as Poe.
Fittingly, Corman’s Premature Burial is a far more expressionistic work than its Hammer forebears. Milland’s Guy features in practically every scene, sharing his obsession with us completely, so that we see and hear only what he can see and hear. Early on in the film, when he tries explaining his fears to his fiancée Kate (Heather Angel), Guy takes her down into the family crypt (as you do). There, leading her along a narrow, bat-infested corridor, he asks, “Are you alright? Do you want to go back?” The question could very well be intended for the audience, because the crypt (where Guy claims his own father was buried alive) is as much a psychological space as a physical one, and in taking us down there, Guy is inviting us to share his madness.
A lurid, green-tinged nightmare sequence, a stylised set and Ronald Stein’s oppressive score (using ominous variations on the folk tune ‘Molly Malone’) further heighten the film’s sense of claustrophobia, and Milland’s performance, a tight rope walk between bathos and the macabre, gives it an emotional core. When Guy builds his own crypt, kitting it out with a series of ingenious means of escape, we can appreciate his logic, and the whole sequence is underpinned by a certain dark comedy.
There is an undeniable – and thoroughly enjoyable – vein of camp running through The Premature Burial. Milland never knowingly underplays Guy’s ghoulish melancholy, Corman gets more than his money’s worth out of his smoke machine, and several scenes appear to have been written, directed and performed with tongue nearing – if not fully in – cheek. The scene in which Guy and Kate tie the knot, hardly the cheeriest of big screen weddings, is punctuated by a few well-timed cracks of thunder, and Guy’s guided tour of his state-of-the-art mausoleum is wonderfully over-the-top.
Corman was – and remains – an expert at working on a shoestring budget, making the most of whatever limitations were placed on him. Props, costumes and sets were borrowed from other, more expensive pictures and location shooting was rare (or, in the case of Premature Burial, non-existent). While a foggy soundstage cemetery might date any other movie, here it pays dividends, further enhancing the idea that we are wandering around the dark recesses of Guy’s tormented mind.
The Premature Burial may lack the stylistic visual flare we see in some of the later movies (The Masque of the Red Death, its cinematographer a very young Nicholas Roeg, is a particular stand-out), but it remains an engaging gothic melodrama, and after a fairly slow build-up, its last act sees the film become a Grand Guignol revenge tragedy. It may not enjoy quite as much cultural cache as the films Corman made with Vincent Price, but if we look hard enough we can still find echoes of its influences and obsessions in films such as Buried (2010), Take Shelter (2011) and Corman School alumnus Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010).
The theme of being buried alive would crop up again in the next instalment of Corman’s ‘Poe Cycle’, the portmanteau movie Tales of Terror, and Corman and Milland would work together once more on 1963’s sci-fi cult classic, X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes.
❉ David Llewellyn is a novelist (Eleven, Ibrahim & Reeni) and script writer (Dorian Gray, Torchwood, Doctor Who).