The Chills: Alive, Alive-O!

“Can you possibly conceive it? The unendurable oppression of the lungs, the stifling fumes of the earth, the rigid embrace of the coffin, the blackness of absolute night and the silence, like an overwhelming sea…”

The Chills — that sensation you feel is merely your skin trying to crawl off your body and get to safety!

THE PREMATURE BURIAL, scripted by Charles “Twilight Zone” Beaumont, loosely inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, directed by Roger Corman. The muted palette of Daniel Haller’s design and Floyd Crosby’s photography create cheap poetry in a little studio — it more than stands up to the big-budget homages of Tim Burton.

The nice thing about Roger is you can generally tell what he’s been looking at. BLACK NARCISSUS and THE RED SHOES lurked somewhere in his thoughts as he helmed HOUSE OF USHER and MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH — the late Hazel Court even runs en pointe during her hallucination scene in the latter film, a closeup of feet mimicking a specific shot from Powell & Pressburger’s balletomane melodrama.

Here, Dreyer’s VAMPYR plays a big part, the drooping damp fogginess of the sets, and the little window in Ray Milland’s coffin tipping Corman’s hand. But a surprisingly big influence is Murnau’s SUNRISE. What’s great about the Poe adaptations is how they aim at entertaining drive-in audiences but they’re defiantly literary and cinephile in their approach.

In scene one, quoted above, Murnau’s DOUBLE MOON appears. Every surviving Murnau film features the moon, as Bill Krohn and David Ehrenstein point out in their FAUST audio commentary, and one striking scene in SUNRISE features two moons in one shot — as our hero advances into the swamp, a little moon illuminates his way from up ahead, but when he arrives at his destination, after several complicated turns, a bigger moon awaits him. The power of studio stylisation and the long take.

Faint outline of moon around Ray’s face — trust me, it’s there!

Now you see it!

Corman’s modest equivalent is in scene one, where Ray stands before a low moon that skims the horizon, and glances up at his father-in-law, Alfred the butler from Batman, who stands before ANOTHER, higher moon. And why the hell shouldn’t he?

Later in PREMATURE B, the camera follows Ray Milland through the drizzling, grey, dry-icy woods that surround his home, and the effect is reminiscent of that same SUNRISE shot, only Corman can’t sustain such a prolonged movement, lacking a ceiling track to pull it off with, and probably having only a few trees to track past — one gets the sensation that the illimitable black forest of the film is probably very small and endlessly rearranged between shots. But it’s no less beautiful for that.

The clincher comes during the inevitable TINTED HALLUCINATION. These sequences occur in virtually every Corman Poe (I seem to recall they play a big part in THE TRIP too). Corman goes mental with the optical printer and smears poor Ray Milland with green and purple mist, as he blunders about trying to escape from his coffin — and each time Ray screams, the music takes the place of his voice, a desolate horn sounding in synch with the aging matinee idol’s lip movements. In SUNRISE I think it’s an oboe, as the hero calls out to his missing wife from a boat… one of those unforgettable chills-making moments, actually. One I should feature here.

PREMATURE BURIAL deserves its mention not only because Hazel Court is terrific in it, and bravely submits to being completely covered with earth at one point, but because it achieves maybe the best atmospherics of any Corman film. The inspired choice of Molly Malone, whistled by the sinister grave-robbers Sweeney and Mole (the latter played by perennial favourite Dick Miller, competing with his partner for History’s Worst Irish Accent) creates a real frisson — Fiona reports lying abed in terror after viewing this in childhood, the tune echoing around the recesses of her barely-formed infant head.

“Infant? I was twelve!”

“Well, I had to put a word in there or it would sound like I was saying your head IS barely formed.”

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8 Responses to “The Chills: Alive, Alive-O!”

  1. And he don’t know it. But yes, the Poe films are where he found his finest expression as a filmmaker. Somehow it rarely carried over into his other work.

    His book, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, is one I regularly recommend to students. Although even the title is several kinds of lie!

  2. Corman began as a film director but became a mini-mogul of note, his New World Pictures producting such classics as Caged Heat, Pirhanna and Hollywood Boulevard

    He briefly returned to the director’s chair to make Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound — which poroved he hadn’t lost his touch. (Great as a double feature with Fuest’s The Final Programme)

    More recently he popped up as himself in Joe Dante’s sublime Looney Tunes: Back in Action.

  3. I always enjoy Corman as an actor. Wasn’t crazy about Philadelphia but loved him in it.

    Not so keen on Frankenstein Unbound but it does have the best ever mad scientists line: “Pull all remaining levers!”

  4. I’ll also say good things about Corman’s “It Conquered The World” — unfortunate monster notwithstanding — and “X The Man With X-Ray Eyes.”

    One of my favorite Beverly Garland moments is in the former, when she grabs a microphone and tells the alien “You may be an all-powerful monster in a cave, but he’s my man — AND YOU CAN’T HAVE HIM!” (Or words to that effect.)

    Beverly Garland and Lee Van Cleef — one of cinema’s great married couples.

  5. Indeed.

    Monsters from Outer Space knew there was no way they could mess with Beverly Garland.

    As for Lee Van Cleef, he and Earl Holliman are still my all-time fave gay movie couple in The Big Combo.

  6. Haven’t seen X for a while, but loved it. Really nice mix of camp and genuine dread.
    The Intruder, one of Corman’s few flops, is terrific stuff. Gas! is my favourite of the “youth” pictures, and A Bucket of Blood is hufely enjoyable, more so than Little Shop of Horrors, I think. Has anybody seen any of his crime films, westerns, etc?

  7. When Corman introduced Beverly Garland to the monster (a squat creature from a high-gravity world) she looked at it with scorn, said “So you’ve come to conquer the world, have you? Well take THAT,” and then just KICKED IT IN THE HEAD.

    She’s interviewed in his book.

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