“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.”