Having now watched The Premature Burial I can say that I’ve seen the whole of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe cycle. This one is interesting because Corman had originally intended not to make it for AIP, and since Vincent Price was under contract to API he had to find a new star (ironically the movie ended up being made for AIP anyway). Corman’s replacement for Price was Ray Milland, and he proved to be an exceptionally good choice.
Milland plays Guy Carrell, a man convinced that his father, who suffered from catalepsy, as accidentally buried alive. He is tortured by the sounds of his father screaming as he lay trapped in his coffin. As a result, Guy is obsessed by the fear of premature burial. His marriage to the beautiful Emily (Hazel Court) does little to lessen his obsession. He even builds himself an elaborate crypt full of ingenious escape devices so that if he is buried alive he will be able to break free of the tomb.
It seems that nothing anyone can do has the power to distract him from his fears. His sister is certain that their father was not in fact buried alive, that it was only Guy’s imagination, and in any case there is no evidence that Guy has inherited his father’s propensity to catalepsy. None of this is of any avail. His fear dominates his every waking thought, and his dreams as well.
Corman’s Poe films varied quite a bit in tone, from the more serious and very doom-laden efforts (such as the brilliant Masque of the Red Death) to the black comedy of The Raven and Tales of Terror. The Premature Burial is definitely one of the darker entries in the cycle, and Ray Milland contributes considerably to its success. There is not a trace of camp in his acting in this movie, and his fear is frighteningly real and communicates itself to the viewer very effectively. I’m not suggesting that Vincent Price couldn’t have pulled it off (he was a more versatile actor than he’s usually given credit for) but I honestly don’t think anyone could have bettered Milland’s performance.
Hazel Court (who appeared in no less than three of the Corman Poe movies) is extremely good indeed as his wife. She approaches her task with the same seriousness as does Milland.
Corman had assembled a talented production team for these movies, and like Hammer’s movies of the same vintage they look more expensive than they were. Until The Tomb of Ligeia they were very studio-bound, but Corman and cinematographer Floyd Crosby make a virtue out of this necessity and it adds the right touch of claustrophobia. That claustrophobic feel is especially suited to The Premature Burial. The dream sequences are an object lesson in achieving good effects that work without spending a fortune.
The Region 4 DVD includes only one worthwhile extra, a brief but entertaining interview with Corman. It’s a nice transfer though.
I’m a huge fan of these Poe films and this is a particularly good one. A must for any serious gothic horror fan.