Saturday, 4 April 2015

I Bury the Living (1958)

I Bury the Living is an odd moody little horror movie that manages to deliver a few genuine surprises.

Robert Kraft (Richard Boone) is a man who, rather reluctantly, finds himself in charge of a cemetery. The Kraft family is old money and they have varied business interests. Robert has been managing their department store but if you’re a member of the Kraft family part of the deal is that you have to take your turn as chairman of the trust that runs the cemetery.

The cemetery’s caretaker is a Scotsman of advanced years, Andy McKee (Theodore Bikel). Robert Kraft figures he’ll do the old boy a favour by pensioning him off on very generous terms. McKee seems less than enthusiastic, having served as caretaker for forty years.

Managing the cemetery is made easier by a large map in the office. All the plots are laid out on the map. The plots that have been bought and paid for but are not yet occupied are marked by white pins while those in which the deceased have already been interred are indicated by black pins. Things first start getting strange when Robert accidentally marks the plots bought by his friend Stu Drexel and his wife with black rather than white pins. The next day the young couple are dead, killed in an auto accident. This is slightly creepy but of course it can only be a macabre coincidence. Nothing to worry about. Then it happens again - a living person’s plot is marked on the map by a black pin and that person dies within 24 hours, apparently of natural causes.

Robert is now quite freaked out. He even contacts the police. Detective Lieutenant Clayborne (Robert Osterloh), a thoroughly professional and fairly sympathetic cop, assures Kraft that this really is just another coincidence. Clayborne is too experienced a cop merely to dismiss the story out of hand. He conducts a thorough investigation but there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that there has been foul play.

Robert Kraft’s nightmare is not over yet. He is persuaded to mark some other plots with black pins, on the assumption that when nothing happens he will realise that he’s been letting his imagination run away with him. But of course something does happen. Now Robert Kraft is genuinely frightened and he feels that his grip on sanity is starting to loosen. His sanity will have to endure even more shocks.

The premise of the film is original and clever. It relies very much on atmosphere and on keeping things as mysterious as possible for as long as possible. Right up to the end the audience has no way of knowing what is really going on. It could be something supernatural but then it could also be a very clever conspiracy. Or it could be the work of a madman. Keeping the explanation in doubt enhances the film’s creepiness considerably. This movie also uses the very effective technique of avoiding any overt horror until the end - the suggestion of horror is always more terrifying than what we actually see.

Whether the payoff at the end will satisfy all viewers is a moot point. I think it works pretty well.

Frederick Gately’s black-and-white cinematography creates the right atmosphere and does it subtly. Director Albert Band maintains the suspense. There are a few cheap but very effective special effects. The map itself is central to the movie and starts to look more and more surreal as the movie progresses.

The acting, considering that this is very much a B-movie, is rather good. Richard Boone does particularly well, resisting the temptation to give a typical horror movie performance. as a result the movie becomes a fascinating psychological study as Kraft’s mind slowly but surely looses its grip. Even more surprising is that the supporting players are very good as well - Theodore Bikel as the caretaker is nicely low-key with just a touch of creepiness.

This is one of four very entertaining low-budget horror flicks included in Shout! Factory’s Timeless Horror - Movies 4 You boxed set. The transfer is exceptionally good.

I Bury the Living is a really rather nifty little horror gem, and by B-movie standards a very well-crafted one. Highly recommended.

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