Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Dirt Nap

Films: Premature Burial
Format: Streaming video from Tubi TV on Fire!

Whatever you might want to say about Roger Corman, there are a lot of positives. He had an amazing eye for talent based on the careers that the man started. His movies, as cheesy as they are in a lot of case, tended to make good money. And, one day he had the astonishing idea that he wanted to adapt a bunch of Edgar Allen Poe stories as films. A lot of his best movies are based on Poe stories. “Based on” is going to be the operative phrase here, since Premature Burial takes some liberties with Poe’s original work.

We’re introduced to Guy Carrell (Ray Milland), an aristocrat who is also trained as a doctor. Guy is paralyzed (no pun intended) by a fear of being buried alive because, he claims, he suffers from a cataleptic disease that causes him to fall into a trance that can be mistaken for death. This fear is brought out during a grave robbing episode where the corpse uncovered was, in fact, clearly buried alive. Guy’s fear is so crippling that it endangers his pending marriage to Emily (Hazel Court). To demonstrate just where his fear came from, Guy takes Emily to the family crypt and tells her that when his father died, he heard him screaming in the crypt, having been locked in.

What’s going to follow is that Guy is going to go steadily more and more crazy. His sister Kate (Heather Angel) is only too happy to tell everyone that his story about their father isn’t true. It doesn’t help that everything seems to set Guy off. The song that Emily plays on the piano after their wedding makes him faint. He imagines the presence of the two gravediggers (John Dierkes and Dick Miller) when no one else appears to be able to hear them. Colleague Miles Archer (Richard Ney) becomes increasingly concerned about his friend, while Emily’s father, Dr. Gideon Gault (Alan Napier) seems to have nothing but contempt for his son-in-law.

Eventually, Guy’s madness becomes so extreme that he devises a tomb for himself that comes with a coffin he can escape easily, multiple doors that will open from the inside, a bell to alert others for help, food and wine, and assuming all of his devices don’t work, poison to actually kill himself. He becomes so obsessed with this tomb that Emily threatens to leave him unless he destroys it. And, not wanting to lose her, he does. And, naturally, that’s when things are going to get bonkers.

Look, this is a film called Premature Burial based on a Poe story about a guy whose greatest fear is being buried alive. You know he’s going to get buried alive, right? This isn’t a spoiler.

Something I could have said about Roger Corman at the top regarding his talents is that he managed to get a lot good actors to work with him. Alan Napier is fun, especially since he is best known as Alfred Pennyworth for the Adam West-era Bat-Man television show. Hazel Court has a long list of Hammer horror films on her resume. But Ray Milland is the prize here, a man who, a decade and a half earlier, had won an Oscar. Admittedly, Milland’s later career saw him in some pretty ridiculous stuff, so working with Corman here was part of a slide from respectability into kitsch, but it’s nowhere near the bottom of the slide (which might be Frogs or his appearance on The Love Boat).

Premature Burial is a slip of a movie, clocking in at a spare 81 minutes, and I don’t really know what more could be added to it to pad it out without making it obvious. It feels in a way like the start of the last gasp of the classic Gothic horror, although that went on for another decade or more. It’s a sort of sanitized horror, though. It’s bloodless and, for lack of a better way to put it, safe. It’s carnival funhouse scary, the kind of scary where you walk away at the end thinking it was fun.

The best part of this, honestly, is the last fifteen minutes. It takes a very strange and entertaining turn that I don’t want to spoil. Suffice to say that for as florid and weird as this is in places, the third act pays for the entire thing.

Why to watch Premature Burial: It’s Poe, but crazier.
Why not to watch: It’s not that crazy.


  1. This sounds fascinating as I do have a lot of respect for Roger Corman though I wish I could watch TUBI on my big TVs in my own account.

    1. This one is slow at first, although there are some moments in it that feel drug-inspired and possibly influenced The Trip from a few years after this one.

      The third act of this is pretty great, though. It's worth the slow parts to get to the end.

  2. This isn't one of my favored Corman Poe adaptations but I can't say it wasn't fun in a warped, cheapskate sort of way.

    I agree that one of the great strengths of Corman movies of this period was his ability to catch stars who might have been on the downward slop of their careers (or promising ones starting out) but still able to give good, professional performances. The films might not have required great acting but those pros give the movies a veneer of class that a lot of the scare junk that followed, peopled with actors who often couldn't put two words together convincingly never managed.

    While Frogs is dreadful I can't say that it's the bottom of the barrel for Ray Milland though it's close. I'd say his worst is the atrocity that is The Thing with Two Heads.

    I read an interview with him given during the later part of his career where he said he liked to work and to continue to do so he had to adjust his expectations and accept that not only was he not going to be carrying films but the quality might not always be there. He did have a period in the early 70's where most everything he appeared in was trash but he soldiered on and eventually he did more of a balance of decent TV along with a still fair share of low budget movie garbage.

    1. I cannot believe that I forgot about The Thing with Two Heads. I accept the correction gratefully. I have to wonder if that fall is as big as Joan Crawford headlining Trog.

      For as trashy as some of his movies turned out to be, Corman had a real talent both as a director and a producer. It's hard not to respect him. With his Poe adaptations, I appreciate that he happily went off script so often. He kind of had to, to be fair. So many of Poe's stories are a couple of pages long that a film adaptation would be almost impossible without a lot of license.