FINAL GIRL explores the slasher flicks of the '70s and '80s...and all the other horror movies I feel like talking about, too. This is life on the EDGE, so beware yon spoilers!

Mar 14, 2024

Chilling Classics Cthursday: I BURY THE LIVING (1958)

Here we are, ten weeks into this Chilling Classics thang and I have to say, it's been a worthy endeavor so far. In a box crammed full of 50 movies there has to be some gems, right? It's just statistics! And it's been proven a few times over already, by the forever esteem├Ęd Cathy's Curse, by another movie whose number will be chosen by RNGesus at some point, and by today's lit and legit treasure of a film, I Bury the Living.

If you don't believe me, well, surely you believe one Mr. Stephen King, who hailed I Bury the Living in Danse Macabre, his 1981 foray into the realm of non-fiction. Reading about horror movies--or really, reading about movies in general--has always been as vital to me as the movies themselves, and I ate Danse Macabre the fuck up in my (obligatory) read-all-the-Stephen King teen years. So it's sure nice to check off another one of the works first plopped onto my radar in that book once upon a time. 

"Heart disease is the country's number one killer!"
"Maybe not in Milford..."

Robert Kraft (Richard Boone), the perfectly average and mild-mannered President of Kraft Department Stores, is the newly-appointed chairman of Immortal Hills Cemetery. It's a year-long post, something to do with business and committees and community outreach and you know how it goes for tycoon types. Cemetery caretaker/handyman Andy McKee (Theodore Bikel, who made appearances on Columbo, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, Murder She Wrote, and Arthur Hailey's Hotel, so you know I'm in love) shows Kraft a large map of the grounds; a white pin in a plot's location means the plot has been purchased, while a black pin means the plot is filled...with a dead body! (Because that is how cemeteries work.)

Kraft accidentally sticks a black pin on a newly-purchased plot and a few hours later, the purchasers are dead. As he's always been prone to deja vu and manifesting his daydreams (like some early proponent of The Secret or something), he wonders if there might be a connection: can he kill people with the power of the black pins?

After a few more tests, a few more pins, and a few more deaths, it would seem that yes, Robert Kraft is making this happen. While you might expect that he would then, I don't know, eliminate his department store rivals and enemies or something, he just gets bummed out about this terrible power. His guilt is actually rather refreshing! Kraft locks himself away in the map room, wallowing in misery and getting all dirty and disheveled as he tries to grapple with the fact that he's essentially become a murderer, wondering: "Does a man die on his own time, or on the map's?"

I Bury the Living plays out like a really terrific Twilight Zone episode or something penned by Richard Matheson...and then it fumbles at the goal line, drops the ball, and does some...other...sports analogy in its closing minutes that may have you blurting out an "aw man!" or some such. If you don't believe me, well, even Stephen King has talked shit about the ending of this movie. Now I am not sure why I feel the need to back up my opinions with Stephen King's opinions today. I guess she moves in mysterious ways.

But you know what? It doesn't matter that the ending craps the bed, because the rest of I Bury the Living is so damn good. Director Albert Band--yes, the father of Charles Band! And the director of oh, what? Just a little something called Zoltan: Hound of Dracula (aka Dracula's Dog)--makes the absolute most of the limited sets, using special effects and unique shot set-ups to make this movie more stylish and original than a B-movie from 1958 has any right to be. In a word, I Bury the Living looks cool as hell. I'll say it again for the people at the back: this is a total gem of a movie. All hail the 50-pack! All hail Danse Macabre! All hail the map!


Lyra215 said...

Damn, if even Stephen "this is the scariest horror movie i've ever seen" King badmouthed the ending, they must've really dropped the ball
Very intriguing premise tho, i'll have to check it out

Steve said...

I've seen this one! I don't remember it, but here's what I wrote ten years ago. If I had a problem with the ending, I didn't say so:

"I've complained before about how I have seen relatively few horror movies from the 1950s. There's Hammer, and there are some atomic-scare movies that cross over into horror (like the great Them!), but otherwise there wasn't much going on, as far as I can tell. So I was pleased to find a couple of promising films when I was browsing through Amazon's streaming catalog while looking for something to watch.

I settled on this one after skimming a couple of reviews and learning that it wasn't even sci-fi, though it nods in that direction, noting that "scientists" think it might be possible for people to develop unusual powers. In this case, it's oddly specific. In a small town, a businessman who sits on the board of the town cemetery learns he has the power to kill people by putting black pins into their grave plots on a map of the graveyard. It comes across as way less ridiculous than the poster implies (a good example of how you should ignore film marketing).

It doesn't even go the direction you might expect: he doesn't want this power, and once he figures out what's going on, he tries to convince people that something is wrong, but they keep making him do it to prove him wrong. So instead of becoming the story of a mad villain, it becomes something of a psychological thriller, with the film becoming increasingly nightmarish. The former would have been pretty silly to me considering the character's name: Bob Kraft!

It's a good use of the film's limited budget: despite coming out in 1958, it isn't in widescreen, it's in black and white, and it uses only a few sets, with only a few day-for-night exteriors. Overall, the effect lies somewhere between Hitchcock and Roger Corman.

Amazon's transfer is fairly dreadful, sadly, marring the visuals and making it quite hard to understand the fake Scottish accent of the groundskeeper (not named Willie). Anyway, a tight little thriller if you're looking for something older."

Kristina said...

How much better this would've been if the end was full bizarro and kept the nightmare going Italo-horror style?I love Boone here since he gets to be more emo and unhinged than the stoic cool cowboys he was known for