In 1960, American International Picture’s “house” director Roger Corman convinced the notoriously cheap movie studio to pony up a little extra time and money (and color film) to produce Corman’s attempt to capture the lush Gothic atmosphere of a Hammer horror film. Against their thrifty nature, the studio relented, allowing the ambitious and inventive director a staggering fourteen days to make Fall of the House of Usher. The resulting film, a landmark in American horror, is a necessarily narrowly focused affair — there are only four characters — but it’s a fantastic accomplishment. The quick turn-around time and low budget is hardly evident. Every frame is stuffed with decaying Gothic opulence and vibrant color, and the talky nature and slow pace of the film never causes the narrative to drag, thanks almost entirely to the brilliant and tortured performance by Vincent Price. AIP’s risky (for them) investment paid off. The film was a hit, and audiences used to seeing cheap black and white horror were dazzled by this sudden explosion of color and quality. When the dollars started pouring in, AIP gave the go-ahead to Corman for another film in the same vein. And another. And thus was born what’s known as AIP’s Poe Cycle, a series of consistently high-quality horror films based (extremely loosely at times) on the writing of Edgar Allan Poe (and, in one case, H.P. Lovecraft, but they sold it as Poe).
After the runaway success of Fall of the House of Usher and Pit and the Pendulum, Corman was growing dissatisfied with his AIP contract. He had proven to be a profitable director, and now he was a critically acclaimed director as well. His two films had more or less single-handedly lifted the reputation of AIP out of the realm of the drive-in circuit and established them as a genuine studio that made genuine movies with genuine class. Corman’s two Poe films also lifted the flagging reputation of horror, which since its heyday at Universal during the 1930s had sunk lower and lower until it was basically considered schlock, then almost replaced entirely by science-fiction and Communist paranoia films. Hammer’s Horror of Dracula and Curse of Frankenstein had gone a long way to revitalizing the horror genre, but Corman’s Poe films undoubtedly contributed a great deal to solidifying the resuscitation, at broad but especially in the United States where theater owners were proud to see that yep, we could make ‘em just as good here as they could over there.
So while Corman was basically getting along with AIP head honchos Sam Arkoff and John Nicholson, he thought that maybe in light of his more or less revolutionizing the way he, the studio, and horror films were regarded in America, he might be entitled to a better contract. AIP politely disagreed with him, and so Corman took himself and his idea for the third Poe film elsewhere. Because Vincent Price was under contract to AIP, he couldn’t cast Price in the lead role, and so he set about looking for a new actor to fulfill the spotlight in his production of The Premature Burial. Corman eventually came up with Ray Milland. Milland was blissfully ignorant of the fact that one day in the future AIP was going to graft his head to Rosie Grier, and so he agreed to take on the Poe-perfect role of a man obsessed with the belief that he will be buried alive, as was his cataleptic father. Because Richard Matheson was also under contract to AIP, Corman turned to screenwriters Charles Beaumont (7 Faces of Dr. Lao) and Ray Russell (X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes). The essence of the films, however, came with Corman. Like the previous two films, The Premature Burial would come steeped in the signature atmosphere of the Poe films: billowing fog tumbling across eerie landscapes, tormented souls, a psychedelically-tinted nightmare sequence, creepy old houses, brooding characters, and as is obvious from the title, a thing or two about being buried alive.
The day Corman was to begin principal photography, he was pleased to see Arkoff (or maybe Nicholson, or maybe both of them) show up on the set to wish him good luck despite the differences they’d had over Corman’s new contract. Differences, hell! It turned out that AIP had just purchased the studio for which Roger Corman was making the picture, so it was going to be an AIP film after all. Granted it was too late to recast the lead, but Milland was still thought of as an Academy Award winning actor, and not as “the white guy from The Thing with Two Heads,” so his casting in the lead was something to crow about, even if the part, like all other leads in the Poe films, was tailor-made for Vincent Price.
Milland plays Guy Carrell, an upstanding and intelligent member of the gentry who has a small quirk in the form of a near crippling fear of being buried alive. Now no one wants to be buried alive, except maybe show-off escape artists and people competing for fifty bucks and a burger on the latest reality show, but Guy’s fear of being entombed while still among the living goes way beyond the usual healthy fear of having dirt piled on top of you. So obsessed is he with the concept that it threatens to ruin his newly minted marriage to Emily Gault, who is played by Hammer Studios veteran Hazel Court (The Curse of Frankenstein, and she would appear later in two more Corman AIP Poe films, The Raven and The Masque of the Red Death) — and if you know Hazel Court, then you don’t want to derail anything involving her in your bedchamber. Guy shuns his wife and friends in favor of building the most elaborate tomb ever devised.
I’m not exactly certain what Guy’s occupation is, but it must have something to do with being an architectural, engineering, and mechanical genius, because the failsafe tomb he constructs for himself is a marvel. If I set out to build my own premature-burial-proof tomb, it would probably end up looking like a couple of pieces of plywood nailed together with a hole cut in the back so I can crawl out if I should happen to find myself mistaken for a corpse. Buy Guy’s tomb is utterly lavish. In fact, it’s seems even nicer than his home. It comes stocked complete with a break-away coffin so that should one wake up and find oneself in such a pine box, one need only tap the side to have the whole thing spring open or fall to pieces. A variety of levers sound various alarms to let everyone know he’s been mistakenly buried, just in case the half dozen or so escape hatches don’t open. And should that happen and he has to wait for someone to her the bells, he can while away the hours reclining in plush overstuffed chairs, drinking brandy, and flipping through the tomb’s selection of reading material. And should these ten thousand redundant escape plans all fail, he’s also stocked the tomb with poison, so that when he’s finished all his sausages and books, he can just kill himself rather than be bored. I’ve seen fewer failsafe devices on the nation’s nuclear arsenal! Not that I’ve seen the nation’s nuclear arsenal, but I can’t imagine it’s as well thought-out as Guy’s crypt.
You’d think that would be the end of it, but various things keep happening to keep Guy preoccupied with being buried alive. Additionally, his wife and the local quack think that if he’s ever going to make any progress in combating his phobia, he needs to, among other things, ditch the tomb. You’d think that since the tomb has brought him an unparalleled peace of mind, they’d just let it be. I mean, it is a nice crypt, after all, so why not keep it around? Even if he isn’t buried alive, it’ll be a swell place to just be buried regular and dead. This being a Corman Poe picture, it’s no great leap to figure out that someone is plotting to use Guy’s fear of premature burial to drive him mad and thus achieve some small sort of financial or property gain that hardly merits such a lavishly complex and psychologically difficult scheme. Some people would just whack him on the head with a candelabra and blame it on Colonel Mustard, but these people always have to construct intricate “drive them mad” intrigues that are as complicated as Guy’s crypt.
Like the previous two Poe films, The Premature Burial has a tendency to get bogged down beneath the weight of its own exposition-heavy plot. Unlike the previous two films, however, it doesn’t have Vincent Price on hand to liven up the material. Milland gives it the ol’ college try, but he seems lost with this type of material despite his commitment to delivering a solid performance. Where as Price would have had no problem taking the script and making it work for him, Milland’s portrayal comes across as excessively whiny at times and dreadfully dull at others. Still, at least Milland put effort into the role and manages a few strong scenes, which is more than could be said for the shameful display put on by Jason Robards when, some years later, he too found himself filling in for Vincent Price in a Poe film, that one being Gordon Hessler’s Murders in the Rue Morgue.
If nothing else, The Premature Burial proves that it wasn’t just fan bias toward Vincent Price that kept Milland and the movie from earning a more cherished spot. Price was more than a fan favorite: he was an integral ingredient in making the films successful. Without him, it wasn’t just that “things just aren’t same.” His absence from the Poe films very nearly causes them to cease being Poe films. Exactly why Price is so indispensable to Corman’s Poe pictures is a little difficult to explain, but if you see them, well then you just understand. Part of it, naturally, has to do with the fact that Price was a marvel at turning a bad script into a good movie, and while the script for The Premature Burial isn’t bad per se, it is perhaps something much worse: dull.
Corman pours on the atmosphere – there is more fog here than in the previous two films combined, and believe me those films had a lot of fog in them – but Ray Milland simply doesn’t have Price’s knack for making you want to listen to him talk even during the slow spells. He never manages to invest the character with any sort of spark, and as such no real sympathy for him or his story ever develops in the viewer. It’s a perfectly serviceable performance, and Milland has nothing to be ashamed of (unlike you, Jason Robards!), but, well — just watch the end, when Guy emerges from his inevitable getting buried alive scene and has thus gone completely bonkers and launches into a gleefully mad bout of revenge. Milland is OK, but you just can’t help thinking how great the whole scene would have been if Price was given a chance to do it.
The rest of the cast performs with the usual competency one has come to expect by this point from both AIP and Hammer films, though some of the characters seem to be involved in subplots that never really go anywhere or get fully explained (why was Guy out there helping steal a corpse in the beginning of the film anyway?). Besides Hazel Court, who gets more of a chance to act here than she did in Curse of Frankenstein (and has one of the best scenes in the movie, during which she explains to Guy that he’s already dead, and his obsession with being buried alive has, in a way, already buried him alive), familiar faces like Alan Napier (Alfred the butler from the old Batman television series) and Dick Miller (The Terror, Truck Turner, Gremlins, and about ten million other movies) are on hand to round out the cast with their solid character acting. Unfortunately, the script tends to let the performers down, and almost all the characters are either undeveloped, underdeveloped, or just plain unlikable.
Without Price around to liven things up, the weakness screams at you like one of those screaming skulls. You know the ones. The ones that scream. I don’t know enough to know how closely the movie clings to the original 1844 story, but by all accounts, it sticks to the source material pretty tightly. Poe himself was possessed of a very similar fear of being buried alive, which is why it figures so frequently into his stories and thus so frequently into the Poe movies. Still, after seeing a buried alive plot in both of the previous films, one can’t help but hope for something a little different the third time out. Instead, we get the “total package” buried alive movie, one in which interment of the living isn’t just a part of the plot, but the entire plot. And speaking of plots, did I miss the part where they tell us exactly why shadowy characters are attempting to drive poor Guy insane? Plus, you’d think that after the guy has gone on and on about catalepsy for the whole movie, when he actually does lapse into a cataleptic state, they’d do more than just shrug and go, “Well, looks like he’s dead. Let’s get to burying’”
The lack of freshness combined with some gaping lack of explanations keep The Premature Burial situated firmly around or maybe, if I’m feeling good, slightly above the mediocre mark. Plus, it’s just not scary. Even with the gnarled old trees and fog, there are never any chills, and certainly nothing on par with the rampaging sister Usher in House of Usher or any number of scenes in Pit and the Pendulum. As such, Premature Burial remained for a long time the ignored entry into Corman’s cycle, more or less skipped over as people hastened to get from Pit and the Pendulum on to Tales of Terror, Masque of the Red Death and The Raven, when everything was back as it should be and Vincent Price was once again stalking across the screen in period costumes. Premature Burial feels like a misfire – not a dreadful misfire, or an entirely unwatchable one, but a misfire never the less. The pieces — Corman, Poe, Price, Matheson, and musical composer Les Baxter — clicked so perfectly in the first two films that it becomes obvious something is amiss in The Premature Burial. The film does have its moments — chief among them Milland’s exquisitely enthusiastic tour of his “buried alive-proof tomb” — but the whole thing never fully gels. It was obvious that there just shouldn’t be any tinkering with the formula, so AIP made sure everything was back in place for the fourth film, the anthology Tales of Terror.
Release Year: 1962 | Country: United States | Starring: Ray Milland, Hazel Court, Richard Ney, Heather Angel, Alan Napier, John Dierkes, Dick Miller | Writer: Charles Beaumont and Ray Russell | Director: Roger Corman | Cinematographer: Floyd Crosby | Music: Ronald Stein and Les Baxter | Producer: Roger Corman
Technically, this should have been the first Hammer horror film I reviewed, if for no other reason than the sake of some chronological order running through this ongoing journal. This is the one that started it all. Well, no, technically I guess Quatermass Xperiment started it all, but this is the one that really made “all” all that much more. But in our zeal to watch a good vampire movie, we skipped ahead a bit and went for Horror of Dracula first. A faux pas, perhaps, but thanks to the miracle of hyperlinks and the web, you can always read this one first then skip on back to the other one. Or you can do what most people are probably doing anyway, and just not worry about it.
1955′s Quatermass clued the folks at Hammer in to the fact that maybe they had something on their hands with this horror and sci-fi business. They rushed out two more horror-scifi amalgamations, then in 1956 went to work on what was to be their first in a series of films that were, depending on who you are, either adaptations of classic works of British gothic horror, or remakes of old Universal Pictures horror films. The four biggest films in the Universal pantheon of horror were Frankenstein starring Boris Karloff, Dracula with Bela Lugosi, The Mummy again with Karloff, and The Wolfman with Lon Chaney Jr. For their first crack at the legends, Hammer went with Curse of Frankenstein.
It was a bit of a gamble, what with the Karloff film being one of the great iconic films not just of horror, but of movies in general. Hammer was going to have to figure out a way to do something just as good but totally innovative, something that would at once hearken back to and be largely different from its legendary predecessor. To start things off they assigned studio director Terence Fisher to the project, then furnished him with well-known television star Peter Cushing to portray Frankenstein. A good start, but if the Karloff film had taught anyone anything, it was that whoever plays the Monster will be the focal point of everyone’s attention. Hammer had a long series of auditions for a variety of big, hulking men before finally deciding on a tall but relatively lean actor by the name of Christopher Lee. Lee already had a decently long filmography under his belt, but most were small parts in small films, so he was more or less an unknown at the time. So an unknown director directs two seasoned but obscure character actors in a film based on a character that had more or less been made into a parody by the time Universal was finished with it, all at a time when interest in old Gothic horror was at an all-time low in favor of whiz-bang science fiction adventures. No problem.
There were other hurdles to clear. Universal was none too happy about someone making a new Frankenstein film. Although they didn’t create the character, they reasonably argued that when the average moviegoer heard the name Frankenstein, they didn’t think of Mary Shelley’s novel; they thought of the Universal movie. Hammer could have argued back that nothing they were going to do could have been any worse than some of those Frankenstein sequels that Universal pumped out during the 1940s. But that would have been rude to bring up. Universal threatened to sue Hammer if their monster came out looking anything remotely like the Karloff Monster, so Hammer went about stitching together, if you will, an entirely new look for Frankenstein’s frightening creation. Hammer also decided that, rather than focus on the tragic tale of the Monster and “tampering in God’s domain,” they’d focus, like the book, on the title character and his obsession with research.
The gambles paid off in spades. Christopher Lee’s monster, while never the icon that Karloff’s was, looked hideous and creepy because, for the most part, it looked so real, like a ghoulish, pallid man who had been created out of sundry body parts from other corpses. And the focus on Frankenstein himself allows Peter Cushing to shine and give audiences a doctor who is as memorable as the creature was in the original film. At the center of the film is Frankenstein’s own mania regarding research. As one character points out in the film, minutes before being pushed to his death by Frankenstein so the mad doctor can have a fresh, genius brain, some scientists have trouble with becoming obsessed with research then quickly growing bored with the outcome. Cushing’s Frankenstein is obsessed with research to the point that he really doesn’t care about the outcome. When he and his assistant Paul revive a dead dog, thereby making the single greatest achievement in the history of science, all Frankenstein is concerned with is taking the research to the next level. And when that next level is achieved, when he has created a man from the parts of dead men, all Frankenstein is interested in is yet more research, further pushing the boundaries of what he’s doing all day and night locked up in that lab.
Cushing’s portrayal is brilliant. He plays the doctor not as a mad scientist who turns remorseful and attempts to atone for his transgression, as was done by Colin Clive in the original, but instead as a man so engrossed by his research that he completely lacks any concept of the notion of good or evil. He doesn’t willingly violate taboos; he simply doesn’t comprehend that they even exist. Everything he sees is either an aide to or obstacle in his research. He is utterly amoral, but never evil. Cushing strikes the proper blend of British reserve and over-the-top histrionics. A role of this nature requires one to go over the top at certain moments, but there are a lot of different grades of over the top. Lesser actors simply ham it up and look ridiculous. Cushing, however, pushes it to exactly where it needs to be. The story revolves around him, and he’s more than up to the task of carrying its weight.
He’s surrounded by a superb supporting cast. Robert Urquhart is wonderful as Paul, first Frankenstein’s mentor and later his colleague, a man torn between a sense of decency and morality and a sense of curiosity about just what this brilliant madman can achieve. He suffers the car wreck syndrome, wanting to turn away but unable, too enticed by the doctor’s bizarre experiments just as he is repulsed by them. Hazel Court, who would go on to star in a handful of the Edgar Allen Poe adaptations that came from AIP and Roger Corman, is featured as Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s hapless bride-to-be who finds herself loyal to the baron even as he ignores her utterly in favor of his research. And then there’s Christopher Lee, charged with turning in a world-class performance as the monster without uttering a line of dialogue beyond “Arrhhh!” Karloff was able to do it in 1931, and Lee repeats the feat by giving us a monster that is not nearly as gentle and innocent as the Karloff creature but still plenty pathetic and tragic.
His make-up and outfit are truly ghoulish and eerie. I remember seeing a picture of him long before I’d ever seen the movie, back when I was in the second or third grade and bought a set of monster movie books through that Troll Book Order thing that made us so happy at the end of every month. There were four books in the set: Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman, and then a general one about space monsters. I don’t recall there being one about mummies, but I could be forgetting, though everything else about the books remains vivid. I was already a huge monster movie fan by that time and had devoured the old Universal movies and Godzilla, but these books opened up a world I’d never seen. I was particularly impressed by the woodcut print of Vlad Tepes with all those impaled guys around him – you know the one. It shows up in any and every book or documentary about Dracula. But the thing that really scared the heck out of me was the full-page picture of Christopher Lee as Frankenstein’s Monster, in that black coat with the ragged skin and the misty eye. Freaked me out, and I still think it’s the most effective Frankenstein make-up there’s been. Man, I sure wish I still had those books. I remember they had black covers with a picture of the signature monster on them. There was this picture in the space monster volume of some guy in a weird black spacesuit kneeling over another guy in a black spacesuit who has been reduced to a skeleton. I’ve looked for years for that movie, but I have no recollection of the title, and that one photo isn’t much to go on.
The appearance of the creature is, of course, of thematic importance and always has been. Frankenstein goes on about how he will create man from scratch, perfect in every way, with the hands of an artist, the body of a hero, and the brain of a genius. And in every adaptation, this one included, the best he can do is a shambling flesh mound with homicidal tendencies. For Curse of Frankenstein it’s a symbol of the fact that the doctor doesn’t care about the ends so much as he does the means. All he wants to do is build and research. He’s created life, after all, and he’s blind to the eventual repercussions or its position as something of an abomination.
The attention to set dressing is wonderful as well. The film looks gorgeous and would set the high standard that would become one of the trademarks of Hammer films. If it’s not historically accurate down to the very last detail, it’s at least suitable convincing and complex. Frankenstein’s lab is, naturally, filled with all manner of scientific gadgetry, including a spinning turbine that makes that “mad scientist lair” whir, though I can’t help but think his experiment might have ended up better if he’d had a Jacob’s Ladder on hand. Fisher’s shot composition is wonderful as well. The scenes of Lee’s monster ambling through bleak, yellow-and-brown fall forests is still incredibly creepy, as the scene in which Paul takes aim and blows off a goodly portion of the monster’s head remains shocking.
The script by Jimmy Sangster is wonderful, literary feeling without being slow, and with several nods to the Shelley source material, though like all adaptations of both that and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it plays it pretty loosely with what was in the book versus what goes up on screen. Curse of Frankenstein manages to be suitably bombastic with subtle touches, and because like subsequent Hammer Gothic horrors it takes itself so darn seriously, it never devolves into the arena of camp. This is, after all, a film based on a famous work of literature, and so it is lent the proper weight and respect. The film never lagged for me or got boring, and this is a testament to Cushing’s command of the screen and the sharpness of the dialogue and pacing. It’s a film that realized you don’t have to pack in a generic “thrill a minute” to keep audiences interested so long as what you are saying is reasonably intelligent and engrossing.
Curse of Frankenstein was a smash success. Audiences went wild for the film’s brazen mixture of Gothic horror, vivid Eastmancolor, and gore. It opened the door to several sequels and established Hammer as the preeminent name in horror the world over. It revived the entire concept of the Gothic horror movie, paving the way for such coming innovators and history makers as Mario Bava and Corman’s Poe films with Vincent Price. It launched the careers of both Lee and Cushing into the stratosphere, though it would be several more movies before Christopher was allowed to really use that theatrical, booming voice of his on more than a few lines. The success of Curse of Frankenstein also convinced Hammer to try their hand at reinventing a couple more classic Universal monsters thought flogged to death during the ’30s and ’40s. And once that started, everything else at the studio was put on hold as they became the Hammer House of Horrors, so to speak. Their resurrection of Dracula was another smash. To complete their cycle, they would then turn once again to the team of Fisher, Cushing, and Lee and give the world The Mummy.