Review by Jason Woloski
Posted on 30 September 2005
Source MGM DVD
Features: 31 Days of Horror
Reviews: The Masque of the Red Death
Edgar Allen Poe understood that being buried alive is an inherently frightening prospect. In his 1850 short story, The Premature Burial, Poe does not force fright onto his subject matter through graphic scenario. Instead, writing through a narrator, Poe calmly describes a number of occurrences in which healthy individuals fall victim to catalepsy — a state mimicking death, even as the person’s body functions continue quietly — before being lowered into their final resting place prematurely. The narrator then recounts his own tale of being buried alive, starting with a description of his body descending into its own cataleptic state, leaving his muscles rigid and his heartbeat faint beyond recognition. Seemingly dead to those around him, the narrator wakes up in darkness, trapped in a wooden coffin held closed by several feet of packed dirt. Eventually saved from suffocation, Poe’s storyteller admits that in retrospect, his intense fear of being buried alive was due to a long-standing and general pessimism towards life, combined with an unwarranted and obsessive mistrust of those around him. Poe’s character finds a new lease on life as the story concludes, no longer trapped in a coffin underground, nor by thoughts of being buried alive or by the world around him.
More than a hundred years later, Roger Corman would apply his ultra-pragmatic, eye on the bottom line approach to filmmaking to a number of Poe adaptations, including The Premature Burial in 1962. In reimagining Poe’s story, Corman approaches the tale with his familiar lack of preciousness or affectation, even for revered source material. In fact, Poe’s story serves as little more than a stepping off point into Corman’s own brand of low budget craziness. Whereas Poe approached his subject matter with a suitable amount of respect, retaining wariness even as he examined both the practical and esoteric elements involved in being buried alive, Corman comes at his material full blast, interested only in exaggerating his subject matter for obvious startles.
The irony of these contrasting approaches is that in attempting to induce repeated shock through one exaggerated set piece after another, Corman actually foregoes the ease with which Poe’s tale could have been exploited. Poe understood that the porous nature of his story’s subject matter would allow him to bypass detailed descriptions of his characters’ emotional states as they were actually trapped below ground. Instead, the author correctly assumed that short passages were suffice for planting seeds of discomfort in the reader’s mind, signaling the inherent neuroses and panic surrounding the prospect of being ensnared in one’s grave while still alive. Poe’s restraint also allowed the primordial terrors associated with being buried alive, both pragmatic and esoteric, to come to life on their own throughout the story, devoid of forced rhetoric or persuasion. Corman, meanwhile, has simplified the thematic elements of Poe’s story right out of his film, while simultaneously, and mistakenly, complicating the horrors surrounding the state of being buried alive through a series of unneeded subplots and digressions involving grave diggers, the premature burial of a father, and a plot involving revenge from beyond the grave.
If Corman did not feel comfortable adopting Poe’s restrained approach to storytelling for his own telling, he would have done well to recognize that when complicating material that’s inherently frightening, it is best to emphasize themes surrounding the topic that the viewer may already be aware of, even unconsciously, as opposed to bulking a tale up through frivolous addition and renovation. In preparing a screenplay for an adaptation of Poe’s tale, the fact that a person who’s been buried alive is forced to face their most basic limitations as a corporeal being should not have been overlooked. Besides the pragmatic fears involved in being ensnared by total darkness with little prospect of being saved, namely a fear of enclosed spaces, of losing control, and of certain death, Corman’s screenwriters could have also examined some of the subtler, but no less relevant, rationales that likely emerge in a person’s mind when they have been buried alive.
To be buried alive, I imagine, is to realize that the world can and will continue without us in it. While living, it seems inconceivable that the internal landscapes we create in constant dialogue with the external landscapes around us might cease, or worse yet, that the relationship between these two landscapes could be severed even while we are still in our body. To be buried alive is to be socially dead, separated from the world we were once a part of (I don’t know what would be worse: to be buried so deep in the ground as to hear nothing of the world above you, or to hear a muffled world that you will soon no longer be a part of). To be buried alive also is to experience a metaphorical disruption of the relationship between space and time. The space around us stops — or is greatly reduced — even as time continues.
To be buried alive while perfectly healthy must be doubly frustrating. Whereas the chronically ill usually experience disease as a slow-moving avalanche that gradually overtakes the whole body, being buried alive is to move from healthy to suffocated in what must feel like an eternity and an instant, all at once. To have things to say knowing no one can hear us, to want to touch and to be touched while only confined by wood or a coffin as our surroundings, and to know that where you are lying is where your body will rest for eternity are ideas that should remain simple in order to be conveyed purely. Poe implies these fears throughout his tale to the point that they speak for themselves. Corman replaces the simplest fears surrounding his subject matter with frivolous digressions.
For those who feel I’m being too hard on Roger Corman, or that I’m misunderstanding his film as a B-grade effort meant to provide nothing more than B-grade entertainment, I contest with the belief that Corman came very close to making an interesting “buried alive” film with his adaptation of The Premature Burial, even if high or lasting quality was not his intention. Corman has a good deal going for him, especially in the ways the film was shot. The 2:35:1 aspect ratio roughly resembles the shape of a coffin, trapping the players within the frame, while the rigid staging and framing of many of the film’s sequences makes it seem as if rigor mortis is slowly and appropriately setting into the film’s various settings and characters. Combined, these factors anticipate a fear of entrapment that eventually pervades the entire story.
Barely tangible elements such as the one’s described could have lead to the film becoming an artistic success. Instead, a variety of psychoanalytic themes introduced early in the film, followed by a quick abandoning of these same themes once they no longer served the more exploitative nature of the second and third acts, set the stage for a tonally inconsistent ride, in which neither the screenwriters, nor the director, nor the viewer can gain a grasp on what exactly is going on. I find it amusing that Corman’s knack for exploitation does not stop even when facing typically earnest, socially conservative elements of psychoanalytic pain or trauma. Corman doesn’t give a second thought to introducing a complex father-son relationship early in the film, involving trauma and the terror of realizing that the main character (Ray Milland)’s father died screaming while buried alive, only to abandon this scenario once it no longer serves cheaper and more obvious thrills. When it comes time for Ray Milland to explain the solution to his own paralyzing fear of being buried alive involving a series of bells, tinctures, and collapsible coffins all contained within a tomb equipped with a ladder and an escape hatch, the scene induces the macho glee I associate with gadgetry, such as those scenes of Q in one of his many frustrating interactions with James Bond, not the sense I’m watching a man on the edge, full of pathos and despair.
The narrative tides shift most dramatically in The Premature Burial’s final third, in which Corman uses the tale up to that point as a stepping off point from logic. Milland, having been buried alive by his conniving wife, returns from the grave to seek revenge on her and anyone she’s associated with. Milland’s return resides firmly in the uncanny, as the way he is lit makes him seem undead, even though he is most definitively alive. As Milland murders everything moving, the film is left without a protagonist, just degrees of antagonism. Every character has gone insane in way or another by this point, the world around them broken down and without order. Only Milland’s sister, as the type of quiet supporting character who makes their way into so many horror films, shifty eyed and lingering in the frame long after a scene has ended and everyone has dispersed, knows what’s really going on. As a result, she remains the only character alive at the end. Unfortunately, because the sister has hardly been in the film and the audience hasn’t gotten to know her, we are left with a survivor who doesn’t matter to us.
On the whole, the problem with the buried alive theme is that it’s easy to describe, but difficult to film. If the viewer is in the casket with the buried, it hardly creates a feeling of claustrophobia. On the other hand, if the camera lingers above ground with the viewer having to imagine that someone is buried below, the visual essence of film seems underused. Only two times has a buried alive scenario induced genuine hurt inside me. Martin Scorsese’s handling of the death of Nicky Santoro and his brother in Casino remains troubling in my memory. Scorsese understood that by keeping the situation simple — blunt sounds, uncomplicated dialogue, cutting back and forth between the brother getting beaten and Santoro’s reaction to it — he could let the inherent sadness and shock of the situation wash over the viewer. Scorsese also understood that perhaps the only thing more frightening than realizing that you’ve already been buried alive is being above ground and alive, knowing that you will beaten to the point that you can’t move, awake as dirt is shoveled over you until sunlight disappears. Poe enhanced the fright of being separated from the world above as one lay trapped. Scorsese expresses the terror of being dragged from the world of the living to the world of the dead, the world above ground to the world below.
The other scenario, which still induces goose bumps, involved the true story of a magician in Fresno, California name John Barros, who was lowered six feet below ground in a clear coffin while chained and padlocked. Cement was then poured over the coffin. The television footage then showed the cement collapse about half a foot. It became clear that the cement was too much for the coffin to hold. Barros was crushed inside it. Somehow, being unable to see what was going on below ground was far more frightening than any scenario involving a camera inside a coffin below ground. The horrific reality of the scene resided in what had to be imagined, yet was also an ideal fit for being captured filmically. Poe understood, like the unintentional Barros footage, that preparing the imagination for the worst and easing it into fright is far more effective than causing the mind to recoil in resistance against ultimately unlasting fits and starts of terror. We are all buried in our own bodies, walking around in what will one day kill us. Artists need only point out what we already know.