I Bury the Living (1958)

Out of a Time-Rotted Tomb Crawls an Unspeakable Horror!

Theatrical poster for 1958's I Bury the Living

Robert Kraft (Richard Boone) has recently been appointed chairman of the committee that oversees a local cemetery known as Immortal Hills. His cottage office on the cemetery grounds is fitted with an impressive map of the property hanging on the wall, which allows them to keep track of available plots. Plots with black pins on them are occupied, and plots with white pins have been purchased but are not yet used. After accidentally marking a recently-purchased plot with the wrong color pin, and the owners of said plot expire in a car accident, Richard becomes convinced that he wields the power of life and death.

I BURY THE LIVING is a fabulous and quirky little thriller that was almost predestined to reach cult status after its inevitable fading from the spotlight and eventual rediscovery. It is beautifully shot and features an original plot, but suffers slightly from a bit of overacting and not being able to fully commit to its own conceit. This is easy to forgive, though, in light of the other strong performances and oddball touches that keep things interesting throughout.


The map from 1958's I Bury the Living

One of the most fascinating parts of the film is the map itself, an almost surrealistic rendering of the grounds. The meandering path that leads through the cemetery can scarcely be an efficient means of travel, but it gives the map something of an ocular quality, which is fitting, as it is practically a character in itself. It looms ominously in the background, and you can feel it staring at Robert—even calling to him. An ingenious touch is that the map actually grows larger and more menacing throughout the film, representing the sway that it holds over Robert and his increasing mental frailty. It’s a subtle touch that allows me to forgive the few shortcomings and proves that this was not seen by the filmmakers as a cheap throwaway, but a genuine attempt at art. For a more recent example of a protagonist’s descent into madness affecting a prop that is important to the plot, see Lucky McKee’s MAY (2002), in which the cracking glass that houses an old doll represents the title character’s cracking psyche.

I BURY THE LIVING was written (and co-produced) by Louis Garfinkle. Garfinkle had previously written the teenage rebellion western THE YOUNG GUNS (1956), and later went on to script a handful of other oddball features, including FACE OF FIRE (1959), THE DOBERMAN GANG (1972) and LITTLE CIGARS (1973), though his most distinguished accomplishment was probably helping to craft the story for THE DEER HUNTER (1978).

It was directed by Albert Band, who was born in Paris, but his family emigrated to America just before the Nazi invasion in 1941. After high school, he landed an apprenticeship at Warner Bros. and built up a list of contacts, leading to him becoming an assistant on John Huston’s RED BADGE OF COURAGE (1951). He jumped into the director’s chair with the previously mentioned THE YOUNG GUNS, followed by this film and FACE OF FIRE—marking three consecutive collaborations with Louis Garfinkle. He also directed the absurd ZOLTAN: HOUND OF DRACULA (1978) before becoming something of an in-house producer/director for Empire Pictures, and later Full Moon Entertainment, both founded by his son Charles Band. This work includes TROLL (1986, producer), TERRORVISION (1986, producer), GHOULIES II (1988, director), ROBOT JOX (1989, producer), DOCTOR MORDRID (1992, producer, director), PREHYSTERIA (1993, director) and PREHYSTERIA 2 (1994, producer, director). He also somehow became an executive producer for Disney’s HONEY, I BLEW UP THE KIDS (1992). Albert Band died in 2002 at the age of 78.

Robert from 1958's I Bury the Living

Our leading man Richard Boone, reportedly descended from Daniel Boone, appeared in a number of westerns (he was the star of television series HAVE GUN – WILL TRAVEL from 1957-1963), but his odder films hold more interest: the Iron Curtain circus thriller MAN ON A TIGHTROPE and film noir VICKI (both 1953); narrator of the showbiz drama THE BIG KNIFE (1955); schizophrenia drama LIZZIE (1957); kidnap crime drama THE NIGHT OF THE FOLLOWING DAY (1968); sci-fi flick THE LAST DINOSAUR (1977); and as the voice of Smaug in the animated THE HOBBIT (also 1977). He was the star of his own anthology series, THE RICHARD BOONE SHOW, from 1963-1964.

Theodore Bikel played the groundskeeper Andy McKee, and gave him a Scottish brogue that was as inexcusable as it was indecipherable. He’s otherwise a fine actor, and had played the sheriff in THE DEFIANT ONES the same year that this movie was released. He can also be found in drama THE BLUE ANGEL (1959), survival-adventure film SANDS OF THE KALAHARI (1965), Frank Zappa’s 200 MOTELS (1971), and horror flick DARK TOWER (1989). He is equally at home onstage as he is onscreen, and was the original Captain Von Trapp in Broadway’s The Sound of Music. He’s also an accomplished and multilingual folk singer, with numerous well-received albums to his name.

Robert and Jess from 1958's I Bury the Living

In supporting roles, we’ve got Peggy Maurer as Robert’s girlfriend Ann; Howard Smith as Robert’s uncle George Kraft; Robert Osterloh as Police Lieutenant Clayborne; and Herbert Anderson—best known as Henry Mitchell from DENNIS THE MENACE (1959-1963)—as reporter Jess Jessup.

Almost as important as any of the characters in the film—indeed almost as important as the image of the map for setting the overall tone—is the marvelous (if occasionally overwrought) musical score, which was composed by Gerald Fried. Fried was particularly adept at scoring these types of cult films, and his work can also be heard on: early Stanley Kubrick films DAY OF THE FIGHT (1951), FEAR AND DESIRE (1953), KILLER’S KISS (1955), THE KILLING (1956), and PATHS OF GLORY (1957); Paul Landres flicks THE VAMPIRE (1957), THE FLAME BARRIER (1958), and THE RETURN OF DRACULA (1958); Roger Corman’s MACHINE-GUN KELLY (1958), THE CRY BABY KILLER (1958), I MOBSTER (1958), and HIGH SCHOOL BIG SHOT (1959); and television series like GILLIGAN’S ISLAND, THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., STAR TREK, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE, and ROOTS. It’s safe to say that I BURY THE LIVING would not be nearly as hypnotic as it is without his input.

I would bet my pin on it.

Robert being taunted by the map in 1958's I Bury the Living

 

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