I Bury The Living (1958 USA)

I Bury The Living 1958The title alone scores points for chutzpah. Through a series of macabre “coincidences”, the newly-elected director of a cemetery, Robert Kraft (Richard Boone) begins to believe that he can cause the deaths of living owners of burial plots by merely changing the push-pin colour from white (living) to black (dead) on a large wall map of the cemetery that notes those plots. So we have a nice simple story line. Not too confusing. Good. What else is here?

Good film operates on the level of dream, and is not constrained by mundane logic and consistency. By this standard, a good horror/thriller should function as a nightmare, in which each inconceivable fear finds inevitable expression, and the protagonist finds him or herself helplessly drawn to the next shock, without any hope for escape until the climax and resolution (awakening). By taking this kind of narrative technique, adding a bizarre and haunting score, repeating certain eerily iconic images and superimposing a decidedly downbeat and pragmatic dialogue, Albert Band created a uniquely dreamlike horror picture that broke through the cliched 50’s take on the genre. It deserved to be a big hit but wasn’t.

Working with a cast of almost unknown character-actors, and the makeup of Jack Pearce, Band’s vision finds expression through action focused almost entirely in one room, a room dominated by a map of a graveyard. The map itself is defined by a kind of Magical Sigil; a map of some unexplored part of the human brain, a symbol more deeply meaningful than any modern writing, and far more inscrutable in meaning. It isn’t long before businessman Bob Kraft, the oddly unattractive protagonist, learns that this map contains the power to kill, and he is drawn back, time and again, to use its power in spite of himself. As if to emphasize the powerlessness implicit in the nightmare, it is usually at the bidding of others, not his own volition, that he uses the dread power. Band cues us many times to the nature of the dream.

Kraft complains of deja-vu, as if the dream is a repetitive nightmare. The room he works in is constantly cold at night: for some reason the heater does not function after dark. A homicide cop advocates the existence of paranormal powers that can cause death. A reporter calls Kraft from inside his own (Kraft’s) home without a word of explanation. Each time Kraft suggests a thing, that thing invariably happens – just as is often the case in the best and worst of dreams. The end of the film simply makes no sense, breaks all the rules established by the narrative, falls apart into a tangled mess. This seems acceptable, however, because our dreamer is waking up, struggling to find resolution so that he may repress the dream to go on with the business of the day. The feeling lingers, however, that as night falls and the heater once again fails, Kraft will find himself, again, in that half-remembered room with the looming image of his own mind bringing fear and powerlessness. Disturbing stuff…

I Bury The Living

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