With a title like I Bury the Living (1958), one would think this picture should be sleazy 50’s horror fare; a product of Corman or at least AIP, but it is actually a pretty tense little psychological thriller. The splashy advertising art, which depicts fleeing victims, falling tombstones, and the drippy white-eyed corpse of Theodore Bikel, and phrases like “Out of a time-rotted tomb crawls an unspeakable horror!” doesn’t help, either.
Bikel plays Andy McKee, the faithful cemetery caretaker of 40 years who has just been benevolently “retired” and given a pension. Richard Boone, fresh from his television success in the doctor-drama Medic, nicely underplays Bob Kraft, the disinterested businessman who has inherited the family graveyard. Everything starts off fine until suddenly, Kraft accidentally puts a black pin (used to identify occupied plots) where a white pin (used to designate empty, purchased plots) should go in the cemetery layout board, and, guess what? That plot-owner, a boyhood friend of Kraft’s, turns up dead. From this point on black pins and corpses start appearing like funeral lilies on Nutri-grow. Things really get weird when Kraft decides to replace black pins with white ones, and occupied graves start turning up empty!
Bikel does a good job as the lonely, aging McKee, though he stumbles a bit in his Scottish accent and, despite his white wig and aging makeup, often looks much too young for the part. Boone is solid and hard-faced as the unwilling cemetery owner who is driven to the brink of madness by his apparent new gift which enables him to bring death to any client simply by sticking a black pin in their space on the map. Peggy Maurer is appropriate as Kraft’s supportive, slightly sexy fiancée.
I Bury the Living is an inexpensive, stark picture, but it succeeds through its dark style and its unbending, relentless pursuit of the oddly imaginative, yet simple premise. The entire action of the movie takes place in only a few rooms and in a small portion of the cemetery. This combined with the fact that the majority of the scenes of tension take place in the small, dingy caretaker’s office intensify the picture’s claustrophobic, paranoid, almost surreal edge.
I Bury the Living’s unnerving style is reminiscent of perhaps a cheap, simplified version of Hitchcock’s. The cemetery map is cleverly drawn to infer an abstracted pair of unblinking eyes, and it eerily grows in size as the film progresses, matching Kraft’s mounting fear and helplessness. In one effective scene Kraft has placed a black pin in a Mr. Isham’s space. The scene then dissolves from Isham’s name on the map to Isham’s nameplate on his desk, at which he sits repairing a teddy bear (complete with a music box eerily tinkling “Three Blind Mice”). As Isham shoves the teddy bear’s eyes, which are on long needle-like stalks, closely resembling the notorious map pins, in place, he mysteriously expires. In another Kraft, while strolling through the cemetery with detective/friend Jess ponders (in a tight close-up) his own déjà vu of mortality, “I’ve been through all this before. The grass, …the quiet, …and that sound. I never knew what it was. It’s the sound of a name being cut into a headstone”.
The cinematic style gets more subjective as things go from bad to worse. After attempting a pin experiment to prove to his father that something strange is going on, Kraft waits impatiently on the phone to hear if anything has happened to the plot owner. The bulbous second hand on Kraft’s bedside clock transforms into a ticking black pin. He swats the mocking clock off the nightstand, and a swish-pan (which continues the action) reveals his face has broken out in a sudden sweat as he anticipates the grave news. Kraft and the map are often surrounded by oppressive darkness in the caretaker’s office (though the absence of light probably also hid the limitations of the set). Two scenes end with Kraft collapsing in fear, then the entire frame shrinks into the morbid blackness until it disappears completely. Another ends with the camera performing an impressive dolly up to the head of a black pin until the entire screen becomes black. During the scene in which Kraft replaces all of the black pins with white ones some shots reveal the map to be a mirror in which Kraft’s hand meets the image of itself. Is he looking at the world through the distorted lens of the map, or is he simply viewing a terrifying side of himself? Later, as he ponders suicide, the map grows to engulf him and the entire frame. In a nicely-executed if cliched montage which follows, McKee hallucinates an endless multitude of dancing, growing pins, until a giant black pin is shoved into a headstone which bears his name.
It all mounts nicely so that, in the end, one is disappointed to find out all this ghoulishness did not transpire exactly as we had been lead to believe. This fact tends to betray the picture’s building themes of a moral man’s fear of power and himself and of the existence of an mysterious kind of inexorable fate. Yet, the final shot shows the abandoned map fall inexplicably to the ground, as if it really did have some kind of hidden power all along; as if the long explanation we have just been told isn’t all necessarily true. It is a strange ending to a strange movie.
Howard Smith, Robert Osterloh, and the affable Herbert Anderson are effective in supporting roles. The dark, moody cinematography is by Frederick Gately. The sometimes striking if sparse visual design is by E. Vorkapich. The eccentric original screenplay by Louis Garfinkle was produced by he and Albert Band and was directed by Band himself. The ominous music, which often incorporates a frenetic harpsichord, is provided by Gerald Fried, who the following year recorded the memorable Orienta album (as “The Markko Polo Adventurers”) for RCA, an imaginative, almost cinematic work itself.