Sunday, July 1, 2012

Another Bachelor Movie Marathon, Part IV

I Bury the Living (1958)
This could easily have been the best movie I watched during this marathon. It could have been that rarest of cinematic creatures: a good '50s supernatural suspense/horror film. But no, it had to go and ruin everything in the last few minutes. And because of this last minute failure, the title of best movie of the marathon remains with Island of Lost Souls.

(To show how this movie is totally ruined by a mere few minutes, this review will contain a lot of spoilers)

The Kraft family is hugely influential in its hometown. Not only because they have wealth, but because its members oversee a number of vital institutions free of charge as a service to the community. Robert Kraft has recently become the chairman of the local cemetery, although most of the heavy lifting is taken care of by the aging Scottish caretaker Andy MacKee.

Dominating the shack that serves as the cemetery's office is a map of all the plots and the names of their owners. Plots that have been purchased but whose owners are still alive are marked with white pins, whereas occupied plots are marked with black pins. On his first day, one of Kraft's friends and the friend's new bride purchase two plots. The new chairman, not paying attention, inserts two black pins into the map. A short time later the newlyweds are killed in a car crash.

Of course Kraft finds it an eerie coincidence that his mistaken pins seem to have predicted the tragedy. The more he thinks about it, the more it bothers him. So, to put his mind at ease, he randomly replaces a white pin with a black pin and goes home for the evening. Soon afterward the owner of the plot with the switched pin color dies of seemingly natural causes.

Kraft confides in his uncle that he's beginning to feel like he killed those three people. His uncle laughs it off and convinces him to switch one more pin to prove how ridiculous his concerns are. The pin of the previous cemetery chairman is switched... and the man's fate is sealed. The man soon dies.

Our hero, approaching panic, contacts the police and tells them what's happened. The police try to calm him down, telling him that all of their investigations concluded that none of the deaths were caused by foul play. Kraft is unconvinced and begs the committee to release him as chairman. The three committee members insist on a final test; they demand that Kraft replace their white pins with black ones. The odds of all three dying at the same time are so remote that it will prove that there's nothing to the chairman's fears.

Kraft spends the night in the cemetery office, making frequent phone calls to verify that the other committee members are still alive. Soon, one is found dead in his home. Another dies only a few hours later. The final committee member, Kraft's uncle, visits the office. Although he claims that it's all nonsense, he's clearly in a panic and switches his own pin back to white, declaring that he's defeated fate. Later, when Kraft is told that his uncle never returned home, he goes out to look for him. He finds him dead in his car; he never made it off the cemetery grounds.

The police, finally believing that something strange may be going on, visit the cemetery office again. They give the chairman one more task; switch the pin of someone who is currently in France on business. All those who have died recently died within the town; perhaps this time it will be different. Kraft does as he's told, but he's convinced that he's about to murder yet another innocent.

Believing that the power to kill with the black pins lies within himself, Kraft goes mad with guilt. If he can kill with the black pin, he reasons, why can't he restore life with the white pin? Shaking, the cemetery chairman replaces the black pins of the recently deceased with white pins. He barricades the door and windows of the office, afraid that the reanimated will seek revenge, and waits for the inevitable. As he waits, the cemetery map seems to stare at him. It's not long before recently carved headstones tumble over and the soil over fresh graves is upturned.

Now, let's take a break here. At this point I'm on the edge of my seat thinking that this is one of the best classic movies I've ever seen. The buildup to this climax has been great, although the horror has been entirely psychological. Unlike my other favorites from 1958 like It! The Terror from Beyond Space (supposedly the uncredited inspiration for Alien) or Fiend Without a Face (radiation-spawned vampiric brains!), all but one death has occurred off-screen, and none of them seem to have any supernatural cause except for the coincidence of the pins. Yet, the movie has been pretty intense. Much of this is thanks to Richard Boone, who does an excellent job as a man who is caught in bizarre circumstances and feels intensely guilty for killing so many through the simple act of putting pins in a map. And out of his guilt he's replaced one horror (i.e., the ability to kill with the black pins), with another horror (i.e., reanimating the dead with the white pins). The scene in which Kraft awaits the resurrection of his victims while the map appears to grow larger and dominate the room is the highlight of the film and is one of my favorite moments of 1950's cinema.

When Kraft finally runs out of the shack and stumbles through the cemetery, he finds that the graves of the recently deceased are open. He returns to the office, takes a gun out of his desk, and holds it to his head. (At this point I'm eagerly awaiting the movie poster's promise that an "unspeakable horror" will crawl out of "a time-rotted tomb".)

Our hero hesitates when the phone rings. The voice on the other end of the line says that the man in France has died. It's at this moment that we notice that Andy MacKee, the caretaker, is standing in the office. The man is covered in dirt. (Uh... is he the unspeakable horror?) When Kraft finally notices him, Andy opens his mouth and... proceeds to ruin the movie. Andy says that the man in France can't be dead. Why not? Because Andy killed all the others in such a way as to make it look like natural causes(!?!). The massacre was part of the caretaker's plot to drive the chairman insane ever since he had tried to get the caretaker to retire. What about the open graves? They were dug up by Andy (in a single night?).

But the man in France is dead, declares Kraft. The chairman must still have the power to kill with the pins, but that power used Andy to do it. Overwhelmed by that possibility, the superstitious Andy begins to panic, falls against the map, and dies of fright. So, using the caretaker as the instrument of death doesn't ruin the movie too much as long as it was the pins that were the real cause, right? I mean, the dead guy in France proves it. But then...

The police burst into the office. They're surprised to find the caretaker dead and tell the chairman that they had intended to take MacKee into custody. You see, the police have suspected him this whole time. That's why they set up the fake phone call; it was an attempt to expose the caretaker. The man in France is very much alive. Movie ruined. The end.

Where shall I begin with this? I guess I should start with the fact that the Andy-did-it explanation makes no sense. He couldn't have caused the car crash that killed the first two victims. Did he get the idea after he saw Kraft's response to having mistakenly put two black pins in the map? Or did Andy replace the pins immediately after the crash to make Kraft superstitious? We saw the death of the third victim; it looks like he simply had a heart attack. Were there three coincidental deaths and Andy took care of the rest? The other victims are explicitly said to have died of natural causes, but Andy says he used his scarf to do it. Were coroners in the late '50s so inept as to miss the signs of suffocation or strangulation? How did the aging caretaker kill three men in a single night without being caught?

Second of all, I hate a Scooby-Doo ending. To me, nothing is lamer than a fake monster or ghost. This is why I never liked the original Scooby-Doo cartoons. Why would we want the swamp monster to be Old Man Winters instead of an actual monster? For heaven's sake, they've already given us a talking dog, is a real monster that unbelievable? To avoid wasting time, I will actually spoil the ending of a book or a movie for myself if there is any indication that the monster will turn out to be a hoax or the ghost will end up being a hallucination.

After so many good supernatural horror films came out in the '30s and early '40s, Hollywood began to turn away from fantastic horror and instead resorted to mysteries with more earthly explanations. Many of these films follow the old "spooky-house mystery" formula introduced in the '20s and involve fake hauntings that are inevitably the work of a disgruntled butler, a would-be heir, etc. Often the villain's motivation is to drive the protagonist or the protagonist's friend/associate/client insane. The point of these films is not to enjoy the ghostly scares but to figure out the "rational" explanation for what's going on.

By the mid-'50s quite a few horror films were being made, but they tended to avoid the supernatural by instead invoking aliens (e.g., It! The Terror from Beyond Space), radiation-spawned monsters (e.g., Them!), psychically-generated creatures (e.g., Forbidden Planet), and even psychically-generated, radiation-fueled monsters (e.g., Fiend Without a Face). It wasn't until the '60s and '70s that supernatural horrors returned to prominence.

Apparently, the creators of I Bury the Living also felt compelled to eschew unearthly causes and instead gave us an updated version of the spooky-house mystery, complete with a rational explanation in the form of the murderous Andy. Honestly, why would anyone think that the best way to end a movie that has spent nearly its entire running time proving that Robert Kraft can kill by putting a black pin in a map would be to tell us that the caretaker who doesn't want to retire did it? (Ironically, given the logistics of killing all those people, it would make more sense for the deaths to have been caused supernaturally.) Did anyone in the theaters in 1958 actually think, "Thank heavens it was Andy who did it. It would have been just too interesting if they were actually killed by the black pins."

If the last few minutes had given us an unspeakable horror crawling out of a time-rotted tomb, I Bury the Living would have been one of my favorite movies of the 1950s. Heck, if the film had cut off right after Kraft gets the phone call about the fate of the man in France, it still would have been a pretty good movie. But no, they had to ruin it. They had to take a fantastic, unique storyline, great acting, and a buildup on par with the best episodes of The Twilight Zone and then turn around and give it the same plot as dozens of tired spooky-house mysteries. I wanted inexplicable supernatural murders and reanimated corpses, dang it!

At the same time, the majority of the film is great, so I'm going to have to give it a split rating:
A (ignoring the last few minutes)/C (including the horrendous ending)

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