10/10/2018 – 1950s: I Bury the Living (1958)
Directed by Albert Band
The 1940s were a letdown in terms of innovation, but the 1950s saw a rapid expansion in terms of both production and variety. While the first two decades were dominated by Universal style gothic horror, the advent of cheaper color photography and Universals own decline in relevance changed that. The genre moved away from the dark, foggy manors and cities out of the 1800s into the present day and beyond.
Once again, we’ll start with Universal, last seen resurrecting their horror properties with the Abbott and Costello films. It was clear from their very existence that people while people still liked the classic Universal monsters, their time had passed. The studio would produce three more in the series, the clear highlight being Bud Abbott and Lou Costello Meet the Invisible Man, but with 1955’s Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, their storied franchise came to an ignoble end. The studio would launch the last of their classic monsters in 1954 with Creature from the Black Lagoon, a 3D film which despite its status as a classic is held back by Jack Arnolds typical misogyny and a dullness that keeps it from recapturing the success of their best works. While it would have two more sequels in Revenge of the Creature (also 3D) and The Creature Walks Among Us, the series always felt disconnected from their earlier ones, and more in line with the new era of B-movies.
Jack Arnold was a mainstay of Universal’s horror output, directing It Came from Outer Space, This Island Earth (butchered for the MST3K movie), Tarantula, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and The Monster on Campus. While I have a decided distaste for the tone of his films (The Incredible Shrinking Man is still great), they do point to major change in horror, the move towards bringing in heavy sci-fi elements. The rest of their catalog runs from mediocre to poor MST fare (there’s a reason the show picked heavily from the 1950s, especially early on), highlighted by The Monolith Monsters and the horror-western Curse of the Undead.
Universal wasn’t the only prominent studio operating in the ’50s however as another rose to power across the Atlantic. Hammer Film Productions may have been founded in 1934 (their first horror title was The Mystery of the Mary Celeste in 1935), but it wasn’t until their Quatermass films (beginning with The Quatermass Xperiment in 1955) and their remakes of the Universal classic horror films that the studio took off. Their films may not regularly reach great heights, but they were solid, colorful, and at the time bolder and bloodier than what their American counterparts were doing.
The first of these remakes, The Curse of Frankenstein (like its Universal counterpart, it would go on to be the best of the bunch), was made in 1957 with a sequel following in 1958. Dracula (also known as The Blood of Dracula), The Mummy and The Hound of the Baskervilles were released in 1959, all starring a rotating cast of regulars, most notably Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee who would carry the films even more than the lush color cinematography.
In the US, another company was getting its start, but their product was far trashier. The films of American International Pictures personified the kind of schlock that filled drive-ins during the era, appealing to teens with cheap scares. Films like I Was a Teenage Werewolf, The Amazing Colossal Man, Blood of Dracula, and The Screaming Skull, none of which were good (the exception being A Bucket of Blood), but they would have frequently great names, posters, and promise in the present day of a good laugh.
Not all the B-movies of the era were terrible as the cheesy monster goodness sometimes gave way to something more. The first adaptation of the novella Who Goes There?, The Thing from Another World took the alien invader film and added themes of paranoia, themes which would be even better explored in 1956’s classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers. House of Wax launched the starring horror career of Vincent Price while becoming the first color 3D film. Master of the promotion William Castle, already an established director, transitioned to horror with Macabre and the Vincent Price starring House on Haunted Hill (his masterpiece) and The Tingler combining fun B-movies with silly gimmicks (such as life insurance policies for moviegoers should they die of fright and vibrating seats). Them! both helped establish and set a standard for the giant mutated animal subgenre.
Relatedly, in Japan, heavily influenced by the previous year’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (Ray Harryhausen’s debut film as effects lead), Ishirō Honda crafted the dark atomic bomb parable Godzilla which would become the basis for the kaiju genre. Subsequent entries in the Godzilla series (Godzilla Raids Again), in Japan (including Honda’s Rodan), and abroad (including It Came from Beneath the Sea and 20 Million Miles to Earth) would lose trade the somber tone for more lighthearted entertainment and while none would recapture Godzilla‘s quality, they still made for fun films.
Godzilla and the Hammer films weren’t the only films outside the US as foreign horror rebounded after two down decades. Staying in Japan, Tōkaidō Yotsuya kaidan stands out from its American brethren for its visuals and psychological horror, while The H-Man and The Manster (actually an American film but using a largely Japanese cast and production crew) add some necessary weirdness. The French film Les diaboliques, likewise took the psychological horror elements, but added them to a fantastic suspense thriller. Norway also had a standout horror title in Lake of the Dead while Finland did in The White Reindeer, Britain a great one in Night of the Demon and Mexico a solid one in El vampiro.
Rounding things up, we have The Bad Seed, which was still effective even with a ridiculous ending and codified the creepy child subgenre of horror as well as the wonderful James Mason-narrated, animated version of The Tell-Tale Heart, original, modestly entertaining versions of The Fly (starring Vincent Price) and The Blob.
I Bury the Living stars Richard Boone as Robert Kraft (“beloved” owner of the New England Patriots), a man who takes over a cemetery reluctantly. The caretaker is an old man with a comical Scottish accent. After accidentally marking the two plots of a young, just married couple with black pins (which indicate someone has been buried) instead of white ones (indicating a plot is reserved), they wind up dying Fearing that he’s marked them for death, Kraft tries it randomly on someone else to test his theory because why not and a kindly seeming old man dies of a heart attack.
There is a complete disregard for human life by almost everyone in this movie. Deaths get laughed off and Kraft gets asked to prove countless times that he is deciding who dies each night. He just keeps murdering people to really prove the point this time well past the point of any coincidence. Heck, after the first time, was it worth gambling with a man’s life? Yet Kraft, the committee (one person essentially tells him “if you murder someone and I’ll let you resign”), the police, almost everybody seems to think putting random innocents or their own lives in harm’s way is worth it just to prove that it’s all some big joke.
SPOILERS1 There are some genuinely cool nightmarish shots to depict madness throughout, growing as our protagonist descends deeper into his despair. The dark and dingy atmosphere favors a simple setup, one that traps him frequently in that cemetery office. I was going to make a comment about how it just felt like a lengthy episode of an anthology show, perhaps padded a bit to make it to barely over an hour and a quarter, with the person I was watching the film with comparing it to Tales from the Crypt, and yet it seems that we’re hardly the first people to think along those lines as SFX critic Ian Berriman already called it “basically just like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone, but that’s no bad thing, since it’s like a good episode”.
And he’s not wrong about that last bit for it is a good movie. The characters’ actions are frustrating (which is where the Tales from the Crypt comparisons came in), but Boone wears his weariness all over him and is a fascinating subject.
Bonus Episode #16 – A – 1950s: The Black Sleep (1956)
Directed by Reginald Le Borg
I was excited for House of Long Shadows for its surprisingly stacked cast, but The Black Sleep contains quite a collection of its own. It even shares a supporting actor in John Carradine. I won’t pretend the Basil Rathbone, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Legosi (in his final, non-stock footage film), Carradine, and most importantly Tor Johnson (as well as multiple Oscar nominee Akim Tamiroff) hold the same level of appeal as the four in that later movie, but it’s appealing all the same. And what better way to celebrate a decade that moved away from the gothic trappings of the previous two decades than by watching a film filming starring many veterans of that period in a glorious black and white gothic setting complete with abbey on a hill shrouded in darkness.
In 1872 England, a doctor (Dr. Ramsay played by Herbert Rudley) about to be executed on circumstantial evidence meets with his friend, fellow doctor Sir Cadman (played by Rathbone). He claims he was knocked out while having an argument and couldn’t have committed the crimes. Cadman gives Dr. Ramsay a drug from the Punjab region (Nind Andhera) which is able to place people into a state resembling death, yet not of death and has the body sent to him after Dr. Ramsay is declared dead. Dr. Ramsay is revived and becomes the assistant in Cadman’s secret laboratory (hidden behind the fireplace) where he has been conducting research into the fact that certain parts of the brain concern certain functions.
Aside from one scene with an exposed brain, it could just as easily be from an earlier era. Everything about it is stock mad scientist tale that proceeds just about the way you’d expect. Don’t get too excited about that great cast either as this film wastes its talent even more than House of Long Shadows. Only Rathbone gets a worthwhile role of them while the rest are largely reduced to the freaks of the story. Instead, we are stuck with Rudley who is stiff and lifeless in such a major role. I can’t say that the film was shot with any particular style either. The Black Sleep is just another generic Gothic horror movie, a film damned perhaps most by how little impact it leaves.
Next up: Claire Denis and her controversial 2001 film Trouble Every Day.