I Bury the Living (1958)

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“Cemetery director Robert Kraft discovers that by arbitrarily changing the status of plots from empty to occupied on the planogram causes the death of the plots’ owners.” — IMDb

I’ve heard of this movie being referred to as just a long episode of The Twilight Zone and that is accurate for sure (and pretty perfect, I kinda wish I had come up with the comparison myself). It’s moody and a little silly at times and dramatic and while the ending was a disappointment, it has such an original storyline leading up to it that you can almost forgive it. (Almost.) Directed by Albert Band (father of Charles Band, who is known for quite a few B movies himself), it was referenced as a favorite of Stephen King’s back in his 1981 non-fiction book Danse Macabre, though even he criticized the ending.

Robert Kraft (played by Richard Boone, who was primarily known for his roles in Westerns at the time) is to take over as chairman of a committee that oversees Immortal Hills Cemetery, much to his chagrin. As he is learning the ins and outs of operations from the caretaker, Andy (Theodore Bikel), he is shown the cemetery’s map, where pins are used to mark the plots — white for the living and black for the dead. When he accidentally marks a newly wed young couples’ recently acquired plot with black pins instead of white and they turn up dead the next day, he becomes suspicious, and upon further testing seems to realize he has the ability to take lives with the simple placement of a pin…

** SPOILERS! **

This movie surprisingly flies under the radar considering how solid of a film it is. It’s no masterpiece, but I thought the acting was great (particularly by Boone) and the atmosphere throughout is fantastic.

The thing that got me was how much it focuses on Kraft being wracked with guilt. This is not a movie where someone realizes they have some kind of supernatural power and uses it to exact revenge, or even for some kind of vigilante justice… he is just straight up horrified about the power he wields and is consumed with regret. He doesn’t believe it’s simply the map that holds the power, since others have come before him and utilized the same map… he believes it’s the combination of the map and something evil inside of himself. “I destroyed them. Something in me killed them.”

There’s one shot in particular when he is sort of staggering around the office after he has decided he must also be able to bring people back to life by changing their pins to white. He is bumbling around and locking the doors and windows and he comes to rest against a locked window and you see him in silhouette from outside the building and then they used a sort of zooming out effect with the film and just… awesome.

There’s all of this tension and dread building up after he runs around the cemetery and finds the graves of the people he supposedly killed all dug up — you start to think that he was right, he has brought them back from the dead, and who knows what their plan is now? But then — after a particularly tense (and brilliantly shot) scene with the caretaker, we realize it was simple murder all along. The guy is pissed that his job was being taken away (they simply offered him a retirement plan so the dude could chill a bit in his old age) so he went on a killing spree. It’s an awesome scene, really — he’s standing under a single light as the banging from the outside (which turns out to be the police) gets louder and louder, giving his explanation to Kraft — but it’s a bummer of an ending since the whole supernatural story was a fascinating one. It almost felt lazy, as if they didn’t know quite where to go so they pinned it on the caretaker. A let down, for sure.

But overall, totally worth the watch, if for nothing else than the awesome use of lighting and simple techniques to evoke dread and tension.

Rating: 5/10 | Director: Albert Band | Writer: Louis Garfinkle | Cinematographer: Frederick Gately | Music: Gerald Fried | Starring: Richard Boone, Theodore Bikel, Peggy Maurer, Howard Smith, Herbert Anderson

 

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