Playing out like an extended episode of "The Twilight Zone" or "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour", I BURY THE LIVING, is a perfect example of a public domain (or PD) title being done to death on the digital format. A few budget companies have released it on DVD throughout the years, but MGM's edition (as part of their "Midnite Movies" line) was the most pristine-looking since they actually have official rights through their ownership of the United Artists catalogue. Although MGM's DVD of the film had superior clarity and sharpness, it was presented full frame/open matte which is the incorrect aspect ratio (Elite Entertainment managed to release it 1.85:1 anamorphic, as part of a “Drive-In Discs” DVD double feature, but the print source was otherwise noticeably inferior). Shout! Factory, through their Scream Factory arm, finally delivers the definitive version of this creepy black & white chiller with this much anticipated Blu-ray.
For those not familiar with I BURY THE LIVING, the plot has Robert Kraft (Richard Boone, THE LAST DINOSAUR), newly appointed as director of the Immortal Hills cemetery. A heavily-accented and immediately suspicious aging Scottish caretaker named Andy McKee (Theodore Bikel, DARKER THAN AMBER) alerts Kraft to a massive, surrealistic wall map of cemetery plots whose occupants are marked by black and white pins. The occupied plots are black, while those living with purchased plots are represented by white. When Kraft replaces a couple of white pins with black ones, the respective parties perish in car accidents, have heart attacks or coronary failure or worse. Kraft tells everyone, but they all think it a coincidence, and sticking more pins where they don't belong causes more deaths. Rather than learn from the bizarre phenomenon, Kraft tests the waters a few more times with the same lethal results.
I BURY THE LIVING has superlative cinematography, the appropriate mood and chilling music but the script lacks in delivering shocks. The film has some gaping plot holes which are hard to ignore, making one wonder just what producer/writer Louis Garfinkle (FACE OF FIRE, THE DEER HUNTER) had in mind with this odd little pastiche of a film? If Kraft knows his pin-sticking penchant produces death and destruction why does he continue to merrily dispense of the townsfolk, and why do other interested parties encourage him to do so? Does caretaker Andy have a secret because he certainly acts like a person who does? Could Kraft have more than just a little modern voodoo going on in that old cottage on the cemetery grounds? Might he be hiding a nifty, well-stocked bar somewhere in there with an abundance of spirits? There’s also a lack of supernatural or occult happenings that the advertising and eerie low-key cinematography were leading up to. Often cited as a favorite of author Stephen King, you would expect the film to be more in the league of CARNIVAL OF SOULS or NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (both which also became became public domain stapes). On the contrary, the dead do not return to haunt the living nor do zombies rise from their graves (though in one particular scene we see the earth above a grave in the cemetery move, suggesting something we all wish had happened). This is far more of a film noir/crime mystery than a tale of terror – and veritable tease-tale at that – so it’s best enjoyed under that expectation.
Richard Boone (who at the time was riding high on television as the star of HAVE GUN - WILL TRAVEL, after a successful run on MEDIC) and the great Theodore Bikel acquit themselves most effectively and go the distance in the acting department, though Bikel (in heavy old-age makeup) fluctuates between a Scottish and Yiddish accent. In fact, all of the actors involved in this film are quite good and 1950s television perennial Peggy Maurer is perfectly believable, sweet and convincing as Kraft's adoring fiancée in her limited scenes. Also in the cast are Howard Smith (one of a handful of actors who played Ralph Kramden’s boss in “The Honeymooners” skits on the 1950s version of “The Jackie Gleason Show”) and Herbert Anderson (familiar as Henry Mitchell, the lovable dad on “Dennis the Menace” which ran from 1959-1963).
In his second producer/director gig, future B movie mogul Albert Band (DRACULA’S DOG) does an above average job of keeping things suspenseful and it is more of a character study (a la FACE OF FIRE, one of Band's other attempts at the macabre, and a terrific one at that) than an all-out shocker. Gerald Fried's score is magnificently menacing which harkens back to his dynamic work on RETURN OF DRACULA. The harpsichord strings are reminiscent of Andre Previn's score for DEAD RINGER and additionally evokes the sounds of William Castle flicks of the 1950s (the music from both I BURIED THE LIVING plus RETURN OF DRACULA were available together on a CD soundtrack). The splendid black and white cinematography by Frederick Gately is complimented by the full-throttle, wild talent of Slavko Vorkapich (responsible for those fantastic Aztec tableaux and 3-D effects in THE MASK (1961) aka EYES OF HELL). Vorkapich's career went all the way back to the days of silent film and his work is truly accomplished here. The map of the cemetery with pins in place, at a distance, resembles large, surrealistic and frightening eyes. The occasional visual effects on display are quite funky and original.
As stated, I BURY THE LIVING was subjected to numerous PD releases, but since MGM “officially” holds rights, Shout! Factory licensed it in a package of films, and recently released it on DVD as part of a single-disc, four-film “Movies 4 You” collection through Timeless Media. Since Shout! still holds video rights, this allows for this Scream Factory-branded Blu-ray, with the expected handsome results. Presented in 1080p HD in the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, I BURY THE LIVING has been newly-mastered from a fine grain print that shows little wear or significant blemishes. For anyone who has only seen the film full frame/open matte, the intended compositions as presented here definitely complement the viewing experience, as does the significant upgrade in detail over the previous DVD versions. The contrast on this black and white flick is quite convincing throughout the presentation, offering severely deep black levels and nicely modulated gray scale. Grain is tight and never obtrusive, and this is a very pleasing organic-looking transfer. I BURY THE LIVING features an English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono mix, and the dialogue-driven film, and the sound is presented cleanly and clearly. An original trailer (definitely not in HD) and a still gallery are the extras here. (George R. Reis)
BACK TO REVIEWS