Thursday, January 19, 2017

THRILLER Thursday:
THE PREMATURE BURIAL

The Premature Burial.

The spider web fills the screen, it's Boris Karloff's THRILLER!



Season: 2, Episode: 3.
Airdate: Oct. 2, 1961

Director: Douglas Heyes.
Writer: William Gordon and Douglas Heyes, based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe.
Cast: Patricia Medina, Sidney Blackmer, Scott Marlowe, William Gordon, and Boris Karloff
Music: Morton Stevens.
Cinematography: Bud Thackery.
Producer: William Frye.



Boris Karloff’s Introduction: “The boundaries which separate life and death are shadowy and vague. Who is to say where exactly the one ends and the other begins? In certain mysterious maladies all functions of vitality in the human body seem to stop. And then, some unseen force sets that magic pinions and the wizard wheels in motion once again. The silver cords has not been cut, the golden bowl has not been broken. And the soul? One wonders. What meantime has happened to the soul? Many years ago, Edgar Allan Poe pondered the questions of mysterious sleeps and strange awakenings in a story entitled ‘The Premature Burial’. Well, we’ve prepared a new adaptation of that story for you to enjoy tonight. And tonight, Poe’s characters will be brought to life by... Patricia Medina as Victorine Lafourcade, Sidney Blackmer as Edward Stapleton, Scott Marlowe as Julian Boucher, William Gordon as Dr. March, and this sinister gentleman as Dr. Thorne. And as sure as his name is Boris Karloff, this is a Thriller!”



Synopsis: A rainy day. A funeral. Dr. Thorne (Boris Karloff) and Dr. March (William Gordon) watch as their friend Edward Stapleton (Sydney Blackmer) is laid to rest in his family crypt... today was to be his wedding day, but instead is his funeral. Thorne doesn’t understand how a 50 year old man in good health suddenly dies. He was Stapleton’s physician, but was away for few days so Dr. March attended to his sudden death. Was he poisoned? Dr. Thorne plans on pulling the coffin from the crypt and doing a post mortem... whether his bride-to-be Victorine likes it or not.

As everyone leaves the cemetery, the coffin inside the crypt begins moving... Shaking! It falls over and a hand breaks out from within and attempts to *open the coffin*! Failing, it becomes motionless.



Thorne and March bring the coffin back to the hospital, where Thorne is amazed that Stapleton’s skin is still pink... and he twitches a bit. March thinks perhaps a poison used to kill him may have also preserved the body. Thorne decides to try the galvanic battery on him - an early version of defribrillator paddles - to see if they can restart his heart. And it works! The dead man suddenly lurches to his feet, speaking gibberish... some sort of Frankenstein’s monster? He passes out - but his heart is beating, he’s alive! Alive!

Stapleton recovers in a hospital room... Dr. Thorne has diagnosed him with a form of catalepsy. Stapleton says he was never unconscious - he was aware of every moment he was trapped in that coffin. Aware of being pronounced dead when he was alive. It was worse than hell - completely paralyzed and unable to tell anyone that he was alive! He worries about Victorine, his bride-to-be. How is she taking his death?



Victorine (Patricia Medina) is busy making out with her lover Julian (Scott Marlowe), the painter hired by Stapleton to paint his soon-to-be wife. Unfortunately, Stapleton died *before* the marriage, so she is not a wealthy widow... and will be unable to continue paying for his artist loft and their secret relationship. There is an interesting age dynamic here - Julian is younger than Victorine (her boy-toy) and Stapleton is older than Victorine (making her his trophy wife). The age differences in the relationships bring out all sorts of character conflicts in both couples - it’s an important element in the story. Just as they kiss, the doorbell rings...

Dr. Thorne tells the widow that she may put away her grief... Edward Stapleton is alive.

At the hospital, Thorne tells Victorine that Stapleton is terrified that he will be buried alive again, so he has notified every doctor in the county of his condition and shows her a medical bracelet and neck medallion he has created for Stapleton to wear which say “Do Not Bury Me” with information about his condition, this way there will be no mistakes... no reason for Stapleton to fear a premature burial again. Thorne believes that Stapleton over-exerted himself in an attempt to impress his younger fiancĂ©, and that lead to his attack. So please - when he is discharged from the hospital, make sure he does not over-exert himself again.

Julian sees a second chance at inheritance - Victorine can now marry Stapleton, and if he dies they’ll become rich.



Wedding bells. A strange honeymoon night - Stapleton shows her the crypt in the backyard of his estate that he designed and had built while he was in the hospital recovering. The stone door can be opened automatically by pressing a lever. There is ventilation, and water and food and blankets... and a dram of good brandy. The coffin is designed for comfort, and there is a cord which she is to *personally* place in his dead hands - if he revives inside the coffin he can pull the cord and ring a bell on the roof of the crypt. If she hears the bell, she is to come to the crypt and rescue him. He makes her promise that he will not be buried anywhere but in this crypt, with the cord in his hands. He will not live through being buried alive again.

As they settle into marriage, Stapleton takes it easy in his library - playing his lyre and reading Sir. Walter Scott... and Victorine finds ways to prod him into over exerting himself again. She suggests they travel...



While on holiday she does everything in her power to push him to his limits, and finally he collapses in the woods. She carefully removes the medical bracelet and medallion, rolls a stone away and buries them underneath... then calls for a doctor.

Stapleton is *not* taken home to be buried, but buried in that foreign land. Not in his special coffin, in his special crypt... but in a standard coffin (with a small glass window for viewing the body) buried in the ground. Awesome shot from inside the coffin at Victorine and the other mourners as the dirt is shoveled over the small window.



Wealthy widow Victorine Stapleton visits her lover Julian and tells him that now she can give him *everything* she has promised him. They get it on!

Dr. Thorne visits the widow , he is executor of Stapleton’s estate. He wonders why (and how) the medical bracelet and necklace were missing from his body... you see, he’s been doing a little investigating. Victorine believes the medals - made of silver - were probably stolen. “Are you certain that Edward was dead when they buried him?” She gets angry at the hidden accusation in that question - isn’t Thorne’s reason to be here a discussion of Stapleton’s will? Yes - Stapleton left his entire fortune to her. Just one thing - for her to inherit, Stapleton’s body must be buried in that special crypt with that cord in his dead hands. No inheritance until his body has been moved. Yikes!



Dr. Thorne will oversee the transportation of the body - all she has to do is sign the exhumation request. If she refuses, Stapleton’s fortune goes to his cousins. She signs.

The special crypt. The coffin he was buried in is opened, and his corpse transferred to his special coffin. Dr. Thorne places the cord between his dead hands... closes the coffin lid. Victorine watches, repulsed by all of this. Before the crypt’s stone door is closed, she places a picnic basket of canned food inside.

That night, Julian comes to the house to celebrate their new fortune, their new relationship... but that crypt in the backyard is a huge buzz-kill. How can they have a relationship with her dead husband out there? Julian laughs, “Let the old jack in the box deteriorate where it pleases him. We probably owe him that, darling.” Victorine relaxes, drinks to her dead husband... and the soon-to-be husband across from her. But before they can kiss, the bell tolls.

Not Wedding Bells...

The bell from the crypt...

The bell with the cord in Stapleton’s dead hands.

Julian believes it’s just the wind... until the crypt’s door opens!

Julian and Victorine creep into the vault to make sure he’s still dead in his coffin...



But the coffin is empty.

In the moonlight, Victorine sees a man in a shroud wandering the grounds in the distance. Impossible! Impossible! The man had been buried for six weeks! No food. No water. He can not have still been alive! Victorine freaks out.

Julian is still trying to find some rational explanation - but there really isn’t any.



In the library, Stapleton’s Sir Walter Scott book is open on his chair, his lyre nearby. Did these things get there on their own? Julian believes it is Dr. Thorne - who suspects, doesn’t he? - pretending to be Stapleton, placing these things in the library. It’s all Thorne’s evil trick! In the window behind Julian - the corpse of Stapelton in its shroud! Freak out moment! As the corpse glides away from the window, Julian yells for Thorne to come back - to take off the shroud and show himself.

Julian takes Victorine upstairs to her bedroom - she needs to rest. But on the bed - the medical bracelet and necklace! How could they get there? No one knew where she buried it... except Stapleton! His eyes were open as he lay there... he saw her! Only he knew where she buried them!

Then the lyre music drifts up from the library.



When they get to the library, the lyre is there but no shrouded corpse. But then Victorine sees him in the window watching them. She grabs Stapleton’s pistol and hands it to Julian, “You’ll have to kill him.” Julian takes the pistol, aims it at the shrouded form, “I see you Thorne, now leave us alone! Leave us alone, or so help me I’ll shoot!” Before he can fire, a voice behind him... Dr. Thorne. Then who was that in the window? Victorine looks from the corpse in the window over to Thorne - two different people. “It was never you... it *was* Edward!” Then she faints.

Julian and Thorne carry her to her bed... then Thorne asks Julian if Stapleton is alive? The crypt door is open, the bell rang? Julian says it is impossible... but Dr. Thorne says it is possible - men have survived long periods of cataleptic coma, like a bear in hibernation. He and Julian go downstairs... where the front door opens and Stapelton enters. Wrapped in his shroud. He slowly approaches Julian - close enough that the artists can see his face. It *is* Stapleton! He slowly walks upstairs. A hand on Julian’s shoulder - Thorne. The doctor says that Stapleton is alive and wants to be with his wife. He wants to share his joy of being alive with the woman who loves him. Julian says that she never loved Stapleton, she just married him for his money... so that she and Julian could be wealthy together. Dr. Thorne asks Julian if Victorine knowingly buried Stapleton alive? Yes! “The necklace and bracelet - she took them off him and buried them under a stone.”

Upstairs, Stapleton’s shrouded corpse wakes up Victorine... who is now close to insane.

Victorine comes downstairs holding the necklace, says she tried to persuade Stapleton to put it back on... maybe Dr. Thorne can help her. She’s gone over the edge.



That’s when Stapleton’s corpse glides to the top of the staircase. Thorne asks him to come downstairs... and Julian freaks out. Tries to run away. But Thorne grabs him. As Stapleton’s corpse slowly comes down the stairs, Julian admits to everything - Victorine drove Stapleton to another attack, hid the necklace and bracelet, did not tell the doctors of his condition, had him buried in foreign soil... all of this so that they could be together and inherit his fortune! Stapleton keeps climbing down the stairs, closer, closer, closer! His face a pale mask - skin white! After Julian has confessed to everything, implicated Victorine in murder; Stapleton’s corpse touches him... the Stapleton reaches up and *takes off his face*.

It is a pale white mask - Stapleton’s death mask. Underneath it - Dr. March.

When Dr. Thorne went to retrieve the body, he went to the place in the woods where he had died... and found a stone with no moss on it. Moved. Underneath the stone - the bracelet and necklace. And inside the coffin? Stapleton had been buried alive and tried to claw his way out! Died a horrible death from suffocation inside that coffin. Murdered by Victorine. The only way to prove it - get Victorine and Julian to admit their guilt.



Review:One of the most interesting things about this episode is how it uses the raw material of Poe’s story in unusual ways. The Karloff introduction is almost taken word for word from Poe’s introduction in the story. Though the narrator in Poe’s story is the fellow who is buried alive, he tells us of previous incidents of people buried before their time - including the story of Victorine and Julian (a writer in the story instead of a painter & sculptor) - she was the one buried alive in that story. Also the story of Stapleton, who broke open his coffin inside his crypt... but was unable to escape the stone slab which walled him inside... they later discovered his skeleton! By taking all of these pieces and reforming them into a Weird Tales type story of murder and revenge, we have a great Season 2 entry... and great roles for both Karloff and the screenwriter as doctors!



The story has traces of Poe’s TELL TALE HEART mixed in around the halfway point, where the dead man haunts his two killers, and that’s what makes this episode more than just the original Poe story... turning it into something that will make you squirm and scream. All kinds of nice horror moments, and that great moment where they think it’s Thorne pretending to be Stapleton... but Thorne is in the room behind them. Kind of a jump moment and a twist all in one.

That idea of having the corpse return for revenge is a stroke of genius, and we have to give a bunch of credit to screenwriter William Gordon (who gets to play the corpse) for coming up with a way to turn the creepy Poe story about being buried alive into an all out scare-fest. The great twist that it’s a scam to force the killers into admitting their guilt is icing on an already delicious cake. This episode was made a year before the Corman AIP version, and I think they did more in an hour than the feature did in half again as much time. Here’s the link to that movie.



Some great direction in this episode as well, with shots like the one from inside the coffin as the dirt is being shoveled into a grave a stand out. Some great low angles and high angles and moving camera shots and reveals. One of the things the elevate the good episodes of the series is the *cinema* style direction (based on specific shots) and often is present in the bad episodes is the “TV style direction” (master shot, close up, coverage - but no specific shots). It seems like there was a secret war of direction styles going on behind the scenes, between old school like television style and movie style on this show... which points out the importance of directors. Even with the same DP, one director turns in a pedestrian episode and another turns in an amazing episode.

And this is one of the handful of episodes where Karloff gets to do more than hosting duties. He’s basically the lead character, here, and gives a great performance again. Karloff’s deal on the show involved getting the chance to act in some of the episodes, and even though he was an old man at the time he always seems to give it his all when he could have easily coasted. This was the guy who played the monster in the original FRANKENSTEIN back in 1931... and thirty years later he’s using electricity to bring a dead guy back to life.

Season 2 of THRILLER is on a roll! And next week is another great episode - the weirdly twisted Robert Bloch story about a custom made suit... where the custom is demon worship!

- Bill

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