Richard Boone exemplifies the star of yesteryear. He was not a twenty-something, pretty Twilight boy chiseled out of wax. He was craggy and already middle-aged when cast as Paladin in “Have Gun Will Travel,” television’s greatest westerns series. Boone was a perfect anti-hero and a memorable, complex villain in countless films, including Budd Boetticher‘s The Tall T (1957). Despite his rough exterior, Boone was an erudite actor, and his proudest accomplishment may have been the tragically short-lived “Richard Boone Show” (1963) which brought repertory theater to small screen American audiences (even if, predictably, the fare was too original for that audience). Boone’s way to starring roles from character parts was a slow one, and his early body of work included low budget genre films, such as the quirky, flawed gem, I Bury The Living (1958).
Boone, one year into the iconic “Have Gun Will Travel,” is as understated in I Bury the Living as the movie’s title is trashy. The film was directed by prolific Z-movie director Albert Band (father of Full Moon Productions’ Charles Band), who gives it a brooding, British noir milieu, employing psychedelic montages (shot by cinematographer Frederick Gatelyand) and expressionist sets (from Edward Vorkapich). It plays like an extended “Twilight Zone” episode with one noticeable difference: an ending which almost kills it.
Bob Kraft (Boone) inherits the family graveyard. Former groundskeeper Andy McKee (Theodore Bikel, who gives a good performance despite an awful Scottish accent) is retiring after 40 years. McKee shows Kraft a large map of the cemetery. The map is basically a pin board: white pins indicate an empty plot, and black ones an occupied plot. When Kraft accidentally places a black pin in the plot assigned to a living person, that person dies. And so it goes. Kraft goes mad after multiple deaths, believing he has the power of life and death via those pins.
What is most remarkable about the film is its low budget style (shot almost entirely in a L.A. cemetery), including what may be the creepiest map in celluloid history. The map transforms several times, growing menacingly. It is like Doran Grey’s canvas as if painted by Franz Kline. In one effective vignette, the map looks like a giant mirror adorned in black pins. Kraft’s mental state and Gerald Fried’s thrashing score parallel the mirror.
A film like this should have gone out in a blaze of glory. Instead, a cop-out finale unconvincingly reveals a disgruntled employee and we don’t buy it one bit. The final montage pulls out all the “Twilight Zone” stops in a imitative way. Despite the flaws, I Bury the Living is deserving of its sleeper status. Unfortunately , the producers did little to promote it, and the film became buried until it became a mild cult favorite, fell into the public domain, and was lauded by that Fort Knox of obscure genre gold: Sinister Cinema.