Corman has, in many ways, become a victim of his own legend. It doesn't help that he is more well known as a producer than a director: a trash guru working gleefully outside the system giving a generation of American filmmakers space to hone their craft on shameless exploitation films. As a director his films are usually seen as benefiting from a certain ironic distance, as outre genre schlock with a wink to the audience. The laughs that invariably accompany a Corman retrospective aren't necessarily the malicious cackles of of those who believe they are above the film (although those are surely also to be heard) but the sympathetic titters of an audience who believe themselves to be 'in on the joke.' Not to risk ignoring the very real humor in many Corman films – perhaps most notable in his rushed diptych Bucket of Blood and Little Shop of Horrors – there is ultimately so much more to be gained in watching Corman than a knowing sense of kitsch or a respect for maverick film-making.
The Premature Burial, the third entry in Corman's celebrated series of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, may seem like a strange place to take the stand of Corman as artist; it's a distinctly minor entry in the series, not looking as gorgeous as The Masque of Red Death nor possessing the same thematic weight as Tomb of Ligeia – not even casting the usual star of the series, Vincent Price, but instead Ray Milland. It's telling, however, how many virtues can be found in even so minor an entry in the Corman corpus, and it's often the minor works that help to reveal aspects of the filmmaker's vision that would otherwise stay buried. The Premature Burial almost resembles a B-side of the previous year's Pit and the Pendulum (though showing only touches of that film's psychedelic expressionism): in addition to the usual features of the Poe series (neurotic men living in mansions within a valley of fog) both films star men who share an unconfirmed but unshakeable belief that a loved one had long ago been buried alive. While The Pit and the Pendulum features this as but one of a series of threads The Premature Burial focuses in on this neurosis with laser-like precision.
Like so many films of the Poe cycle The Premature Burial has an outsider enter into the world of a neurotic man living with a few others in a secluded mansion, in this case Emily Gault (Hazel Court) the lover and eventual wife of Guy Carrell (Milland). Guy fears he has inherited a condition he believes his father to have had that leaves the sufferer paralyzed with no signs of life but still alive. Guy has built an elaborate mausoleum for himself, with fail-safe after fail-safe to ensure his escape should he ever meet his greatest fear. Should a trap door fail he has a store of dynamite, should the dynamite fail has a bell that will alert anyone to his survival. His final fail-safe, however, is his most telling. “What is it?” he starts with a certain glee, “the cure for all suffering. The answer to all problems. The key, my darling, to heaven. Or to hell. Or to nothingness. Poison.” His fear of premature burial is not, in the end, a fear of a particularly cruel and ironic death but of paralysis and confinement.
Other Corman protagonists are haunted by their past – the endless parade of evil ancestors in House of Usher, the sins of the father in Pit and the Pendulum – but Guy is haunted by his present, the physical conditions in which he lives. It is mentioned in the film that the body and the mind are far more intertwined than most people believe The mansion and the privileges it represents that should free him instead only serve to leave him shackled and confined until it becomes like a tomb. This is underlined most obviously in scenes – most notably a wedding scene – shot through bars, and Milland's torment is palatable throughout. The film ultimately functions less as a horror film than as a tragedy of madness.
It's not a perfect movie – I would suggest two or three other places to start with Corman's Poe series – but it's an effecting psychological drama that takes on chilling tragic notes as Guy inevitably fulfills his role as both Angel of Vengeance and Monster. There are those who will probably never be able to fully appreciate Corman's films without the comforting distance of irony. They laugh over the portraits of madness, the firm grasp of form, the shots behind fireplaces that imply the characters are already among the damned. Let them have their laughs, they too are among the damned already.