The poster to the left should be appreciated only for its classic b-movie horror style; it has little resemblance to the film itself, leading one to surmise that the poster artist had perhaps only read the title of this 1958 film and not a screenplay. Amusingly, if it had been a film made forty years later in the career of director Albert Band, it might have been more fitting. Band, for whom this was his second film, would go on to direct and produce a filmography that includes Ghoulies II, Trancers III, and the original Troll.
Like those films, I Bury the Living is essentially a B-movie. However, it is somewhat more grounded in its premise, and it has a bona fide star in the lead role: Richard Boone, best known for his role as Paladin in Have Gun, Will Travel.
Of course, Paladin would have solved this thing in 15 minutes.
Boone plays businessman Robert Kraft, who is part of a large corporate conglomerate. One of the rotating duties of the company executives is that each of them will serve for a year as chairman of the local cemetery, as a community service. Kraft’s turn has come up, and although he’s not very happy about it, he reluctantly obliges. He is assured, both by his fellow executives and the groundskeeper (Theodore Bikel), that his duties won’t be too onerous. Groundskeeper Andy takes care of most of the actual work, and though he’s getting on in years, he’s sprightly and cheerful, and tries to help Kraft keep a level head about the macabre nature of their work. This proves difficult within a few days of Kraft taking the job. Kraft’s duties involve keeping the map of the grounds up to date. Pins are inserted into the various plots on the ground; no pin for an empty plot, a white pin for a plot that’s been purchased in advance, and black for a plot that is filled. When a young couple he’s acquainted with buy a couple of plots to fulfill an inheritance requirement, Kraft distractedly puts a pair of black pins into their plots on the map. The next day he receives word they have died in an auto accident.
Kraft is naturally set reeling from this, both with the grief and the vague feeling of guilt. He feels as though he marked his friends for death. The others around him try to assure him he’s just imagining things, and ascribing too much importance to a coincidence… but when he absentmindedly swaps a plot’s white pin out for a black one, the man who purchased the plot dies of a coronary that very night. Kraft is shaken, and it’s interesting to see Boone — always calm and collected when playing Paladin — so clearly terrified in his appearance.
It helps that for a long stretch of the film, the film keeps it an open question as to what exactly is going on. Is Kraft having psychic premonitions telling him who is going to die? Is pushing black pins in the map somehow causing people to die? Or is Kraft merely riding the mother of all unlucky streaks? The question becomes both muddier and more urgent as Kraft’s friends and colleagues conduct experiments with the board to convince him it’s all in his mind.
At which point does this go from reasonable skepticism to negligent homicide?
While a b-movie at heart, it’s an entertaining psychological thriller rather than a creature feature. The deaths themselves are unseen; it’s not going for gore or cheap scares. Rather, the film is about Kraft’s downward spiral into paranoia over his apparent ability to drive healthy men and women to death through a corkboard map. The premise of such a film relies almost entirely on the actor who is in the lead role; fortunately, Richard Boone is up to the task of making the film interesting.