Search This Blog

Saturday, October 15, 2016

HubrisWeen 4, Day 10: I Bury the Living (1958)

HubrisWeen is a 26-day blogging marathon where a seasonally-appropriate movie gets reviewed every day from October 6 to the 31st in alphabetical order. Click on the banner above this message to go to the central site and see what Checkpoint Telstar and the other participants are covering today.

Original story and screenplay by Louis Garfinkle
Directed by Albert Band

Richard Boone:  Albert Kraft
Theodore Bikel:  Andy McKee
Peggy Maurer:  Ann Craig
Robert Osterloh:  Lieutenant Claiborne

Man, I kinda wish that B movie filmmakers in the Fifties were willing to go with an explicitly supernatural explanation for their horror movies more often. Unfortunately it was a time where culturally, people were worried more about Science Death than Supernatural death (having your ideological enemies armed with nuclear weapons would do that for you as a culture, I imagine). So even if you're going to have a werewolf movie, let's say, the script would make sure that your teenage lycanthrope was turned into a beast because of psychology rather than a magic animal bite. And if you wanted to flip that script slightly to make a teenage vampire movie, it's another hypnotist trying to help a troubled teenager (a girl, this time) that makes the monster rather than exposure to the blood of Dracula. In fact, the troubled-teen-girl-vampire movie was called The Blood of Dracula even though the Count and his blood are nowhere to be found over the film's running time.

I remember having the same problem with the otherwise delightful House on Haunted Hill for more or less the same reason a couple HubrisWeens ago--I get it that B movie filmmakers have to appeal to a mass audience with their product and that if audiences aren't going crazy for ghosts and vampires you have to adapt, but that just leads to the final act of the movie seizing up like you forgot to check the Movie Oil before starting your narrative. Remember to change your Movie Oil every 3,000 minutes of film and to rotate your reels every 35,000 minutes or the plots will fall apart every time.

You know, you don't get to pick your powers. All kinds of superhero fiction stems from this--Tony Stark comes close with the Iron Man suit but the first thing that made it possible for him to construct the Mark I was someone else putting a huge magnet in his chest to keep shrapnel from reaching his heart and killing him. Captain America was an experimental subject. The Fantastic Four were accidentally exposed to mutagenic radiation (as were Spider-Man and the Hulk). That's just from one company's stable of characters; Superman gets powers under a yellow sun but only by an accident of biology. None of the aces or jokers in the Wild Cards universe got to choose what the Takisian virus was going to do to them (would anyone volunteer to tranform into their body weight in bees?). Heck, there's a Twilight Zone episode where Burgess Meredith winds up with super strength thanks to a couple of meddling aliens. The core of superhero fiction, to me, is examining what people would do when they learn they have an ability that normal people can't do.

And--as anyone who got socks and underwear for Christmas can tell you--not every gift is something you actually want. Which means I can wrap up the introduction now and start talking about the movie, directed by Albert Band. He's the father of the one man cottage industry of the VHS era, Charles Band (a nice little dynasty of B flicks, and I think this is the first time I've reviewed anything from either of the Bands for the Checkpoint).

The credits are just white block type on a marble background; nothing fancy. B movies of 1958 couldn't get fancy. Lots of brass in the score, too, which I always associate with the Universal monster flicks of the Fifties but in this one they're playing lower notes than the usual brassy Creature from the Black Lagoon trumpet stings. There's a title card at the start of the movie that lets the audience know what the movie's going to be about, and also saves the money for a voiceover at the start of the film as the marble background is revealed to be the back of a tombstone in a graveyard.

"Science has leanred that man possesses powers which go beyond the boundaries of the natural," according to the caption. "This is the story of one confronted by such strange forces within himself." Ominous music and footage of a cemetary? Well, okay, then. Let's light this candle. We're introduced to Robert Kraft as he takes stock of the central office, storeroom and caretaker's residence at the Eternal Hills, a cemetery that used to be run by someone else on his town's Chamber of Commerce executive committee and is now Robert's headache. Exceptionally Scottish caretaker Andy McKee shows Robert around and lists the committee members who oversee the cemetery; Robert's the new chairman. So new he hasn't been officially sworn in yet, actually. Robert looks around the rather uninspiring office (I hope the public chapel's in better shape) and sees a map of the cemetary that looks to be about six or eight feet wide and perhaps four feet tall. It's divided up into little rectangles to show every plot that's available. Some of the plots are marked with pins--a black pin means there's a body in that particular plot, and a white pin signifies that someone's bought a plot but not yet filled it. McKee even points out his own white-pin-marked plot, remarking on how it'll get sun in the mornings but shade from trees in the afternoons, which will help with his rest.

Which is about as awful a segue as you can have when Robert tells him that the committee has decided to retire McKee after forty years of dedicated service (note to younger readers:  Apparently companies used to look after their workers in this manner rather than throwing them away like used condoms at the first opportunity). McKee's admittedly generous pension will consist of the same salary he drew all along, but now he can sleep late and read the Great Books of Western Civilization or go fishing or work on his model railroad diorama to his heart's content. At least, that's the way the cemetery management looks at it, but McKee is shattered. 

Adding unintentional insult to unintentional injury, Robert asks the caretaker to name his own replacement. The shot where McKee shows his former boss where the revolver is kept (in case of emergencies, but they haven't had one yet) is shot to look like something out of a noir rather than a drama or horror movie. McKee's face is blank and empty while he's pointing a loaded pistol at Robert and I was startled to see it when the film cut to the reverse shot. Then, with a bit of false bonhomie the caretaker slides the gun back into its desk-drawer hiding place and goes out to meet a pair of newlyweds who just drove up to say hi to Robert and for the new husband to show his new wife the burial plots that he needs to buy in order to claim an inheritance (note to self:  Provide arcane requirements in your will in order to hand out your CD collection to people willing to slap themselves in the face or memorize thirty digits of pi).

I'm not sure 100 percent about this, but I'm willing to hazard a semi-educated guess that the existence of Social Security meant a decrease in "I have to claim an inheritance" type of plots. Sure, you can still have a plot where people are motivated by greed, but there's fewer "spend the night in a haunted house as part of the conditions in a dead relative's will" plots around now than there used to be. 

Once the newlyweds drive off, Robert gets shown one final essential supply to the morbid trade:  the bottle of medicinal whiskey that's kept in the office for people who need some fortification to confront the fact that they're burying a parent, a spouse, or possibly a child. McKee waxes slightly rhapsodic about how pleasant the cemetery is while looking out the window on his grounds for the last time, and Robert sticks a pair of pins in the map to mark the plots that those newlyweds are going to need in forty years or so. Although the movie doesn't make a huge point of it in this shot, he stuck two black pins in the map (the wrong color for graves that aren't occupied).

Over at the office Robert's used to keeping (as the owner of Kraft's Department Stores in Milford, the Anytown where this story takes place), he's sworn in as manager of the cemetery under his repeated protests. Apparently turning down the honorary job for a year simply isn't done (at least not within the memory of the two men installing him in the position, both of whom are at least twenty years older than Robert is). Kraft's uncle George, one of the men telling him to take the job, points out that the oldest male Krafts have served on town councils and committees for literal generations. As he puts it "They served for free, but they did it for business". Robert's still not sold on the job, and puts on a Concern Face when he gets told that McKee runs the cemetery single-handedly; it'll just be Robert's job to sign expense checks and oversee the place for a couple hours every three or four weekends. And if he turns it down, everyone in town will resent him for it and associate the Kraft name with acting like a dickhead (which will mean a steep decline in sales at the Kraft stores). Eventually Robert relents and accepts the position, and is sworn in with the absolute minimum of ceremony.

As soon as he gets back to his day job, though, he gets a call from an undertaker. Those two newlyweds who just bought a plot that day? They've been killed in a car accident (not the least common occurrence when seat belts wouldn't be standard equipment in American cars for another year). So it's off to the graveyard office (where a reporter from the local paper is there to talk to Robert about taking over the job, since it's a slow news month). He catches McKee and Kraft working on the paperwork and formalities that accompany an internment, and Kraft notices that he put the wrong color pins in the map. America being a rationalistic place in 1958 (and the movie only being about twelve minutes in), Robert just feels a little bit weird about the coincidence between putting black pins in the map and the two people who bought those plots getting killed so quickly but he doesn't immediately start yelling about accidental voodoo curses or anything. McKee and the reporter rib him gently for being morbid.

Which is just the time for Annie Craig, Robert's fiancee, to show up at the office. Robert wound up missing out on a lunch date thanks to the sudden need for him at the cemetery and his best girl thought he could use some cheering up. If that's a volunteer job that makes Robert think about young people dying on a regular basis, that bottle of medicinal whiskey is probably going to get emptied pretty quickly. But Annie's genuine affection for Kraft (and his for her) is a nice interlude here. It's just two actors making small talk with each other in the main set for the movie, but it's a pleasant change of pace from all the talk about graves and pin-setting logistics. But before he lays a John Agar-level kiss on Annie and going out to lunch, Robert sticks another pin in the map at random, replacing a white pin with a black one on the plot for a Mr. W. Isham.

Isham turns out to be a guy who works making plush animals with music boxes in their bellies (I'm guessing that's a pretty lucrative trade in 1958 if he's got a desk with his own name plate on it). Just as he's putting an eye into the one he's working on--which involves sticking a huge pin into the plushie's head, which seems thematically appropriate for this flick--he has a fatal heart attack and collapses across his desk. 

After that fatal interlude, it's time to go back to the cemetery, where McKee is cleaning and polishing a nice marble headstone for the couple that's going to be buried underneath it. He says he hasn't quite found someone to take his job yet, but has managed to get the office heater working again, which is an important concern in the autumn. Turns out nobody needs to wear an overcoat in the office any more. But while doing the paperwork for the week (which consists of handwritten invoices that Robert needs to sign off on) he sees that a William Isham was interred recently. McKee also tells his boss that when he went to swap pins in the map for Mr. Isham he found that the plot in question already had a black pin in it. At this point in the narrative, McKee says that the map is creepy, not that the cemetery head appears to have the power of life and death over people living in their idyllic little town. But Robert says he swapped the pins earlier, and the score gets nice and ominous.

Robert calls that reporter from earlier and tells him the strange happenings at the cemetery. The man calls him "Bob" while telling him that two weird coincidences don't necessarily add up to anything; incidentally, it's interesting that the main character calls himself Robert while his fiancee and friend at the newspaper call him Bob and the caretaker at the cemetery (who is at least thirty years his senior) calls him Bobby. It's a neat way to sketch out the different relationships between various characters. Robert's not done feeling weird, though; he tells the reporter that he's had episodes of deja vu through his life since he was a boy, and now that he's walking through the quiet green spaces of the Eternal Hills memorial garden he knows what he was moving towards all that time. The faint clacking noise in the distance that he heard for decades, on and off, and couldn't identify until now? It's the sound of letters being chiseled into stone. The reporter thinks his friend is exaggerating, of course, just like anyone would.

Some time later, Robert's back at his other office working on Kraft Department Store business when he tells his uncle George that he's going to quit the cemetery job rather than continue to stress out over the map and the pins any more. He's only been down there two or three times since he was sworn in and the obsession's getting the better of him. George says that when he was the overseer of the cemetery he must have goofed up the pin colors a dozen times or more, with no ill effects. When he tries to articulate the concerns he's having to his uncle, the man laughs openly and tells "Bob" he can't possibly believe what he's saying. Robert's not sure he does believe it, of course, but he's also not sure that he doesn't. George takes his leave, saying that he's found a foolproof way to wipe out the store's competition in town. Well, sick jokes make the world go round, but there's only so much anyone can do at the day job when their volunteer gig has their brain running like a rat on a wheel. The two Krafts go down to the cemetery to take a look at the map, as you would. There's a great shot here of George Kraft turning off the lights to Robert's office, turning the image in the frame into a silhouette before plunging it into absolute blackness.

At the cemetery office, George wants to convince his nephew that nothing's going to happen if they swap a white pin out for a black one. After plucking the name of Henry Trowbridge (the previous cemetery overseer) out of thin air, George takes the white pin out of the map and prepares to stick a black one in its place. But Robert wants this to be as scientific as he can, and insists that he's got to be the one to put the black pin in if the experiment is going to be valid. He's also about as far from enthusiastic to test his idea as it is possible for a man to be. He finally puts the pin in the map and then goes for an immediate shot of medicinal whiskey. George and Robert walk out, with the older man saying that there's no reason to warn Trowbridge about the pin changing (because he doesn't believe anything's going to happen, but probably also to prevent the experiment's subject from freaking out and doing something drastic that would also wind up causing his ironic death). And there's another low brass spasm on the soundtrack as the camera zooms in on that newly installed black pin nice and ominously.

The next we see of Robert he's sitting by the phone chain-smoking and obviously just waiting for the shoe to drop. He calls up Mr. Trowbridge at about twenty to midnight (apologizing to the man's wife twice for calling so late) and we get a nicely suspenseful sequence where we're watching Robert listen to someone else go upstairs and check on her husband (he's unwinding after a long day's work at whatever it is that he does by reading a bit before bedtime). The seconds keep ticking past on the clock and Robert's barely keeping his shit together until Mrs. Trowbridge returns, crying, saying that her husband isn't breathing and she needs to contact a doctor. Robert, stunned and numb, tells the woman he's terribly sorry and hangs up so she can call an ambulance.

Which leads to McKee chipping away at a new headstone the next morning and the police stopping by the Eternal Hills office so that Robert can explain his "black pins in the map" theory. The police detective who drew the long straw and gets to take a lengthy lunch on the way back to the station after making this call explains to the poor cemetery manager that a car accident, a cerebral hemorrhage and a coronary thrombosis all look quite like natural causes to him and to the Milford police department. And honestly, he's got a point. If it was something weirder like all four people getting shanked by mystery assailants or hit by micrometeorites the deaths would seem more openly supernatural. As it is, bad driving, poor dietary and exercise choices or just plain bad luck appear to be more to blame than the cemetery map and Robert Kraft's selection of pin colors.

But, as we all know from our reading, one of the defining characteristics of the supernatural horror film is the persistence of impossible things taking place. Even if the rest of the world tells Robert he's having some kind of nervous breakdown, he knows what's really going on. Or at least he's telling himself that he does. I like that there's at least a little bit of ambiguity here, because it's a little too early for the movie to completely tip its hand towards the "supernatural goings-on are going on" side of the scale. The cop's even apologetic about it when Jess the reporter shows up to discuss things with Robert and the detective; both of the hard-headed rationalists recommend that Robert take some vacation time, golf or putter around in the garden, and not think about the cemetery map for a while. It has to be better for him than staying up all night, smoking like a Bristol chimney and worrying. Once the lieutenant leaves, Jess tries to bring Robert back to the realm of things that are actually happening--and also comes up with a more believable hypothesis than "it turns out that the map at my volunteer job is a Death Note". What if someone's trying to give Robert a nervous breakdown? There's at least a chance that someone in town would be happy to see the Kraft stores lose sales and prestige. You'd have to be a sociopath to kill four people just to make one dude nervous (and you'd need to know about the pins in the cemetery map somehow, which wouldn't really be the case for the first two deaths unless you bugged the graveyard's office). But it's at least a little plausible.

Good old uncle George is in Robert's office when he gets back to his day job (which irks Robert no small amount); he's called in some favors with some old friends and gotten Robert a two week vacation in Florida so he can get his mind right and also hopefully not stick any more pins in the map after the experiment that George sees as a ghastly coincidence and Robert is thinking of as a gnawing, horrible suspicion getting confirmed. Robert refuses to go out of town at a time like this--at least partially because the movie's settings consist of two offices and about a hundred square feet of graveyard outdoors--and also turns down the opportunity to resign from the cemetery position he just took. Instead of doing that, Robert gets a little bull-headed and tells George to have the cemetery committee meet him that evening so he can lay down some ground rules about what they're doing next.

When Ann asks him what exactly he's hoping to accomplish he points out something that hadn't occurred to me at all--that if there is a spirit of death hovering around the cemetery map, he's attracting its notice every time he sticks a pin in that map and he's worried that he or his fiancee might wind up dying by a random accident or medical event. When she tries to put Robert's mind at ease by pointing out that heart disease is the primary killer in America, he just gives her a grim look and says "Maybe not in Milford,". That's an awesome line, and it's delivered well. But it might be even worse than Robert thinks--he's starting to wonder if the map wasn't just a focus for something that's always been there in his life, and that it's found an outlet now. Killing people with your subconsciously accessed psychic abilities isn't any less rational-sounding than an occult map that causes deaths in order to match the pins that are placed in it. Ann's attempts to cheer Robert up and take his mind off of things goes disastrously, and she leaves just barely holding back tears. From her point of view, the man she's going to marry is starting to crack up and she's looking at decades of life with someone who thinks he has the Krell's abilities working in his life.

Later that evening it's time for the meeting with the other people on the cemetery management committee, and all three of them have an experiment for Robert, intended to prove that he's imagining things:  They want him to put a black pin in all of their pre-chosen grave sites on the map and then go home to go to bed. When they're all fine the next day Robert will know that it was just four coincidences in a short amount of time that led to the deaths that he thought were linked to his improper map-pinning technique. Robert refuses, aghast, and is told that although he's the chairman of the four-person committee, he has to do what the majority tells him to do (note to self:  Read all bylaws to all organizations you join looking for loopholes if psychic powers manifest). Robert tries to talk the other three men out of their plan and they shut him down pretty well instantly. He wishes them all a good night and goes back to the map to switch some pins around--and the map is lit pretty awesomely in this shot. The white pinheads are almost glowing on the screen since the only illumination is the display lights above the map rather than the room lights. Even in a cheap B horror movie taking a little time with your lighting and cinematography will pay dividends.

McKee comes in to see what's going on at the office, and tries to convince Robert to lock the door and never come back. He's worried about what's going to happen to everyone in the organization if his boss keeps sticking pins in that map, and Robert tells him that if he doesn't run the place, somebody else is going to show up and do it themselves. If the map itself is the supernatural thing, anyone swapping pins around is going to cause misery and death. If it turns out that Robert and the map are both needed--for now, at least--then perhaps everyone will be safe as long as nobody lets the committee chairman anywhere near the graveyard map.

Robert sends McKee home at length, and then the phone rings at the office. The chairman answers the phone to find out that it's that reporter that's shown up a time or two. Robert tells Jess what he's just done; he also confesses to causing three deaths if anything happens to the guys on the cemetery committee who told him to go to the office and mark their plots with the black-headed pins. Jess says that's actually pretty good news, because there's no way three different people are all going to die that night coincidentally. Robert can put the weirdness behind him and continue with his real job as well as his volunteer job and everyone's going to be fine from now on.

Robert, for his part, stays up all night at the cemetery office and stares at the map until he can't bear it any more (which is going to do fantastic things for his state of mind). He tries to light a fire in the gas-fed heater, which doesn't work, and then calls the police to try and confess to that detective from earlier what he's done. The desk sergeant gives Robert what the audience assumes is the detective's home phone number (it's good to be well-known as a pillar of the community!) and only gets a busy signal every time he tries to call. Considering Lieutenant Claiborne is the town's homicide detective, I would find that to be an extremely ominous development. 

It's worse than that. Adams 1-3-1-1 is actually the home number for one of the men on the cemetery committee. When Robert calls the police station to try and get in touch with the detective he gets told that they've been trying to contact him, but the cemetery office line was busy (because he was obsessively trying to call Lieutenant Claiborne--rotary-dial phones didn't have call waiting or three-way conversation capabilities). Jess fills his friend in on the details--two of the three men who told Robert to stick black pins in their map spaces have died with no visible injuries or apparent causes of death. His uncle George has left town (not a bad idea), but certainly the police will be able to track him down once the immediate crisis has passed. And while Robert looked worried and nervous before, now he appears to be hanging on to reason by his fingernails.

Robert starts crossing the names of the committeemen off his contact list when the door opens; it's his uncle George, come to the office to take his nephew home and get him safely into bed (I would have asked him to swap the pins back for me if I were George, honestly). Robert stays just where he is at the office desk, wreathed in shadows and with his back to the camera while George stands in the pool of light by the map (another great little touch of the film's cinematography). The two men talk about whether or not the map has some kind of supernatural power and George takes his pin out himself. Even when he crosses the office to get to the door, the camera stays behind Robert, who stays seated at the desk. And all the while his uncle was in the office, Robert had his hand on the office revolver in the desk drawer, apparently worried that George was going to attack him to take the curse off (which would have led to one of those ironic "trying to prevent the thing causes the thing" deaths that supernatural stories trade in so much).

Robert then calls the police and politely tells Lt. Claiborne that sending a beat officer to make sure his uncle doesn't die would be nice. The hard-nosed cop agrees with him instantly (and sounds much more subdued over the telephone than he did in person at the cemetery offices). Which is one more pillar crumbling away under Robert's mental state, since he had to be hoping that the cop would tell him it was just another big dumb coincidence going on. No such luck, Kraft. The shot where he's on the phone with the desk lamp providing the only light in the scene is another great use of shadow in this film--his shirt, hands and dead appear in the tiny pool of illumination while his suit coat and hair are swallowed up by blackness. It's a metaphor for the dark powers he's semi-controllably using or just a way to show how isolated and alone he feels at the moment. Either way it's a great and distinctive look that the film's showing off. Even more so when the frame pulls back and the image shrinks down to a white speck in an ocean of blackness.

Next, of course, the telephone rings and it's Lt. Claiborne asking whether or not George Kraft really showed up at the cemetery office; turns out that nobody's seen him or his car on the road even with the APB out for him, and the beat cop at his apartment never saw him show up at all. Robert goes out to check a hunch and finds his uncle's body in his car. Poor guy never even made it out of the cemetery, pulled pin or no pulled pin on the map. George calls the lieutenant back so the medical examiner can go take a look at his uncle, and then sticks a black pin back in the map to close the metaphysical loop. From the front page of the local paper, the deaths of the entire cemetery committee (minus the one who didn't stick a pin in his own plot) has now been noticed, and I bet Jess doesn't think it's a crazy idea any more.

The next time we see Robert, he hasn't left the cemetery office in a while (he's got a couple days' stubble going, his suit's rumpled, his tie's loose and his hair's pretty messy--all of which are usually cinematic shorthand for "alcoholic" in movies made around this time); according to McKee he hasn't been eating and the constant chill in the air thanks to the malfunctioning heater isn't doing Kraft's mental state or physical health any good. A posse of concerned friends (Annie and Jess along with Lieutenant Claiborne) show up at Eternal Hills to take stock of the situation and try and test their macabre theories one more time. The detective asks Robert to put a black pin in the map for a Jacob Mittel, a commodities importer who's off in Paris at the moment. Kraft, who must be tired because he didn't see the next revelation coming, asks Claiborne when the man died. The lieutenant replies that he hasn't yet. It's one more test, with the forces of law and order telling our poor cursed protagonist that they're seeing if one more macabre happenstance will pop up now that the map pins have been swapped out for someone that's thousands of miles away. 

For what it's worth (and to look at Kraft's face, it ain't much) Claiborne says he's going to take full moral responsibility for whatever happens to Jacob Mittel. It's the Milford police department's last chance to try and determine what's going on with that map, since seven people have all died in the last week after Robert put black pins on the map. One might be coincidence--heck, even three deaths in a week might be coincidence--but seven in four days connected only by the cemetery map is quite a bit for anyone to swallow without a grain of salt the size of a bottlecap. The lieutenant lays it out:  Only Robert and the map together appear to be causing the deaths. McKee and Jess are in this scene, but both of them are utterly silent during the conversation between the detective and the chairman of the committee. It's not their scene (I think they're just in this part so the detective and Robert have people listening to their conversation). For that matter, nobody even lets Annie out of the back of the police car so she misses everything that gets said here.

McKee leaves right after everyone else does, calling Robert "Bob" instead of "Bobby" for the first time in the film and leaving his boss alone with the cemetery map. And the camera zooms in on the round black head of the pin in Mittel's spot on the map, filling the screen up with blackness again while the low brass goes crazy on the soundtrack. Back in the office, Robert's left alone to stew in his guilt (not that he knew what he was doing all along, but still--he has, as far as the police are telling him, caused the deaths of seven people simply by sticking pins in a map like it's a voodoo doll). Left alone to have his mental state slap him around for a while, he stares at the map in the chilly darkness and tries to justify what he's done. 

Which goes rather badly, but while he's talking to himself about what he's done by accident he realizes that if he does have powers, he can channel them into doing something else. If he can kill people with the black pins, it's time to pull the seven black pins out of the map and put in white ones instead. After all, if he can bring the dead back to life after killing them with his psychic abilities, then no harm would be done after all. The karmic books would then be neatly balanced (for the purposes of this thought experiment, try not to imagine waking up in satin-lined pitch darkness in total agony from the autopsy incisions before the lights went out again forever because you didn't have any blood in your body).

Lots of closeups of Richard Boone's sweaty face and pins going into the map ensue, and then he decides to close and lock all the windows and doors of his office. After all, the returned people are likely to be upset that Robert caused them to kick the oxygen habit, whether or not he knew he was doing it at the time. By this point Robert's about three-fourths of the way around the bend, building a fire on the cement floor of the office out of old wooden floral display stands and staring at the map (which glows white in this shot as he fails to retain his grip on sanity). There's a cut to William Isham's tombstone falling over as well as one of the soil rising up on the newlywed couple's graves, which would suggest that something really is happening since there's no internal clue in the movie to suggest that those things are only happening in Robert's mind.

Turns out that building a smoky fire in a one-room building with all the doors and windows shut is a dogshit idea, and Robert wakes up hacking and coughing, then stumbles outside to the cemetery and sees the graves are dug up at the newlyweds' plot as well as the other map victims' gravesites. This sequence goes on for more than a little bit longer than it has to, since the audience gets the point long before the movie lets this go. But it's also the most physical movement that has taken place in the entire movie so far, which makes it a nice change-up from the previous hour and change. Robert runs back to his office and pulls the gun out of his desk drawer, waiting for whatever's going to happen next while the soundtrack goes crazy and he gets framed against the map, all in white, with his body appearing as a silhouette in his black suit while he faces it.

Then the telephone rings, bringing him back to reality (and I'm not sure whether or not Kraft realized he had the gun pointed at his temple when the bell went off). As McKee silently enters the room, Robert hears what everyone in the audience expected him to hear--Jacob Mittel's wife is on the line, telling him that the American embassy in Paris sent her a telegram informing her in the least compassionate and warm manner possible that her husband died suddenly and that someone has to figure out what to do with the body. McKee, having overheard half of the phone call, says that's impossible and then confesses to the seven killings that were up until about eight seconds ago all attributed to the map and / or Robert Kraft's hidden psychic powers.

It turns out that McKee would rather work until he died than retire, and when he saw the accidental placement of the black pins in the map he decided that he could cause enough deaths to keep his position taking care of the Eternal Hills. Turns out that smothering seven people leaves their bodies in a condition that mimics the other various causes of death, although the shot of Isham dropping at his desk didn't even hint at anyone else being there. Which is too bad, because up until this point the film's been a really well-handled character study that played out like one of the more horror-tinged Twilight Zone episodes. 

Even with the groundskeeper pointing a gun at him, Robert tries to be noble. He tells McKee that it had to be his fault that everyone died--that his weird powers drove the groundskeeper to kill people, and not that the map and the committee chairman were the patsies for a killing spree motivated by the loss of a job. While Robert and McKee both hear the metallic clacking of a chisel carving into hard stone, the groundskeeper panics, barricading the office as the thought of the white-pinned graves that he'd opened to terrify Robert actually giving up their dead to march on the office. When he hears people at the door, McKee is terrified into a fatal heart attack and slumps to the floor--and, of course, it's the police instead of revenants. In the last wo minutes of the film, Lieutenant Claiborne explains that Robert never had any psychic powers--the police realized that McKee was killing people and set up the world's least plausible sting operation to stall him once it became apparent that he was going to try and kill Robert that night. They were planning on arresting the killer, not taking his body away and accounting for seven deaths (actually five; McKee says the traffic accident that killed the two newlyweds wasn't his work) in their files, but they're willing to take seven solved murders as a happy conclusion to the events of the previous week.

Which is kind of a bullshit ending, but at least the previous 70-something minutes of the film were scripted, acted and filmed well enough that I really don't mind, either. There's lots of cool Fifties cars and suits on display, and Richard Boone does a great job as a man who goes from hard-nosed rationalist to unraveling in terror at what he thinks he's been doing subconsciously. And it's great that so many of the victims of what appears to be a supernatural curse tell Kraft to mark them for death--all of them think that Robert's concerns are ridiculous and don't worry at all about the black pins on the map, which puts Kraft in the horror-movie position that I don't recall seeing too many men in. The person who sees things going inexplicably bad and tries to tell authority figures about the impossible events (but is ignored) tends to be a woman, in my recollection, other than in this movie and Jim Halsey in The Hitcher.

Sorry I spoiled the ending for you, but if you know it's coming you're going to be better disposed towards the movie than if you got blindsided by a literal last-minute change in what you were watching.

"And not a single person in the film was buried alive, either. Great title, but nothing to do with this particular story at all."

No comments:

Post a Comment