This twenty-year-old cable TV movie, featuring Jennifer Jason Leigh in an early role from the same year in which she first came to critical attention for her tough portrayal of the prostitute Tralala, in the film adaptation of Hubert Selby Jr.’s Last Exit to Brooklyn (1990), is also the feature directorial calling card of renowned Hungarian-American screenwriter, producer, and director of the classic The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Green Mile (1996) and The Mist (2007) (all films based on Stephen King novels, for which he also handled screenwriting duties), namely Frank Darabont – the creator of and, until recently, showrunner on, AMC’s hugely successful zombie apocalypse series, The Walking Dead (2011 -- ), which was adapted from Robert Kirkman’s on-going comic-book imprint.
In the last decade or so, television drama has attempted to adopt a lexicon of 'filmic' values that asserts a visual sophistication on a par with that which defines much of modern popular cinema, to the point where a series such as The Walking Dead, for instance, aspires to look as big and as ‘cinematic’ as anything you’d expect to find on a multiplex theatre screen, despite the hugely quicker turn-over in filmed episodes needed in order to produce a full series.
Movies made for cable television back in the late-eighties and early-nineties though, are a whole different story; they were constrained by a standard, flatly lit and rigorously adhered-to four act structure, which packaged everything using the same formulaic template, with usually very little visual distinctiveness or artistic individuality present. There were of course exceptions, such as Tobe Hooper's 1979 adaptation of Salem's Lot or David Lynch's Twin Peaks (1990-91), but these tend only to prove the general rule.
Shot in the then-standard TV ratio of 1.33:1 Buried Alive looks like the millions of other mainstream friendly thrillers you’re still likely to encounter on any afternoon of any given week, though the story itself is pure E.C. Comics-style macabre. The film combines several of the Poe-like plotlines that were featured in publisher William Gains’ infamous horror comics line -- usually about morally rotten individuals suffering cruel vengeance, enacted from beyond the grave -- which included titles such as Tales from the Crypt (1950-55), The Vault of Horror (1950-54), and The Haunt of Fear (1950-54).
Visually, Darabont’s debut film is shorn of most of the luridly grotesque imagery indicative of E.C. Comics artist Graham Ingles’ best work, but the teleplay manages occasionally to hint at a similarly caustic thread of nihilism to that which defined the E.C. world, a faint trace of which can be found running through the often mordantly humorous dialogue of screenwriter Mark Patrick Carducci (Tales from the Darkside) here.
That, and the fact that Darabont is sporadically still able to find ways to broach a visual inventiveness within the confines of a well-established TV movie format thanks to his occasional extravagant camera zooms and a dramatic use of slow-motion (combined with atmospheric sound design), just about raises Buried Alive above the waterline, when it would’ve otherwise been mired in quite unassuming mediocrity.
The prosaic plot's set-up is a straight faced outline for a standard-style revenge thriller: Tim Matheson plays good-natured, hard-working, happy-go-lucky and boringly decent construction worker Clint Goodman (the clue’s in the name if you don’t clock immediately that Clint’s meant to be a salt-of-the-earth nice guy). He’s built up through honest hard graft a successful construction company that’s now worth over a million dollars, and he’s recently returned to his home town to build with his own hands the perfect ‘little house on the prairie’ dream home for his gorgeous blonde bombshell wife Joanna (Jennifer Jason Leigh). “That boy was only ever happy when he had splinters in his hands,” recalls his buddy, the local sheriff (the redoubtable Hoyt Axton), who raised Clint from an early age, and who he now goes fishing with whenever Clint's wife is away visiting her city friends. Joanna, though, misses that old city life -- and an over-sized house in the middle of nowhere holds little appeal: ‘It’s like one big maze … and I’m the rat!’
Despite the luxury hand-built house, the thriving construction business and the expensive metallic- blue sports car it affords her, Joanna (permanently clad in expensive designer dresses and dark shades) is bored stiff of honest Clint, although he’s still so in love with her that he’s oblivious to her sullen frowns over the breakfast table, her muttered sarcastic replies to his jokey quips, and to the fact that Joanna isn't visiting her friends when she’s away in the city but the expensive apartments of her slimy Doctor friend, with whom she’s been conducting an affair.
If the fact that Doctor Cortland van Owen is played by William Atherton (Ghostbusters , Die Hard ) with a fiendish glinting relish pitched somewhere between Todd Slaughter and Jeffrey Combs doesn’t alert you to the fact that the man is not to be trusted for a second, then perhaps the realisation that his pristine bedroom looks more like a modern art gallery -- a decadently luxurious double bed with black satin sheets slapped in the middle of it -- might do the trick. When van Owen nonchalantly informs Joanna after their tryst that the meal they’ve just consumed was in fact culled from his collection of exotic fish and was plucked out of the colourful aquarium behind the bed, you know he’s actually constitutionally predatory to the point of stark, lizard-eyed insanity.
Equally casually, the good doctor mentions that he’s extracted a rare poison from the ovaries of the exotic fish in question, which can induce a natural-looking cardiac arrest in the recipient; perhaps if Joanna were to slip it into Clint’s evening meal later on, they could finally be together properly: she would escape her dull housewife life (“you don’t want to spend the rest of your life in redneck county, USA … sitting on the front porch watching the possums puke!”) and the money from the sale of Clint’s business would finance a spanking new private clinic for van Owen!
Bored and listless and unfaithful she may be, but Joanna isn’t keen on murder at first … until the grating noise from the sand plainer in DIY-obsessed Clint’s workroom drives her insane for one last time and she finally snaps, tipping the contents of the vial into the red wine he takes with his evening meal -- which in this case is the carp he caught while out fishing with the Sheriff. Oh, the irony!
At this point Darabont stages a typical Hitchcockian suspense sequence which involves Clint unexpectedly entering the kitchen and picking up both glasses to take them into the dining room – which means Joanna can’t be sure, when he later proposes a toast, that she’s got the non-lethal one! The ensuing death sequence is also effectively staged, as it then turns out that van Owen was being a little cavalier with the truth when he said that death would come quickly and painlessly: in fact, Clint dies in agony on the dining room floor, clawing for help from his non-responsive wife, who eventually simply screams “die damn you! … DIE!” into his face, which is now frozen in a horrific grimace. Shot in creepy, prolonged slow-motion and with an atmospheric sound design, the sequence is memorable and peculiarly chilling.
An impatient Joanna can’t be bothered with a wake, so Clint misses out on being embalmed; she can’t be bothered to stump up for a decent coffin either, so he’s fobbed off with a cheap, thin, worm-eaten one with no lead lining - and quickly laid to rest as soon as possible in the local cemetery. Which is just as well, for it emerges that van Owen clearly hasn’t done his homework: Clint Goodman isn’t actually dead, and wakes from death-like suspended animation in the middle of a thunder & lightning storm to find, as the title says, he’s been buried alive.
With his faithful pet hound already clawing at the earth at his graveside (after it previously escaped Joanna trying to blast it with a rifle), Clint punches his way out of the rotten, waterlogged casket and staggers through the storm-lit graveyard, in a sequence which sees Darabont paying homage to the opening scene of Night of the Living Dead (1968).
Fingers shredded from clawing his way from beneath splintered wood and grave mould (the Sheriff's earlier comment about’ splinters in hands’ now gaining an extra ironic relevance), a dazed, zombie-like Goodman lurches for home; but when he gets there he spies his wife through the kitchen window cavorting with van Owen (two muddy hand smears remain on the glass the next morning).
Vowing to finish them both off, he begins secretly living in the cellar he himself once built (“Honey, I’m home!” the now deranged Goodman cackles to no one in particular) like a phantom squatter, and at first plans on blowing them both away with a simple bullet to the head … until he overhears van Owen gloating about his first meeting with Joanna, when she came to him pregnant with Goodman’s baby … the baby they’d been trying for (or so Goodman thought) ever since the couple moved here. “I soon dealt with that, though!” van Owen reminds her.
At this point Clint decides he’s going to make his revenge slow, methodical and as elaborate as possible.
In typical grimly ironic E.C. Comics style, Clint’s earlier positioning as a DIY obsessive, and his devotion to the construction of his ‘dream home’ as a tribute to his wife and potential future family life (which has in fact left Joanna so caught-up in its stifling trap of domesticity that she becomes easy prey for the evil but superficially charming van Owen) is now made the basis for the method which underpins the resurrected Clint’s elaborate form of revenge. Joanna starts to suspect something is up when she finds a leg of chicken with a mouthful chomped out of it left in the fridge, and the bathroom floor is unaccountably flooded and left covered in mud in the morning (Clint remains in the house during the night, even though Joanna is asleep there the whole time). Eventually managing to trap the greedy lovers in the cellar (by this point it’s become apparent that van Owen intended to kill Joanna, as well, using the same poison again once the money from the sale of Clint’s business was secured) Goodman sets about reconfiguring the structure of the entire house, using his construction skills and his love of honest toil to turn the place into exactly the kind of rats’ maze Joanna once dismissed it as -- but now also a fiendish weapon for his revenge.
The pay-off is predictable but elaborated with a steadfast, solid knack for thriller conventions, made more interesting than usual through Darabont’s occasional flights of artistic fancy: in the graveyard scene we enter Clint Goodman’s coffin during the thunder storm, when the camera descends vertically from directly above the grave, tunnelling though the earth to find the interred body of Goodman below ground, opening his eyes and realising with horror his frightful predicament. Later, with Joanna caught in Goodman’s series of newly-built but ever-narrowing house corridors, the camera dollies at high speed along the entire length of one stretch of the construction, to end by pivoting straight into Jennifer Jason Leigh’s screaming mouth. A grimly amusing ‘funeral’ black humour pervades the whole film, no more so than in the comically callous attitude of Brian Libby’s wisecracking embalmer at the funerary home, who regales his squeamish trainee assistant with advice such as “once they’ve been bagged and tagged they’ve gotta be pumped and dumped!” reassuring him that, “after a while they all look the same … stiff!”
This fairly unremarkable but mostly likable thriller, with its mix of standard television melodrama and hints of dark humour, reaches an ambiguous conclusion when we’re invited to consider the transformation which has occurred in the soul of the once easy-going protagonist: the final scene has Goodman standing over what was originally his own grave and talking to his old friend Sherriff Eberly as though the two were in fact strangers. “I used to know the guy who’s buried here,” says the Sheriff -- and it’s unclear if Eberly is simply colluding in the deception, or if it’s being suggested that in successfully enacting his revenge Goodman has lost something vital at the core of his being , that he is no longer quite the same person he once was. “Whoever you are, I want you to leave this place and never come back!”
It’s an oddly chilling coda to what could otherwise have remained a mostly rather ordinary treatment of the classic buried alive theme, but Matheson is great in his transformation from blue collar 'Everyman' to harbinger of DIY-obsessed vengeance from the grave; Leigh is exemplary playing the bored, stay-at-home wife who turns giddy on the excitement of being murderously immoral; while Atherton frequently steals the show as the coldly calculating and dangerous tempter, who is only faking his interest in Joanna so that he can escape his debts and jet off into exile with the money from her husband’s sold business.
The transfer on this disc from Second Sight looks pretty solid considering this is a twenty-one-year-old TV movie. It’s in the correct 1.33:1 aspect ratio, but there are no extras.
TITLE: Buried Alive/MOVIE RELEASE DATE: 1990/DVD RELEASE DATE: 17 October 2011/GENRE: Thriller-Horror/LABEL: Second Sight/REGION: 2 PAL/ASPECT RATIO: 1.33:1/DIRECTOR: Frank Darabont/CAST: Tim Matheson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, William Atherton, Hoyt Axton. RATING: 3/5
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