Monday 2 January 2012

Obscurity Files - Buried Alive

The debut of The Shawshank Redemption and The Mist director Frank Darabont finally makes its long overdue way onto DVD and is in need of a re-appraisal. Read my review, next...

Starring Tim Matheson and Jennifer Jason Leigh as Clint and Joanna Goodman, a couple with different ideas on what they want from marital life, Buried Alive is a dark revenge thriller with some unexpected twists. Tired of their new life away from the city, Joanna has begun an affair with the local Doctor (William Atherton), together plotting to murder Clint and sell his business for a healthy profit. At turns dark and bizarre in the fashion of Twin Peaks, the murder plot hinges on poison extracted from a tropical fish to be administered over dinner by the fragile Joanna. It's a plot point that skirts dangerously close to being a parody.

Switching from hysterical wreck to cold and calculating ice queen, Jennifer Jason Leigh looks like a chain smoking femme fatale, her wardrobe straight out of a Bogart movie. There's a clear film noir influence (the film's title card is a good example), but much like its genre-mate Blood Simple, given an 80's overhaul. The story also has Twilight Zone roots, not in a sense of the supernatural, but as a parable on morality which that series delivered so well.

The DVD cover art for the re-released film has gone to some efforts to look like the Ryan Reynolds starring 2010 film Buried, for what I suppose are obvious marketing reasons. This is a vastly different film, its story more about why the main character ends up in the box rather than his efforts to get out of it. Both protagonists may get themselves buried alive, but you'd be mistaken for thinking this story takes place in and around a coffin like Reynolds' film does.

Given Frank Darabont's future association with horror author supremo Stephen King (Darabont brought The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and The Mist to the big screen, not forgetting The Woman In The Room, one of Stephen King's "dollar babies" that Darabont used as his short film debut), it's unsurprising that Buried Alive has a very King-esque story, featuring the kind of duplicitous characters and twisted morality you'd expect to find down in Castle Rock.

Tim Matheson's Clint isn't a bad man, but he is mind-crushingly dull, especially to his city life loving wife. It's unsurprising that Joanna decides to cheat on her husband, although she goes to some desperate lengths to kill him once she realises how financially lucrative it may be. William Atherton appears as the sleazeball doctor sleeping with Matheson's wife, adding another glorious on-screen bastard to the one-two punch of the roles he played in Die Hard and Ghostbusters. As repulsive as he is spineless, despite being the most interesting character (unquestionably a villain you want to see more of) it's clear that his actions won't go unpunished once Clint's mud covered body arrives back at the homestead.

Some moments of the film do stray a bit towards the ridiculous. It's a remarkably fortuitous series of events that see Clint's body passed over untouched by the morgue attendants, and when Clint's coffin is discovered with a massive hole in it, it takes Hoyt Axton's (best known as Billy's dad from Gremlins) inept sheriff a long time to work out what's happened. Yes, we as the audience know more than the characters do, but surely they could have jumped to some better conclusions?

Being a movie made originally for TV, it does have the annoying habit of fading to black every ten to fifteen minutes which does somewhat distract from the tension and drama and stops the film from finding its own rhythm. But despite (or perhaps because of) its often confined use of space, it's a very cinematic thriller. As the film reaches the finale and Clint's game of cat and mouse turns into a wicked claustrophobic revenge fantasy, his character arrives as a changed man from the one we were introduced to at the start.

A fun pulpy thriller that only hints at the director Frank Darabont would become, Buried Alive will keep you guessing right until the end. It was followed up by an unnecessary 1997 sequel (directed by leading man Tim Matheson, Don't ya know), but I think it works best as a stand alone cult curio. A lost film that's well worth unearthing.

Save from Obscurity? Yes.

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