Movie: Buried Alive (1990)

I have been trying in vain to find a list of neo-noir films that either were originally intended for cable television or the video market and which instead found theatrical distribution, or vice-versa.  I’m not having any luck with that, but I wondered if 1990’s Buried Alive was ever shown theatrically, despite being made for cable.  Although it is in standard TV radio, it is rated PG-13, and I didn’t think they bothered to submit non-theatrical films to the ratings board.  In this regard, I was reminded of another neo-noir, Red Rock West, which only went to theaters after it had already aired on HBO.

Unfortunately, there is not much else in common between the films.  Both are competently made.  Both are set in the desert West.  Both have duplicitous lovers.  Both are a bit ridiculous, though in enjoyable ways    

Tim Matheson plays a construction engineer, who appears to be doing alright.  He has a fairly large house he built himself.  He’s treated like a son by the local sheriff (Hoyt Axton), with whom he frequently goes fishing.  On the other hand, he’s married to Jennifer Jason Lee, and she’s going to be his downfall.

Lee longs to return to New York City and can’t understand why he is so enamored with living in the boonies.  She’s having an affair with a doctor played by William Atherton, who encourages her to off Matheson.  He announces that, if she won’t do that, then he doesn’t feel they should hook up again.  That simply divorcing her husband isn’t sufficient should have raised a flag.

To accomplish this murder, Atherton gives her a syringe filled with a paralyzing toxin he extracted from one of the fish in his aquarium.  I did not see any puffer fish in his aquarium, and I thought that was the only fish to produce a toxin this powerful.  Some quick research after the film was over revealed there are many kinds that do, but later inanities in this picture had me thinking any inaccuracies surrounding this plot point are the least of its concerns.

Lee is surprisingly cold when she gets around to committing the murder.  At first, she can’t bring herself to do it, and the vial goes into the trash.  She even has sex with Matheson when he comes home from work.  But then she’s so irritated by the sound of power tools as he works in their garage that she dumps the poison into his wine glass.  His death, when it finally happens, is quite long and painful.  That it is largely in slow motion reduces the impact, though it is still horrible to see his expression when she is yelling at him to just die, already.

What she failed to notice was some of the vial had leaked out while it was in the trash.  Atherton had warned her to give her husband its entire contents.  Not having been sufficiently dosed, Matheson comes to experience necrolepsy, initially stirring in the body bag while in the morgue overnight.  Alas, he is paralyzed again when he is about to be embalmed, but is coincidentally saved from that experience by a phone call from Atherton, who is demanding there not be a wake.  I was wondering why he and Lee didn’t opt for cremation, but then we wouldn’t have a movie.

Despite the horrific trauma he goes through, Matheson is one lucky guy.  Spared from being embalmed, he is buried in what must be the cheapest coffin they had.  Obviously, he will find himself buried alive, but he will be able to punch his way through the thin wooden lid and dig his way up through the ground.  He’s also fortunate in that they apparently didn’t put much effort into the burial, as he appears to be only a foot or two below the surface.  He surfaces to find his dog waiting for him at the graveside, because that’s about the level this script operates at.  I was hoping the dog would ask him why he’s kept in such a small kennel when they seem to have acres of property, but the silliness of the script does not extend to it having a talking dog.

Matheson returns to his home to discover Atherton and Lee are making already making sexy time there.  Those two don’t exactly strike me as criminal masterminds, as they are together constantly immediately following the death of her husband at an early age from a suspicious heart attack.  They also seem to lack any power of observation, such as when Lee is shocked to see her dead husband’s face in the kitchen window.  Atherton looks through that window and chides her for only being startled by the dog, somehow failing to notice to large, muddy handprints nearly obscuring the view.

The rest of the film turns into a kind of unusual horror film.  Actually, if we hadn’t seen the escape from the grave, it would be straight-up horror, but the impact of some scenes is reduced by us knowing Matheson is alive.  Consider the set-up for a moment where Lee discovers the bathroom inexplicably covered in mud.  We had already seen Matheson tending his wounds in there, so we already know what she will find.  If we hadn’t seen him doing that, the discovery of this would be highly unnerving.

Unfortunately, the film will wallow in the worst aspects of horror in its final set piece.  If Lee was annoyed by the sound of power tools earlier, then it is a wonder it doesn’t drive her mad while Matheson does a ton of remodeling on the house while she and Atherton are trapped in the basement.  When those two are finally released from there, what they find ridiculously convoluted, as if Matheson has become Bob Villa as imagined by the killer from Saw.  It’s a bit like if Diabolique morphed into an E.C. comics / Creepshow type of story in its conclusion.

Buried Alive is an unusual, though ultimately unsatisfying, picture.  I don’t mind the bait-and-switch of neo-noir being substituted with horror, but wish it had been handled better.  This was Frank Darabont’s feature film directorial debut, and it is always interesting to see early work by those who would go on to bigger things.  I don’t know if this had any of the influence of his later work, but I have the strangest feeling Quentin Tarantino was taking notes while watching the scene where Matheson escapes from the grave, as a bit in Kill Bill seems uncannily similar.

Dir: Frank Darabont

Starring Tim Matheson, Jennifer Jason Lee, William Atherton, Hoyt Axton

Watched on Kino Lorber blu-ray