Taphophobia is the fear of being buried alive, something the coffin horror sub-genre (yes, I just coined that term) has ripley exploited since the tradition was established with Edgar Allan Poe’s deliciously dark short story ‘The Premature Burial‘, published 1844. In this tale a narrator details his own phobia of waking up in a casket, which he describes as “the true wretchedness.” Throughout the story he recalls several previous incidents of premature burial, each as horrifying as the last. The story has been adapted multiple times, most famously by Roger Corman (1962) and Jan Švankmajer (Lunacy, 2005). Rodrigo Cortés’ claustrophobic thriller Buried (2010) also revolved around the theme, which remains a goldmine for authors and filmmakers. Frank Darabont’s 1990 addition to the sub-genre is an interesting if flawed take, but it moves at a firecracker pace (likely because of its structuring around adverts; cliffhangers are required every fifteen minutes) and a trio of strong performances…
In Buried Alive Tim Matheson plays Clint Goodman, an ordinary working class guy with a seemingly perfect life. His stunning house is custom built, and in it he lives with his beautiful wife Joanna (Jennifer Jason Leigh). But she’s having an affair with their doctor, Cort van Owen (William Atherton), who instructs his fling to kill her husband with an undetectable poison. Their motive? Insurance money. But the drug doesn’t kill Clint, and he soon rises from the soil to wreak vengance on those who wronged him. So, yeah, this one isn’t so much about the fear of being buried alive, instead focusing on the evil which dictated Clint’s premature laying to rest.
Unfortunately Darabont’s tale loses some of its impact having been made for television, as its tight corners and choking spaces are (oddly) weakened for their rendering on the boxed-in small screen. What the film lacks is scope, and it’s interesting to look back on it after considering the director’s current body of work. He’s no stranger to the theme of claustrophobia, having directed two prison dramas, The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and The Green Mile (1999), and 2007’s terrifying The Mist, in which residents of a small town are trapped inside a supermarket by a slew of bloodthirsty monsters. The 1.33:1 aspect ratio, as opposed to the standard 2.35:1, limits the potential of Mark Patrick Carducci’s teleplay, which is delectable in its setup. One would imagine that the frame reduction would enhance the feeling of enclosure, but it has a negative effect; perspective is lost.
As aforemntioned, what really sells the film are its performances, especially the brittle bitch Jennifer Jason Leigh creates for Joanna. She’s completely believable as a wealth-obsessed leech, whose garish lipstick and bombshell blonde hair perfectly exemplify her shallowness. The actress envelopes herself in the character, who is truly detestable. It’s not one of her best performances, but then her CV is packed with greatness. Matheson crafts an equally believable character, and he’s so likable that I often wondered how exactly this polar opposite couple had ended up together. It’s because of his nuanced everyman that I bought into the story, even when its twists and turns became a little silly. He roots the film, and we root for him. Atherton also impresses here, adding depth to the asshole persona he had perfected with Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984) and Die Hard (John McTiernan, 1988). The three actors have a great dynamic, and it’s a joy to watch them together.
Tim Matheson directed a sequel in 1997, the inventively titled Buried Alive II, starring The Breakfast Club (John Hughes, 1985) alumnus Ally Sheedy. It has a replica plot, revolving around the exact same themes, but the film’s problem isn’t unoriginality. Horror as a genre is recyclable. People will always fear being buried alive; the claustrophobia of it, the darkness and the stench. What Darabont’s film offers is a vital piece of advice: buy a steel-lined coffin. Should the dead rise, they’ll be looking for revenge…
Considering that this is a two-decades-old TV movie the image is actually pretty solid; there is some grain, but it adds to the overall feeling of the picture. Sadly there are no extras, not even a theatrical trailer. A vanilla package.
Buried Alive is out on DVD 17th October 2011.