Release Date(s)1990 (January 12, 2021)
Studio(s)Universal Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: A-
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B-
Made-for-TV thrillers seldom pack the punch of theatrical features because of self-censorship, limited budgets, lack of stars, and a rapid production schedule. Made in 1990 for the USA Network, Buried Alive is the exception. A tale of a marriage gone sour and revenge, it takes the viewer on a journey of deception, cruelty, and murder.
After ten years of a lucrative career in New York City, Clint (Tim Matheson) has moved back to his small hometown with wife Joanna (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to realize his dream of running a construction business. A friendly fellow, Clint is enjoying the simpler life and the occasional fishing trip with his buddy, town sheriff Sam Eberly (Hoyt Axton). But Joanna hates the rural environment. She is carrying on an affair with local doctor Cortland van Owen (William Atherton) and planning to go with him when he leaves to establish a practice in a big city.
Joanna intends to get a divorce, but Cortland wants her to kill her husband so she can collect the insurance money and sell his business. Handing her a small bottle of poison that will simulate a heart attack, Cort directs her to make sure Clint takes it all. Joanna is reluctant but ultimately complies. Meanwhile, some of the poison has dripped out of the bottle.
Clint suffers extended, painful spasms before he succumbs, and Cort declares the cause of death a heart attack. Joanna wants the body disposed of as quickly and cheaply as possible, so Clint is not embalmed and is buried in a flimsy, rotting pine coffin. But because he hadn’t been given the full dose of poison, Clint revives and awakens to the terrifying realization that he’s been buried alive. The loose soil, the shabby coffin and his own desperate strength succeed in freeing him.
Director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) sets the groundwork for Clint’s elaborate revenge plan. Using his skill at construction, he transform his house into a maze of secret rooms, sliding doors, dead ends, and labyrinthine passageways, trapping Joanna and Cort and keeping his identity hidden so they don’t even know who’s tormenting them.
Performances are above average. Matheson’s Clint is a good old boy when we first meet him—friendly and a respected business owner. Somewhat blind to how unhappy his wife is, and proud of the house he’s built for them—their dream home—he hopes she will come around. Leigh’s Joanna bemoans the loss of her beloved New York and feels trapped. She’s sought solace with Cortland because she’s come to resent and even hate Clint. Atherton instills his character with a slimy unctuousness, making him a villain to be reckoned with. Axton’s Sheriff Sam Eberly is a bear of a man but a gentle soul who’d rather be out fishing than giving speeding tickets.
Darabont incorporates some neat suspenseful touches. The poison bottle lies on the floor as Sheriff Eberly paces back and forth, just missing stepping on it by inches. This is a scene Alfred Hitchcock would be proud of. The second half of the film is filled with chilling moments as Clint engineers his sinister vengeance and Cortland and Joanna make their way through creepy nooks and crannies.
There are flaws in the script’s logic, but the forward motion of the plot is enough to keep the viewer engaged. Darabont knows how to propel a story without padding, and it pays off in a taut second act.
Featuring 1080p resolution, the Kino Lorber Blu-ray release is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1 from brand new 2K source material. Clarity is exceptional, with nicely delineated details such as the poison bottle dripping its contents, the splintered coffin lid, dirt clumps, the fur on Clint’s dog, hundred dollar bills, Leigh’s bright red painted nails and platinum blonde hair, and the rumpled uniform of Sheriff Eberly. The color palette darkens in the second half as Clint escalates his torment of Joanna and Cortland.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-High Definition Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue is crisp and clear throughout. Darabont uses silence periodically to heighten tension. The single channel doesn’t allow for unsettling sounds emerging from different directions. The poisoning scene features Clint screaming in pain, shattering a wine glass in his hand, crawling on the floor, and gasping for air. The score by Michel Colombier is serviceable and provides a seductive feel in the scenes between Joanna and Cortland. Later the music reflects their fear. Cortland and Joanna, in the basement, hear sawing, hammering, and other sounds of construction above their heads, adding to their terror and confusion. Clint’s struggle to free himself from the coffin is particularly effective soundwise, with creaking wood, soaking mud dripping onto Clint’s face, screams and grunts, and pouring rain above.
Bonus materials on the Region A Blu-ray include an audio commentary, an interview with actor William Atherton, and theatrical trailers. The Blu-ray cover features newly commissioned art.
Audio Commentary – Entertainment journalist and author Bryan Reesman provides lengthy career overviews of the principal actors. The information he imparts is interesting, but he speaks so rapidly that it’s difficult to take it all in. Hoyt Axton had a career as a blues singer. Early on, he played in folk clubs and wrote songs for other performers as well as himself. He also appeared as a character actor on many TV shows. Jennifer Jason Leigh appeared in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Backdraft, and Single White Female, and recently starred in The Hateful Eight for Quentin Tarantino. Matheson appeared in National Lampoon’s Animal House and starred as Vice President Hoynes on TV’s The West Wing. Director Frank Darabont was a Hungarian refugee who’s a self-made success. He never attended film school, but worked his way up within the industry, eventually writing scripts and then directing. Buried Alive is his directorial debut. He likes to tell stories with a deeper level. The Shawshank Redemption, though not a box office blockbuster, has a hugely popular following. Because “Hollywood is a difficult place for people with integrity,” Darabont hasn’t made a film in 13 years. The budget of Buried Alive was $2 million and the film was shot in 18 days. The house was rented from a stunt coordinator who was out of town, but the basement scenes were shot on a sound stage. Actual accounts of people being buried alive are discussed. The coffin scene is very cinematic, and a scene between Sheriff Eberly and his wife is shot in a single take to emphasize emotion. Eberly is not depicted as a country bumpkin but as a man weighed down by the death of his friend.
Grave Intentions with William Atherton – This interview was filmed more than 30 years after the making of Buried Alive. Atherton made the film when made-for-cable movies were new. Without network censorship, writers were freer to create “grown up” movies. Because cable was still evolving, it had its own rules. This was Frank Darabont’s first film as director, a film Atherton refers to as “darkly psychological.” Atherton recalls Jennifer Jason Lee as being very professional, dedicated, and concentrated, and relates humorous on-set anecdotes about Tim Matheson and Hoyt Axton. He describes the character of Cortland in detail. Shooting days were long. Atherton had just completed filming Die Hard 2. He enjoyed his experience making the film.
Trailers – Three theatrical trailers are included: Impulse, Heart of Midnight, and Rush.
Buried Alive starts like a domestic drama about a couple in conflict. Clint loves his new home and thriving business. Joanna is bored and restless. But director Darabont gradually turns the film into an excursion into madness and horror. The plot is simple but underscores the darker side of humanity in which greed, deception, infidelity, and murder drive a man to methodical revenge that conjures memories of Poe’s The Cask of Amontillado.
- Dennis Seuling