Everyone has to cut their teeth somewhere and that’s pretty much the best excuse for Frank Darabont’s Buried Alive, a feature-length effort that stands as the only workman-like entry in his filmography. When it premiered on USA back in 1990, the dark film was considered boundary pushing for an FCC regulated medium and it was considered a huge hit, eventually spawning a sequel directed by original lead Tim Matheson where the gender roles are reversed and the plot is regurgitated. The tale of murder gone awry feels like nothing more than a stale Tales From The Crypt episode, but it does showcase his eye for casting and ability to create atmosphere.
Matheson stars as Clint Goodman, a successful construction company owner living in the middle of nowhere with his bitchy wife, Joanna (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Tired of spending her days alone while her husband tries to suburbanize the town, she has an affair with Dr. Cort von Owen (William Atherton). One TV-friendly post-coital scheming scene later and the two are ready to murder Clint and run away with the insurance money – from the sound of it, Walter Peck isn’t dickless after all!
Drawing poison from a fish in Cort’s aquarium, the less than faithful spouse spikes Clint’s dinner, sending him into deadly convulsions. He looks a bit confused as he’s writhing around on the floor, so Joanna lets him in on what’s going on by screaming “Die, damn you! Die!” Of course, Clint doesn’t really die. He goes into an elongated coma and, through the rather convenient circumstances, ends up buried without a wake or autopsy in the cheapest coffin available. His wooden box, upon waking, looks better lit than most metropolitan parking lots at night, but hey, that’s the magic of TV. A little bit woozy and really dirty, he breaks out of his grave, ready for vengeance.
It’s a mystery what Darabont saw in Mark Patrick Carducci’s bland screenplay but even during his directorial infancy, he managed to conjure up some great atmosphere with material that would otherwise be suited for Lifetime. For a telefilm made in 1990, it’s surprisingly mean spirited, even if it’s extremely predictable and poorly constructed. Leigh and Atherton sell their plotting lovers well, giving them a believable level of classy sleaze and a few fun moments of bad dialogue recitement. Matheson is adequate as the double crossed lead, but his supporting characters overshadow him, including a turn by Hoyt Axton as the local sheriff.
Clichéd as it may be, there’s something to be said about Buried Alive’s finale, which would make Rube Goldberg blush. Darabont might not have made a great debut with his telefilm but if seen at the time of its release, it would’ve been easy to spot a gifted filmmaker in need of better material.