| Buried Alive


Frank Darabont

USA, 1990


Review by Adam Balz

Posted on 24 October 2013

Source Gaiam VHS

Categories 31 Days of Horror X

Honey, I’m home!

Spousal homicide is nothing new to cinema, and as perverse as it may sound, it’s an issue thick with nuance and possibility. Moving past those cinematic murders that are justifiable and free of nuance - a wife lashing out at her abusive husband or boyfriend, à la Lifetime original movies, is perhaps the most common form of these - we find films in which this decision is layered and ambiguous, a recipe for the tension and discomfort that makes film such a rich source of expression. After all, marriage is a unifying act unlike anything else, in which two strangers come together, explore every aspect of one another - emotionally, spiritually, physically, intellectually - and commit to joining their two separate lives into one singular creature. Nobody understands a man more than his wife, just as nobody understands a wife more than her husband.

And yet, a marriage cannot exist without its secrets. After all, people are never truly knowable, no matter how honest they claim to be: the mind still keeps most of its waters from the shore, presenting the lapping waves of high tide as the entire ocean. Lust, anger, regrets, indiscretions, jealousies, embarrassments—it’s these ghosts that haunt spouses and bring tension to any marriage. Sometimes, these ghosts are more powerful than even the spouses themselves might imagine.

The marriage at the heart of Buried Alive is plagued by ghosts like these, though they seem to be haunting only one of its spouses. Clint - humble, loyal, uncomplicated - lives in a small mansion alongside wife Joanna, who’s moved across the country to live with him in the small Arizona town where he grew up. The owner of a million-dollar construction company, Clint built the mansion himself, and almost from the film’s opening scenes we begin to understand that he’s built more than just the house in which he and Joanna live. Their marriage - their metaphorical house - is kept alive entirely by Clint’s devotion to her, which she reciprocates with rolled eyes and an aloofness that makes even his welcome-home kisses seem painful to her. Were it not for some unspoken reason - his money, perhaps - she would have divorced him a long time ago. Instead, they live together in a house far too large for just the two of them (their attempts at conceiving children have, we’re told, proven fruitless) and the echoing loneliness of their daily lives is by far the best manifestation of how vacant their marriage truly is.

Unbeknownst to Clint, Joanna has a refuge away from their life together: a city doctor named Cort who, after a tryst with Joanna, convinces her to poison Clint with fish-ovary extract. He wants her to be free of her misery, he says, and hands her the tiny bottle promising her relief—a marked contrast to the large home to which she must soon return. Cort is suave, his expensive apartment bedroom dominated by a tank of exotic fish, and here we find yet another contrast - the immoral city-slicker against the pure local boy - that pits two opposing forces, even stereotypes, against one another for Joanna’s heart. Here there is no contest, at least not for Joanna: wavering at first, and even throwing the bottle of poison away, she is convinced when Clint’s miter saw proves to be too loud. She is set off by a tool of his industriousness and hard work, and to do away with him, she’ll use a weapon extracted by a man who, we later learn, does not pay his bills and is only after Clint’s money. (It should also be noted that Clint acquires this poison from one of his own fish, which he also cooks and feeds to Joanna as dinner before sex. He is, in a way, cannibalizing his own expensive possessions to kill a man who builds possessions for himself.)

Even more, the use of a poison derived from reproductive materials not only hints at their difficulty in having children - Clint will be poisoned by the very organ so vital to creating new life, which Joanna has so far failed to do - but foreshadows a revelation at the film’s close, in which Clint asks his wife about a child from the past, something that she has apparently kept from him. It is a secret, in a way, that has poisoned him against her—one of the only moments in Buried Alive in which we see Clint react to Joanna in a way that resembles her own everyday reactions to him.

Much of this action, however, serves as bookends, comprising very little of the film’s 90-minute run-time. After poisoning Clint and watching him writhe to death on their dining-room floor, Joanna cashes out all of her husband’s belongings and business connections, not to mention putting their house up for sale, and waits for the day when she and Cort can run off together. What Joanna doesn’t know is that the dose of poison she administered wasn’t fatal, and hours after being buried, Clint awakens in his coffins and digs himself out of his grave, not only now fully aware of who his wife really is but determined to seek revenge.

Despite the film’s abundance of parallels and contrasts, this moment is one of many in which the build-up of circumstances, conveniences, and plot twists serve to propel an otherwise ridiculous storyline forward. Joanna waives the autopsy, refuses to have her husband embalmed, and buys the cheapest coffin for him—a weak, rotting box through which Clint, awakened from a two-day coma, can easily punch his way free. Joanna also happens to live in a town where the coroner doesn’t notice body heat or fresh blood from an otherwise dead-looking corpse, and the local grave-diggers only go down a foot or two rather than the usual six, leaving very little topsoil through which her not-quite-dead husband must dig to escape. (Still, the claustrophobia of the inexpensive coffin is a beautiful contrast to Clint and Joanna’s expensive and vacuous home.) They’re all necessary to establish Joanna’s viciousness and greed while also keeping Clint around for their eventual confrontation, which, which it happens, turns into something more outrageous and absurd than anything hinted at by the film up to that point.

Stumbling back home in the rain, the newly unburied Clint discovers his wife and Cort in a moment of passion. Suddenly possessing all the pieces to this puzzle, Clint takes up shelter in his own basement - again, the breaking of a basement window and loading of a shotgun, not to mention a half-dead man dragging himself noisily up and down wooden stairs, fails to arouse any notice - where he plots the most fitting revenge. At first, he gets both Joanna and Cort into the basement - their own below-ground tomb of sorts - by pretending to be a masked intruder. Neither has even the slightest clue that Clint is alive, but the sounds from above - sawing, hammering, even a chainsaw - drives both to near madness. It’s the same kind of noise that once pushed Joanna over the edge, only now it’s being used directly, as torture.

The situation is made all the worse by Joanna’s discovery: a syringe of the same ovary-derived poison used on Clint, this time intended for Joanna herself, which would have allowed Cort to abscond with more than a million dollars in cash. Their minor confrontation - they wrestle on the basement floor like children - is ended only when Clint opens the basement door without a sound, allowing both to enter the focus of his work: a plywood maze, a funhouse, almost, with sliding walls, peepholes, and even a trap door. Clint has turned the very place he built by hand for he and his wife, the very place Joanna thought of as a prison, into a bastardized version of itself, still serving both purposes, only now it’s an ugly and undressed hybrid of the coffin in which he was buried. For the remainder of the film, both Joanna and Cort will make their way through Clint’s labyrinthe, each of them moving inextricably closer to the fates that he has aligned for them. When all is said and done and revenge has been served, Clint leaves the screen without a word. He’s had his retribution and returned to the cemetery while keeping clear of the grave, but he leaves the film a dead man - he has no name or future, all of his possessions either sold off or burned away save his truck and dog, and he is little more than a ghost - a stranger in a town where everyone knows his face. It is the film’s last contrast, a juxtaposition of the living and the dead.

However, it’s not the film’s most important contrast. That contrast, which occurs in the film’s first half, also happens to be its most forgettable, as Darabont spends less than a minute focused on it. Long before Clint has risen from the grave and hatched his plan, we are shown Sheriff Sam Ebergly and his wife - both elderly, their kitchen reasonably sized but cluttered by a marriage’s-worth of knickknacks and keepsakes - sitting around a table. They are both silent, content to sit in each other’s presence without causing a stir or demanding more than they’re entitled. Theirs is a marriage foraged out of time, respect, and understanding, and the silence that accompanies their short moment together serves as a model of what strong, healthy marriages should be. The moment’s purpose is obvious to the point of parody, but it encapsulates the entirety of Buried Alive in one folksy, heartfelt, and ill-fitting moment.

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