Saturday, January 14, 2012
#124: Dead & Buried (Gary Sherman, 1981)
This unfairly neglected cult horror film from 1981 comes armed with a pedigree that should make any horror fan take notice. The director, Gary Sherman, previously wrote and directed the cult British horror film Raw Meat aka Death Line, and he went on to make other cult films of varying quality like Vice Squad, Poltergeist III, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and Lisa. The credited screenwriters, Dan O'Bannon and Ronald Shusett, wrote the screenplays for Alien and Total Recall, and the late O'Bannon was also involved as screenwriter, director, editor, and/or special effects man on Dark Star, Star Wars, Heavy Metal, The Return of the Living Dead, Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars, and The Resurrected. He unfortunately died a few years ago from Crohn's disease at the too young age of 63. (In an extra on the DVD, O'Bannon says that he and Shusett didn't deserve their screenplay credit and merely revised the original screenplay by Jeff Millar and Alex Stern.) Stan Winston, the makeup effects designer, created the makeup, prosthetic, and/or digital effects for White Dog, the first three Terminator movies, Aliens, the first two Predator movies, The Thing, Edward Scissorhands, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, and Iron Man, to name just a few. He also directed Pumpkinhead and a Michael Jackson video. (Winston also died a few years ago, from cancer, at the too young age of 62.) Finally, the cast features a pre-Freddy Krueger Robert Englund, who hasn't died recently.
Dead & Buried takes place in the fictional New England seaside small town of Potters Bluff. We open to a photographer taking some nature shots on the beach. An attractive woman wanders into his shot, and the two have some vaguely smarmy flirtatious banter. He takes some pictures of her, she propositions him, and the first of the film's many effective shock scenes follows.
We quickly learn that, despite its Capraesque nomenclature, Potters Bluff is a crazy fucking town. Don't go there on vacation, you knucklehead. The nature of this insanity appears at first to be some kind of homicidal community ritual, shades of an oyster-shucking New England port-side Wicker Man. The viewer quickly settles in for a strange, strange take on the then-current slasher film fad, but Dead & Buried becomes something even stranger when a couple of bizarre twists are later revealed. I'll leave those twists for you.
Sherman and cinematographer Steven Poster (Donnie Darko) create a pleasurably unsettling atmosphere with a color palette of dark earth tones, minus the red, and unique lighting of scenes, in which Poster keeps parts of the frame dark and overlights others. This lighting technique creates a visual style similar to headlights cutting through fog. Sherman also creates a real sense of community with his cast of interesting faces who were mostly undervalued by the big screen and worked primarily in television, including James Farentino as the town sheriff investigating the recent string of bizarre murders, Jack Albertson as the mortician, and the late Lisa Blount as a sexy nurse with a homicidal streak. Most of the performances are understated and dryly humorous, though Farentino goes apeshit in the final third of the film, to hilarious effect.
Dead & Buried has a real time capsule quality as well. It contains so many hallmarks of late '70s/early '80s horror that are sorely lacking from today's world of torture, lightning-speed cuts, casts full of blandly attractive voids, no atmosphere or sense of place, and network television style lighting. Here is a film with real suspense, humor, lively characters of varying ages, skillful pacing, developed atmosphere and setting, and a distinct look and feel. I don't have much to say about this one other than recommending it as a satisfying, enjoyable early-'80s horror film that deserves a wider audience.