It’s been said that horror is cyclical, a looping genre tied to the current times and/or reigning cultural atmosphere. When politics are liberalized, more subtle scares are apparently in order. That may explain the sudden rise in Japanese ghost stories and bloodless supernatural sagas during the ‘90s. But put a Hawkish conservative in the White House, a man using his own source of scare tactics and military might to make his points, and the slice and dice gorezoning begins. When Reagan ruled the Oval Office, the slasher film saw mass murder made mainstream. George W. Bush and his War on Terror has itself resulted in torture porn and violence soaked exploitation. F/X master turned director Robert Kurtzman wants to use both formats to forge a post-millennial example of splatter slice and dice. It’s too bad then that Buried Alive isn’t more menacing. It’s got the fright formulas down pat. But unlike other retro fear factors, it can’t quite deliver all the gruesome goods.
Our story begins in typical Greed Decade fashion. A collection of college kids, including the nerd, the stud, the sorority chicks, and the daredevil dude with a few sordid secrets, all get into a Cadillac convertible and head out to the family mansion in the middle of the California desert. Seems great-granddad struck gold decades before, squirreled his strike away and – rumor has it – buried his first wife (a Native American) alive. A second marriage, a deadly fire, and a sole survivor have left the family cautious and cursed since then. Cousins Rene and Zane sense something is amiss in their genealogy, but can’t quite get a handle on the haunting. Even certified dweeb Phil and his Web savvy searching turns up little about the clan’s murder/massacre heritage. Of course, crude handyman Lester has his own theories about the legends. He believes the gold is still under the house, waiting to be discovered, and he’ll be damned if any rightful owner claims it first. Yet once everyone settles in for a night of beer, boot knocking, and various other nocturnal bumps, it is clear someone – or something - wants everyone dead.
And the story’s not too shabby either. The script, by Art Monterastelli, best known for such episodic TV as Nowhere Man, High Incident, and Total Recall 2070, stays true to the tenets of the iconic ‘80s format, giving us good set-up, successful cat and mouse, and a collection of clever kills. There’s even some tasty totem mumbo jumbo to keep everything nice and ethereal. In fact, had the film stuck with the mythological aspects of the narrative and avoided all the sexed up skirt chasing, along with all the silly sorority initiation hi-jinx, we’d have a much better movie. Kurtzman canters past these pitfalls with ease, working around then by using location, production design, and blood spatter to save the day.
Almost. Indeed, Buried Alive starts to run out of steam about 45 minutes into its running time. At that moment, we realize we’ve only had one death (a fresh and funky bisection), way too much implied incest (Rene and Zane are more wannabe copulating than kissing cousins) and an overdose of paranormal inference and hinting. Unlike the camp based creepshows that used the fireside ghost story as a means of getting the premise presented, Buried Alive has to wait for scene after endless scene of goofball grab ass before slowly explaining the secrets – and then, it’s left to the finale to finally wrap everything up. To their credit, Kurtzman and Monterastelli don’t shy away from giving us a rather malevolent conclusion. Unlike the standard ‘last girl’ motif, we get unexpected consequences and acts of outright cowardice. Even better, our rotting corpse monster achieves some sort of metaphysical comeuppance (though it could just be a backwards way of setting up a sequel).
And yet, something is not quite right with this movie. It builds to an intriguing apex, and then decides to coast on its own cleverness until the viewer catches it napping. Then it tries to save face by going gonzo - only by then, we’ve stopped feeling connected to the characters. Indeed, there are scenes (Zane “singing” his family’s harrowing history, a blond bimbette playing Bambi as she whines over a sprained ankle) which throw us off completely. We have no reason to hate these individuals – they’re merely aggravating in an obvious, arrested adolescent manner – and recognize their status as victim fodder early on. But Buried Alive seems stuck on cruise control once the party shifts to the desert. All the face hacking, throat cutting, back slashing arterial spray can’t give the atmosphere back its genre sea legs. We just keep watching things drift until the necessary denouement. Then the ending gives it one more horror happenstance try before the credits finally roll.
It’s hard to completely blame what’s on the screen. After all, the slasher film in general is deader than Rob Zombie’s fanboy affections. Successfully bringing the by-the-numbers murder movie back seems like an example of a fool’s paradise mixed with a psychopath’s less lucid brainstorm. Even the recent theatrical revamp attempt, the excellent Hatchet, needed excess amounts of self-referential humor and cartoonish claret to make its Freddy/Jason/Michael macabre work. Here, all Kurtzman and his followers have is a modicum of mood, a smattering of style, and a heaping helping of axe fu. If you’re nostalgic for those long ago Saturday nights when dates where dicey and an evening with a stack of generic VHS video nasties was more your social life speed, Buried Alive will really work on your wistfulness. Otherwise, fright fans should heed the typical artform warning. A revival is only as good as its original source material. And since slasher films aren’t Shakespeare, updating them can lead to a box office of discontent. This amiable attempt is not necessarily doomed, just derivative.