Frank Darabont (of Shawshank Redemption fame) earned his directorial chops on this superior TV movie. Small town boy made good Clint Goodman (Tim Matheson) builds a dream house in the sticks for his pouting wife Joanna (Jennifer Jason Leigh). But she yearns for the big city and takes up with Cortland van Owen (William Atherton), a slimy doctor. He persuades Joanna to poison Clint, so they can sell the house, cash in his business and head off for a better life.
Too busy fishing and whittling to pick up on Joanna's murderous vibes, Clint washes down his T-bone steak with a glass of poisoned wine, only to wake up a few days later in his coffin. This isn't, though, the claustrophobic tale the title might lead you to expect, because he's soon clawing his way out and seeking vengeance.
The result is a pleasant, civilized thriller that hides its implausibilities under solid, old-fashioned, TV movie values. It should be said that those implausibilities are considerable. When Clint drops dead in the prime of his redneck life, his best buddy the sheriff (a mumbling, sleepy performance by cult country and western crooner Hoyt Axton) vaguely toys with the idea of an autopsy, but lets Cortland talk him out of it. Later, when Clint's gouged-open grave is discovered, the same incredibly incompetent lawman instructs the undertaker, for no good reason, to fill in the grave and tell no one.
While you're watching it, though, the story doesn't feel as stupid as it actually is. A lot of the credit for this goes to Mark Patrick Carducci's engagingly catty script, while Darabont's calm and measured approach to the material is another asset. The film also boasts fine performances from a trio of actors who weren't always lucky enough to get such plum roles. The sturdy Matheson keeps on top of a character arc than has more than a few unlikely kinks. Atherton – in the Eighties, the go-to guy for slime – revels in his role as the Machievellian Cortland, his beady eyes ever-watchful for the next opportunity to stab someone in the back. Best of all, though, is Jennifer Jason Leigh, who shoehorns surprisingly well into the role of femme fatale. Darabont manages to smooth out her usual twitches and mannerisms and win a performance from her that has some of the cool perversity of Carroll Baker. Together, she and Atherton have all the best moments and it's their plotting and sparring which is the spine of the movie.
Although made in 1990, Buried Alive has the feel of the TV movies on which Spielberg cut his teeth almost two decades earlier. Like the best of those movies, it makes a virtue of an absence of 18-certificate nudity and gore to deliver a cozily tasteful diversion, leavened with intriguing characterization and the odd subversive touch (the title refers literally to Clint but metaphorically to Joanna, suffocating in small town purgatory). If you're a fan of vintage American TV movies or EC comic-style tall tales, you could to far worse than give this DVD a spin.
Buried Alive is finally released in the UK on DVD October 17th