Janet is a new teacher at Ravencroft Institute, an all-girl boarding school for juvenile delinquents. She’s intrigued about the progressive new policies the school offers and is optimistic that she’ll not only be able to help children, but that the change in scenery will be a calming balm for her anxiety issues. But as soon as she gets there girls start to go missing. The headmaster of the school thinks they’re running away because his teaching methods are failing. But Janet is skeptical. The longer she stays at the school the more she starts having strange dreams and hallucinations involving brick walls and bugs. And as more girls end up going missing in the middle of the night, she starts to suspect that there’s something more nefarious going on at Ravencroft beyond a handful of angry, disillusioned teens.
I’m not entirely sure what to make of this movie. The full title of Buried Alive (not to be confused with the TV movie of the same name released in 1990 and directed by Frank Darabont) is actually Edgar Allan Poe’s Buried Alive. But by adding Poe’s name, I can’t tell if the filmmakers were being maliciously deceptive in their marketing or just incredibly optimistic. Because other than the occasional dose of gothic atmosphere and the inclusion of a black cat that literally pops up randomly throughout the film, there’s really not anything of substance here that screams “POE.” Sure, there are suggestions of his work throughout, including notes of such tales as The Black Cat, The Premature Burial, and The Fall of the House of Usher, amongst others. But the story is only loosely connected to any of those tales, at best. This movie isn’t actually based on a singular story of Edgar Allan Poe (Hell, they even spelled his name wrong in the credits). Which, I’ll be honest, was a big bummer for me, because I went in expecting a very particular type of story, and instead I walked away from something completely different.
Guess the production didn’t have a proof reader…
But hey, at least the cat was cute…if not horribly suspicious looking.
Though there are some familiar themes of Poe’s writing intermingled throughout the story, instead of some darkly romantic gothic tale, Buried Alive ends up being more of a straight-up slasher than it does anything else. But only some of the time. Much like the way the filmmakers threw in elements of Poe’s writing in a confusing attempt to link the story to the author, they also threw in familiar elements from other well-known horror films like the hallucinations in The Shining and the bugs in Phenomena just to make the movie extra confusing. Janet doesn’t even make it there a full day before she’s having strange dreams and weird visions of pulsating brick walls and literal buckets full of ants that seem dead-set at accosting her at every turn. And of course the movie never bothers to explain why she’s having these episodic visions, or even what the deal is with all the damn ants. There’s not even some lame excuse of “Oh, well, I’ve always had these types of strange prophetic dreams since I was a child”, or even that she fell face-first into a killer ant hill when she was three and now she has a crippling phobia, or some such garbage. Hell, we don’t even get the excuse that it’s all a cryptic warning by a vengeful ghost. No, the movie literally gives you nothing to go off of and just expects you to accept it all at face value. And while, yes, the pulsating wall is clearly a reference to the killer entombing his victims, Janet has no way of actually knowing any of that by the time she has the first vision, since by that point she’s only been in Ravencroft for, like, half a day. All we’ve been told about her at that point, during a very quick self-narration, is that she took this new job hoping that the change of scenery would help with her anxiety issues. So by the time the first pulsing brick wall shows up, breathlessly whispering “Help me! Help me!”, the only thing we know for sure about this woman is that she’s clearly made a terrible career choice in regards to her mental health.
Considering the movie turned out to be more of a (very muddled) slasher as opposed to a gothic horror, I was surprised by how bloodless the whole thing is. I mean, of all the things to hold over from the gothic sub-genre and the filmmakers chose that? Way to confuse your audience even more, movie. Most of the “deaths” involve victims being buried up to their waists in dirt, or entombed behind poorly constructed brick walls that could probably easily be knocked over with a light sneeze from a rat. One poor guy does get a trough to the face, but that’s equally as bloodless a death as the ones the wall victims face, so there’s no excitement there. There seems to be only one exception to this bloodless rule. The most unfortunate soul of the film manages to get the most creative and gruesome death in the movie by accidentally scalping herself during a power surge caused by the killer while she was curling her hair. But considering she was very unwisely using a kitchen hand mixer to curl said tresses, it was probably inevitable that she was doomed to suffer a stupidly tragic death at some point in her life anyway, so it’s kind of hard to feel too bad for her. So other than that, the film’s pretty mundane as far as deaths go.
If you’ve ever wondered what type of person those stupid warnings tags on electrical appliances are for, here’s your answer.
If you’re thinking that since the movie is a slasher that perhaps some nudity will save it, you’re going to be disappointed on that front too. Despite Buried Alive sporting not one, but two adult models/actresses, neither former Playboy alum Karen Witter (who plays Janet) nor adult film actress Ginger Lynn Allen (who plays rebellious teen Debbie) are ever seen sans any clothes. So those familiar with their ouvre shouldn’t see their names and get their hopes up. Beyond that there’s only one scene that really boasts any nudity beyond a quick flash in poor lighting, so skin fans will likely walk away from this film disappointed.
Despite some interesting casting decisions, as far as the acting itself goes, the film ends up sort of being hit or miss. Witter does an alright job as the lead, but I feel her skills would have probably been better suited to a secondary role as opposed to the film’s main focus. Ginger Lynn, on the other hand, plays a very convincing rebellious little asshole. She’s got a lot more charisma and spirit than most of the other characters, not to mention a hell of a set of screaming pipes, and I can’t help but think that she would have been a better fit for the part of the lead. At the very least she would have been far more entertaining. The film also sports Robert Vaughn, who spends a lot of time chewing the scenery and trying his best to pull off a Jack Nicholson impression while failing miserably, and Donald Pleasence, who I didn’t even recognize at first because the movie forced him to put a god-awful, fugly wig on his head that resembles an old, floppy mop. Vaughn feels like he’s just going through the motions for the paycheck, but Pleasence at least puts in some effort as the school’s creepy, enigmatic doctor, though the film itself is a bleak reminder that both men desperately needed to put more discretion into some of the roles they chose to accept. Buried Alive also features John Carradine in his final film role, but you shouldn’t get too excited about that, because he’s probably only on screen for a total of about 30-seconds, and most of that involves him laughing maniacally while rolling around in a wheelchair after he just did his best impression of the Cool-Aid Man. Which I assure you, sounds a lot more fun than it actually ends up being.
Whatever the filmmakers intentions were with this movie, they clearly didn’t achieve them, since there was rumored to be a sequel planned, but the film performed so horribly that it never came to fruition. Thank goodness, because the movie is kind of a mess. It’s clearly the type of film trying to skate by on the success of another, more successful movie, but it never tried to really pin down what film it was trying to ape that success from. So it seems it just chose the ‘kitchen sink’ method in the hopes that something would stick, but they didn’t cook their movie pasta long enough and it just ended up in an ugly heap on the floor. Which is a much more elaborate analogy than the film deserves, but there you have it. Of course, that isn’t to say there aren’t any nuggets of goodness to be found. The kitchen mixer death was pretty entertaining despite its ridiculousness, and the creepy dark basement scenes all end up being pretty effective. But the few good elements just make the crappy one’s stand out more, like the film’s lack of detail, or its reluctance to explain anything, like Janet’s sudden visions or why the killer insists on wearing a Ronald Reagan mask. So in the end, the movie ends up being more confusing than entertaining, and does absolutely nothing to make itself stand out from the other, innumerable horror slashers out there. It tries to come close a couple times, but in the end it can’t manage to muster the juice. So if you simply must watch a movie called Buried Alive, I suggest you track down the Made for TV movie instead. It, shockingly, is actually supposed to be pretty good.
Buried Alive is available on a variety of streaming services.
Buried Alive is also available on DVD, but it appears to be long out of print.