Michael Seymour Blake talks movies
Welcome to Potters Bluff, a sleepy seaside town that ain’t so sleepy at all.
An unlucky photographer (played by Dennis Redfield) meets a woman (Lisa Blount) wearing painfully tight jeans on the beach. They flirt. She seduces him. Then a bunch of townspeople show up, and the movie throws a surprise left hook that leaves you dazed on the floor. The overcast sky in this ruthless introduction (created by suspending a huge flag from an overhanging cliff to block the sun) sets the tone for more dark events to come.
When an overturned car is found with a charred person inside (the photographer?), Sheriff Dan Gillis (James Farentino) is on the scene. Assisted by eccentric town coroner/mortician Mr. Dobbs (Jack Albertson), the sheriff grows suspicious about the mysterious crash. His wariness deepens after a body turns up—an obvious murder. Stranger still, he learns that his wife Janet (Melody Anderson), a local schoolteacher, knew the burned man in the car. But her story doesn’t quite check out, and Sheriff Gillis is left wondering who he can trust.
Dead and Buried is the opposite of slow burn horror, throwing ghastly events at us left and right with pacing that never eases up. The momentum-focused screenplay by Aliens writers Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon (although apparently O’Bannon claims none of his ideas were used) has some smart dialogue and a ton of intrigue. Gary Sherman (who also helmed a movie I highly recommend--Death Line) gives us foggy streets, bloodthirsty cabals, and a constant sense of lurking danger.
Farentino adds some humanity to the role of a local Sheriff tossed into a nightmare version of the town he once knew and served. Anderson plays his loving wife with a peculiar innocence. Even those with smaller roles, like the harmless-but-overzealous wannabe cop Betty (Estelle Omens), have a unique touch. But the obvious favorite is Albertson’s Dobbs.
What to say about Dobbs? Here’s how we meet him: two headlights shine through the night as 1938’s jazzy “And The Angels Sing” echoes throughout the surrounding darkness. He’s on his way to join the scene of a horrible accident…
“Talk about an entrance,” remarks Sheriff Gillis.
The car rumbles forward, passing a Potters Bluff sign. It pulls up in sluggish fashion. Dobbs has arrived. He’s dressed like an old school gentleman—shirt and tie, fedora, white flower attached to his lapel. The sheriff is frustrated by Dobbs’s tardiness, but Dobbs shushes him. He maintains eye contact with the sheriff as the song plays out, light reflecting off his black rimmed glasses like the glowing headlights that marked his introduction.
I loved him right away.
Dobbs takes extreme pleasure in making corpses look as good as ever. Better even. His appreciation for old-fashioned big band music, dedication to his craft, and sharp wit make for a character I couldn’t get enough of. Albertson was very ill during production and died shortly after. His performance was impressive with or without knowing this, but it does add a certain extra weight.
Equally as impressive are Stan Winston’s practical effects—from needles in the eye to the complete reconstruction of a human head, he and his team have accomplished something horror fans will continue to discover and love for years. Even if the surrounding story had nothing to offer (and it does), the work Winston and co. display here make it worth a watch.
Take the body in the car wreck for example. The camera sits nice and close to a mutilated person hanging limply upside down in the front seat. It’s all glistening muscle and bone and teeth except for a small patch of skin around one of the eyes. Nasty stuff. Already memorable. But then as a hand reaches towards it, something shocking happens. I won’t say what, but it’s a horror moment that stands with the best of them.
A scene involving acid up someone’s nose stuck out to me while watching. It looked noticeably cheap in comparison to everything else, like it’d been edited in from a weaker movie. Later, I learned it was one of the only effects Winston didn’t have his hands on, a glimpse into what could have been. His contributions are essential.
Dead and Buried does have some weak links. Like when a family spends way too much time searching for the inhabitants of a so-clearly-derelict house. It rocked me out of the movie with a big eye roll. (What happens because of this sequence, though, more than made up for it.) There were characters I wish took a different turn, and the ending, while somewhat fitting, felt a little too tv-movie and a lot too obvious. All is forgiven thanks to unforgettable effects, colorful characters, and of course super spooky atmosphere. It’s all so damn entertaining. This belongs on any horror fan’s watchlist.
Bonus: if you’re a philosophy fan, there’s a “free will” discussion waiting for you and your pals at the end of this.
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