DEAD AND BURIED **** USA 1981 Dir: Gary Sherman. 94 mins
Like Royston Vasey in the BBC’s later THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN TV series, Potter’s Bluff is a place where the prospects are grim for anyone who isn’t local. This eerily beautiful coastal town provides a startling backdrop for a disturbing prologue in which a visiting photographer is seduced by a comely local lass (Lisa Blount) before a swiftly gathering mob bludgeon him with spades, tie him to a tree and cover him in gasoline. Local Sheriff James Farentino is back to his small-town roots after some time in the big city while busy mortician Jack Albertson (the cuddly grandfather in WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY) listens to 30s big band music and brags about all the tricks he employs to make his regular intake of cadavers look beautiful: “This is art and I am an artist”.
Co-written by ALIEN’s Ronald Shusett and Dan O’Bannon and directed by the underrated Gary Sherman (whose DEATHLINE remains one of the greatest of all London-based horror films), this balances the likeable Farentino’s investigation with jarring moments of physical horror: everyone remembers the (once censored) hypodermic needle to the eyeball. Stan Winston’s use of prosthetics and dummies is exemplary and there is an outstanding jump scare involving a horribly burned “corpse” that predates a similar shock in David Fincher’s SE7EN. If the shocks err close to the era’s slasher cycle, the small town paranoia and unravelling conspiracy has echoes of INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS and, on the domestic front, transforms into a gender-reversal of ROSEMARY’S BABY. One specific sequence involving the Sheriff’s doctor friend (Joseph G Medalis) highlights a possible influence on HALLOWEEN III.
There’s a nice undercurrent of black humour (“If that’s true it’s very distasteful”) in the well-paced, busy script. Albertson cannily exploits his benign, established screen image by balancing quirky charm with a growing sense of disturbing, possibly necrophiliac obsession as he fixates on making the recently murdered look beautiful. A horribly amusing climactic sequence in which a key character rambles about beef stroganoff is reflective of the clever tonal shifts just as the grim truth is finally revealed. Meanwhile, the final act pulls off a macabre twist of the kind that would become commonplace in the wake of M Night Shyamalan’s popular chillers at the turn of the millennium.
Review by Steven West