MGM’s manufactured-on-demand line digs up BURIED ALIVE, one of a trio of South Africa-shot of Edgar Allan Poe “slasher” films spawned out of the unholy partnership of Harry Alan Towers and Menahem Golan’s 21st Century Film Corporation (the company that also brought us Robert Englund as THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and Raul Julia as MACK THE KNIFE).
Janet (Playboy Playmate Karen Witter) has taken a new job as a biology teacher at the Ravenscroft Hall, a reform school for delinquent girls, after being impressed by a lecture given by its impassioned director Gary (Robert Vaughn, KILLING BIRDS). Upon arriving at the school, she learns from a local cop (Arnold Vosloo, THE MUMMY) that one of the girls had run away the night before. The girls are a volatile bunch lead by Debbie (adult film actress Ginger Lynn Allen, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS) and colleague Dr. Schaeffer (Donald Pleasance, HALLOWEEN) seems a bit unhinged. At night, the girls meet up with guys from the nearby town to party in the off-limit cellars beneath the school (which Janet learns was once a mental institution run by Gary’s father [John Carradine]). When Fingers (Nia Long, STIGMATA) finds the switchblade she gave the missing girl in the cellars, she approaches Janet. Janet, however, already has to deal with nightmarish visions of breathing brick walls, swarms of ants (even outside of her visions, the school does seem to have a major ant problem), and John Carradine's scene-chewing. Gary dismisses the continuing disappearances of the girls as runaways that he has failed, but Janet is drawn into the depths of the former institution.
Not to be confused with Frank Darabont’s Tim Matheson/Jennifer Jason Leigh 1990 TV movie (and its sequel), BURIED ALIVE was one of three Edgar Allan Poe “adaptations” produced by Harry Alan Towers’ Breton Productions and Menahem Golan’s 21st Century Film Corporation (the company was part of Golan’s severance package from his The Cannon Group partnership with Yoram Globus), the other two being the Alan Birkinshaw-directed pair: the dreadful THE HOUSE OF USHER (1989) with Oliver Reed, Donald Pleasance, and Romy Windsor (HOWLING IV: THE ORIGINAL NIGHTMARE, the one with the Moody Blues theme song), and the entertaining THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1991) with Herbert Lom, Frank Stallone, Brenda Vaccaro (all three of which starred in the Cannon/Towers TEN LITTLE INDIANS adaptation), and Michelle McBride (SUBSPECIES). All three of the films featured special make-up effects work by Scott Wheeler, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his make-up effects on STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (although his grisly prosthetics for the sketch show MADTV have more in common with his work here). Although the script by Jake Clesi and Stuart Lee would seem to allude to Poe’s “The Premature Burial” as its source story, BURIED ALIVE actually has more in common with “The Cask of Amontillado” and “The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether” (besides the school’s name “Ravenscroft,” the appearance of a prowling black cat precedes each of the murders, although the script does not utilize the final twist of Poe’s “The Black Cat”).
Towers had previously collaborated with former porn director Gerard Kikoine and his regular cinematographer Gerard Loubeau on the made-for-cable Private Screenings softcore erotica pics LADY LIBERTINE/FRANK AND I and LOVE CIRCLES (Towers and Kikoine had previously collaborated with executive producer Avi Lerner on Cannon’s late 1980s MANDINGO retreads DRAGONARD and THE MASTER OF DRAGONARD HILL). Loubeau’s photography is attractive, but whatever style he and Kikoine achieve is dispelled as soon as any of the actors start speaking. Most of the supporting actors sound like they’ve been dubbed (which is likely since they are probably South African production quota talent). Frederic Talgorn’s synthesizer score is perfectly proficient, but not particularly distinctive (according to his website, Talgorn only wrote ten minutes of new music for the film with the rest filled in by his synth temp tracks for Kikoine’s Towers-produced EDGE OF SANITY with Anthony Perkins). Kikoine’s son Gilbert served as the film’s editor. Production designer Leonardo Coen Cagli’s (whose surname is misspelled in the opening credits) sets are attractive but not as baroque as his work on THE HOUSE OF USHER (the same sets for that film were rearranged, repainted, and redressed for Birkinshaw’s follow-up MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH).
Witter is good at the hysterics, but projects no authority as a teacher (although she’s required more than once to intervene in confrontations), and goes through the woman-in-peril motions. Vaughn chews the scenery effortlessly (by the 1990s, were we really supposed to believe that actors like Vaughn in a horror movie might possibly be red herrings?) and Pleasance is his usual kooky self (besides THE HOUSE OF USHER, Pleasance also appeared in the aforementioned Cannon Films/Towers TEN LITTLE INDIANS around this time). A raving, wheelchair-bound Carradine pops up at random points to terrify Witter (the film is dedicated to his memory). Allan earns her prominent “and – as” opening credit as the bitchy Debbie. Long gives a good supporting performance and is the most sympathetic of the girls (and the most tolerable of the main cast, period). William Butler (later of the NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD remake, produced by Golan) shows up as Debbie’s boyfriend from the neighboring town’s non-reformatory school. Butler also assisted on the film’s make-up effects (he also worked on John Carl Buechler’s MMI crew for some of the late 1980s Charles Band Empire Pictures titles in the US and Italy). Vosloo’s cop (possibly dubbed) pops in and out of the picture at convenient points to remind us that there is supposedly a small American town beyond the South African locations.
Higher on gore than nudity (there is a requisite school shower scene as well as a couple topless flashes during the basement party), the R-rated violence seemed to play out intact on one of the recent viewings I caught of the film on revenue-sharing digital channel THIS-TV (the full feature is also on Hulu courtesy of MGM). Ultimately, BURIED ALIVE is less interesting as a film than as a point of intersection of exploitation film history for Harry Alan Towers, Kikoine (who edited a number of Jess Franco films not produced by Towers), Cannon Films and executive producer Avi Lerner (who also produced the dreadful South African supernatural slasher THE STAY AWAKE). For their MOD-line release of BURIED ALIVE, it is likely that MGM used the existing decades-old master struck for the Columbia Pictures laserdisc and VHS tape releases of the film from the early 1990s. The full screen image was composed with home video in mind (although I believe the film had some sparse theatrical play abroad). The source is obviously an analog video master. Compositionally, it zooms in nicely to 16:9 (or a more exact 1.85:1 if your set or software can do it), but that makes the quality of the source much more evident. The Dolby Digital mono audio is in fine condition. No extras are included and chapters are encoded at every ten minutes. The back cover credits direction to “Gerald” Kikoine (it's only fair, since the film misspells Poe's middle name onscreen).
Where can you purchase these MGM Limited Edition Collection releases? So far they can be found for purchase online at Deep Discount DVD, Oldies.com, Movies Unlimited, Amazon.com and Screen Archives Entertainment. (Eric Cotenas)
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