Every now and then, you’ll see a film described as a “curiosity.” This usually means that it’s not all that well-known, and isn’t necessarily typical for its time, but has some quality that makes it worth considering nonetheless. It’s easy to forget that in any given time period a lot of films get made, but not all of them get remembered. So, for example, if you think about horror films in the late 60s, you’re probably thinking about Rosemary’s Baby, not Spider Baby. And Rosemary’s Baby is excellent, no doubt, but Spider Baby has a unique charm and vision of its own that owes absolutely nothing to the former film, and it’s largely sat in obscurity. So when you stumble on one of these films that the zeitgeist has forgotten, they can be a real treat.
This is very much the case for Dead & Buried, which got made in the middle of the first wave of slasher films (a genre that’s become synonymous with the late 70s and into the 80s), but owes very little to that style of filmmaking. It does have its problems, but it’s also entirely its own thing and defies easy expectation a lot of time.
The film opens on a small coastal town in New England called Potter’s Bluff. There’s a man walking along the beach, taking photographs of nature, of fishing nets, seabirds, and then into his viewfinder comes an attractive young woman. They get to talking - he’s a professional photographer, she asks if he’s famous, it gets flirty, then it gets flirtier, then it gets blatantly sexual as she comes on to him…
…and then he’s surrounded by villagers, who -with the woman’s assistance - begin to beat him with shovels and bats, before tying him up and burning him alive, filming the entire thing.
So the basic narrative spine of this film is the small town with a dark secret, and the film does a good job of leveraging that feeling of small-town intimacy to create a pretty solid sense of paranoia throughout. Everyone’s friendly, everyone seems normal, and it’s not immediately apparent why some of the fine folks of this village are murdering tourists. Dan goes down a very dark, very strange rabbit hole over the course of the film, and it largely pays off. The rhythm of the film is a little perfunctory, leaning a little more towards a connected series of set pieces rather than a single organic story, but the filmmakers do a good job of setting up the important twists and reveals at a good pace, so it holds your attention and manages some very solid surprises. Most importantly, the whole game isn’t given away all at once - the “what” of the film is revealed bit by bit, but it isn’t until the absolute last moments of the film that you really get a sense of “why,” and even then there’s room for one last audacious reveal. This is a film that is very good at knowing when to drop the next surprise in your lap.
It also works well because it isn’t afraid to create a mood and commit to it. Since it’s set in a coastal New England town, everything is weather-worn buildings and gray, cloudy days and lights cutting through thick fog at night. A lot of this film is bluish and backlit, and it’s not very subtle in that regard, but it definitely helps maintain an atmosphere, and there’s a lot of very, very good practical effects work that still really holds up today, making it effectively creepy and gruesome without being especially gory. It’s not the obvious hatchet to the face of its slasher-film contemporaries, it’s something more evocative and uncomfortable than that, and combined with the small-town paranoia and the relentless gloominess, it’s a pretty uneasy experience, especially considering its age.
But speaking of age, in a lot of ways it is still definitely a product of its time. The dialogue is pretty stagey throughout, not all of the effects work holds up equally well, and the acting ranges from absolutely fine to scenery-devouring. And if you came of age in the 1970s, some of the casting is probably going to be a bit distracting. But then yet again, in some instances this actually works for it. At points it makes things feel nicely off-kilter, like a lighthearted TV movie about the wacky folks in a small town took a very dark turn at some point when you weren’t looking. And for a film made in the middle of the masked-killer craze, it really feels more like it’s riffing on things like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and even The Stepford Wives to some degree, and is even sort of adjacent to H.P. Lovecraft in his less cosmic mode. It’s a bold choice, and it pays off in both a sustained sense of paranoid uneasiness and in some surprising little choices in some scenes, culminating in a third act that is an absolute ride, capped by an ending that I can only describe as bonkers in its staging and its final reveal. If you stop to think closely about it, it’ll fall apart a little and there’s some stuff that isn’t ever really explained or resolved, but that didn’t really bother me at all while I was watching it - I was just letting it wash over me and getting swept up in the strangeness of it all. You don’t see films like this much anymore, and hell, you didn’t even see movies like this when it was new. It’s definitely worth a look.
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