For the young horror movie buff, the early eighties were – in the immortal words of Charles Dickens – the best of times and the worst of times. By 1983, friends of mine with more well-off parents began to get video players, the stuff of genius that we’d only seen before on Tomorrow’s World (though, to be fair to my parents, it’s not that they didn’t want to expand my film viewing habits, just that I got a kid sister at about the same time as David Ratcliff got a toploader Betamax). With my superior knowledge of what films had to offer (mainstream stuff from Photoplay magazine, the riskier, gorier stuff gleaned from Starburst magazine), I was often able to coerce Beta-owning chums into renting films that they ordinarily might not have.
For those reading this who weren’t around then, you have to understand that the early eighties, in the UK, was a completely different environment for horror fans than it is today. There were four channels on TV and, whilst films were regularly shown, horror stuff was often on very late (if at all), with only the Universal horrors going out in the early evening (though a run of them, in 1981, inspired in me an abiding love for The Creature From The Black Lagoon and Karloff’s Monster). The films I was reading about, by dazzling names such as Cronenberg and Landis, Scorsese and Romero, were out of the reach of a kid who couldn’t get into the cinema to watch them. Video was the great leveller – every corner shop in the land (and we had four or five in Rothwell alone, where now there are none) suddenly rented out tapes. HMV and Our Price mounted racks on the walls (similar to the ones now that hold huge posters for students to cover mould), filled with gaudy cover-art that often promised far more than they delivered, but whatever they gave us, we were grateful. Then came the Video Recordings Act in 1984 (a much larger issue, which deserves its own essay) which, whilst depriving us of films we could see also, inadvertently, gave young gorehounds with a taste for terror a shopping list of titles, in the form of the Video Nasty list. And what treasures that list promised – though now, almost thirty years later and having seen a lot of the banned titles since then, I realise that, like the copies in Our Price, the covers and titles promised much more than the films themselves did!
1985 was a banner year for me, when I finally got to see Videodrome (loved it then, love it today) and An American Werewolf In London (again, loved it then, love it today). The years viewing got better too, when some of the old video nasties began to surface, often slightly cut, but good enough that we could get some thrill from them.
On 30 July 1985 (I keep a diary), with my friends Nick, Steve, David (the aforementioned Mr Ratcliff) and his brother Matt, we rented three films from Dines’ Video Library – the Spielberg Twilight Zone, the once-banned Evil-Speak and Dead & Buried. We’d all read about The Twilight Zone, because of the Vic Morrow accident and whilst I remember the Joe Dante and George Miller segments fondly, I can’t say anything else for the film. Evil-Speak, as I recall, was rubbish – in fact, all I can remember are pigs in a church and Clint Howard running around like a lunatic. As for Dead & Buried – well…
I didn’t know anything about the film, but the video cover (this would probably have been the Thorn EMI edition, though it was also released on the 4Front label) was striking without being showy – a face (it looked, to me, like that of the Statue Of Liberty) seeming to push its way out of dried earth. Around the title were two taglines – “The writers of Alien bring a new terror to earth” and “A new dimension in horror”. I may not have known about the film, but I knew about Alien and that was enough for me, plus I’d seen Melody Anderson in Flash Gordon and James Farentino was in Blue Thunder, which was a big hit with us. We rented the films, took them home and hoped for the best.
The film was directed by Gary Sherman (whose previous directorial outing was Deathline in 1972 – “Mind the gap!”), with a screenplay by the writers of Alien, Ron Shusett and Dan O’Bannon (the latter otherwise best known at that time for John Carpenter’s Dark Star, though he would later go on to write and direct 1985’s Return Of The Living Dead). Their screenplay was based on one by Jeff Millar & Alex Stern, but Shusett & O’Bannon changed it sufficiently that the credit was changed, with Millar & Stern getting ‘story by’.
The film was beset by problems behind the scenes with the production company changing hands three times and the original vision was jettisoned (with Sherman’s directors cut apparently destroyed). Surprisingly enough, for a film with a pedigree of names and a distinctive look, this was included in the initial sweep of Video Nasties, even though the X-rated cinema release in 1981 was uncut. The Thorn EMI tape was listed as a Video Nasty in November 1983, but dropped from the list in January 1985.
“Welcome to Potter’s Bluff – a new way of life”
Starting out innocently enough, with views of the coastal landscape (Mendocino, California standing in for Maine) and a gentle piano refrain, a photographer (Christopher Allport) sets up his equipment on the beach and starts snapping away. An attractive blonde (Lisa Blount) comes to talk to him – and tries to guess his name, deciding on Freddy (she’s wrong) and she begins modelling for him, going so far as to unfasten her bright red blouse. The moment she does, what had been a gentle start suddenly becomes anything but as Freddy is subjected to a violent attack by a group of people wielding their own cameras. Lashed to a post with netting, he’s then set on fire.
The burned out wreck of his VW Camper is discovered and town sheriff Dan Gillis (James Farentino) – who, we later find out, has been away to get educated and had his pick of cities to work in, before choosing to return to his hometown – is quickly on the scene. The local mortician, William G. Dobbs (Jack Albertson, in his last screen role) arrives, in his ancient hearse accompanied by big band music and the two men check the state of the body. Everyone leans in, we see the crispy remains of Freddy, trapped upside by his seatbelt and then he screams.
Later, a drunken fisherman is heading back to his berth amongst the docks. Set upon by the same gang as Freddy, he is slashed across the face and has his throat cut. When his body is found, Gillis realises that something sinister is afoot. Whilst at the hospital, talking to the doctor (Joseph G. Medalis), where Freddy is now recovering, completely wrapped in bandages with only his left eye and lipless mouth visible, neither of them see a blonde nurse enter the room. It’s the blonde from the beach and as Freddy struggles desperately, she takes out a syringe with a massively long needle [Autobiographical note: this piece of major ocular mayhem had all of us making revolted noises and turning away from the screen, before looking back and saying “wow, did you see that, let’s rewind and watch it again!”. Years later, in the late 90s, I watched a newly released tape (probably from 4Front) with Matt Ratcliff and both of us got to said sequence, braced ourselves for the wince and it never came – the scene had been cut! This led to a five-minute discussion where we tried to work out if we had originally seen it at all, or if our memory had supplied the last few frames for us. Watching the Anchor Bay DVD (released in 2004 and, thankfully, uncut), there it was. And nineteen years after the first time I saw it, it still made me wince!]
To say any more of the plot would do great injustice to the film. It plays on the fact that surprise is a key element, it plays on the fact that you – the viewer – are trying to keep up with what’s going on and it pays it all off, in spades, by delivering a classic story – and climax – that are well worth waiting for.
Potter’s Bluff isn’t what you think it is – the tagline on the sign is very pertinent – and its townsfolk are very helpful, very community spirited and filled with genre faces – Robert Englund bagged an early role, as Harry the tow-truck operator. Almost claustrophobic in its scope – in addition to never leaving the small town, it’s often enveloped in thick fog during the frequent night-shots – the story draws you further in, with red herrings pointing to Gillis’ devoted wife, Janet (Melody Anderson), knowing more than she does.
Sherman does an excellent job, keeping things ticking over and the pace only really flags once, when an out-of-town family – Ron, Linda and their young son Jamie – have an accident and decide to try a clearly deserted house to get help (though even that sequence has some good suspense within it). Steve Poster, the director of photography, gives everything a cold tone – the only red we see, apart from the blonde’s shirt, is the blood on the victims – and sets up some quite beautiful shots. The music, by Joe Renzetti, is nicely used too.
In fact, everything about this points to it being anything other than a typical video nasty. The set direction is excellent, with everything appearing lived-in and fit for purpose, the logic of the piece flows nicely – it makes you wonder if, given less behind-the-scenes turmoil and major studio distribution, whether this could have been a recognised classic of the genre.
Across the board, the acting is good. Farentino plays a man knocked sideways by confusion and worry, compounded by the actions of his wife. Albertson makes the part of Dobbs his own, at once grumpy and antagonistic, then caring for the dead in his care and playing them his beloved big band music. Lisa Blount – her character is called Lisa by Freddy, but it’s clearly not her real name – is very good, icy cool and scarily sexy.
Beyond all of this, of course, are the effects. A good horror film (even if it’s a black comedy as this was originally conceived) relies on decent effects and Dead & Buried had the good fortune of having Stan Winston on board. In his own words, at this point in his career, he was experimenting with puppets and that works perfectly. The three major effects sequences (Freddy in the truck and at the hospital and the hitch-hiker) all make full use of this method and, even thirty years later, they are genuinely impressive – and cringe-worthy and shocking – and probably wouldn’t look any better using today’s materials (and considerably worse, with CGI).
The hitch-hiker sequence – where Lisa Marie unwisely accepts a lift and has her face smashed in with a rock for her trouble – is superb. The body is brought back to the mortuary and Dobbs works his magic on her, cutting away the ruin and rebuilding her, replacing muscle and skin, eyes and teeth, in a series of cuts that are brilliantly done (since the work was so intricate, the hands we see are Winston’s) with a nice in-camera trick allowing us to see the puppet at one moment, the real actress the next.
The gore sequences also allow the viewer to see where the final production company – PSO – had their hands in the mix. A character (I won’t spoil your enjoyment and tell you who) is killed graphically – acid is pumped into his nostrils and the effect is so poor that you want the camera to cut away out of embarrassment, rather than fright.
Are there downsides? Of course but, since the film is more than thirty years old, some of them might be down to the fact that its secrets and new-ideas have been mined by other, lesser productions. But perhaps the worst point I could come up with is that Janet Gillis gives her class of young children a talk on voodoo and witchcraft and – for my money – gives away a huge chunk of the plot in the process.
Creepy and effective, low-key and full of twists, this is a genuinely good horror film that really does make you wish they still made them like this today. If you get a chance to see it, please take it – you won’t be disappointed.