Holy crap. I have been looking for this little nugget of television for years.
As a kid, I watched an anthology TV ep that scared the pants off me so well that, even at like age 7 or whatever I was at the time, I passed through terror and came all the way back around to admiring the shit out of the storytelling.
Then I forgot about it for most of my adolescence.
But every once in a while, it pops into my brain, and within the last decade, it seemed like something I should be able to track down, what with the interwebs and all. Here are the details I could remember:
- Anthology scary stories TV series (not Twilight Zone).
- Prissy rich blonde woman in prison, desperate to escape.
- African American dude who works in prison’s carpentry department or whatever—ie he makes coffins—needs eye surgery.
- Lady bribes/tricks him into helping her escape via coffin.
- TERRIFYING LAST-SECOND PLOT TWIST.
Yet I was thwarted, every google.
Then today, in the midst of a British comedy-panel podcast binge, someone described this exact story as portrayed in an Alfred Hitchcock show.
HOLY FUCK HOW DID I NEVER GOOGLE HITCHCOCK.
One search (“alfred hitchcock tv show buried alive”) and thirty minutes later, here we are.
Turns out it’s an 80s-tastic reboot of a 1964 episode, and OK, you can maybe-probably guess the terrifying last-second plot twist, but it blew my wee little brain back then, and like any quality scary story, even if it’s predictable, it still bears retelling. Knowing (or figuring out) the ending doesn’t spare you the intensity of the experience.
Give it a watch, won’t you? Filtered through my acknowledgement that it’s 30 years old, I think holds up well. It suffers from some mid-80s TV-as-an-art-form style issues, but even cinematically, they do some things here that filmmakers these days are still fucking up.
Also, here’s a moment-by-moment recap (low-budget live tweet) of my rewatch.
Alfie’s intro: I…do not understand. It seems to be maaaaasssively misogynistic, with the “wives peek in from the kitchen” bit and the woman…stripping…behind him? But I maybe it’s all part of the tongue-in-cheek gag? I, uh…y’know what? Let’s just get on with the story.
Scene: a courtroom, “Lena” being found guilty of murder in the first. “I’m sorry, your honor, could you repeat that? I couldn’t hear you over my MASSIVE SHOULDER PADS.”
According to IMDb, Lena is played by Season Hubley, who was once married to Kurt Russell. So there you go.
Oh! She’s a cunt! She’s very much a cunt. I’d totally forgotten. All this time I’d thought she was just pathetic. This is good texturing.
Scene: the confiscation of her possessions. Enter the Golden Lighter of Meaning, which will go off in the second act because it’s pronouncedly absent in the third. That’s some fan-fucking-tastic Chekhovian yoga when you think about it. (Don’t think about it too hard.) (EDITED TO ADD: Although…if they’d worked in somehow that she’d gotten the lighter back and had it in her possession for the final scene, it may have been even more powerful. Hold please, I’m fixing Hitchcock.)
Lena and her wet hair just kicking back on the bottom bunk bothers me more than anything else in this episode. Cellie seeeeeriously needs to be like, “Bitch, get off my mattress.”
Scene: Lena tries to “charm” Shirley the Olive-Skinned Queen of the Prisoners (played by steely-faced Irishwoman-by-way-of-San Diego Patrice Donnelly, 5’9”), who is now in possession of the Golden Lighter of Meaning. Lena has all the flirting game of Noel Shempsky. Shirley, on the other hand, has a wicked left hook.
Enter Doc (played by Davis Roberts, the Morgan Freeman of Mobile, Alabama) and his vague coffin duties. Unnecessary Wood Planing is the most overused bit of carpentry business. Artisan fucking bespoke DOC caskets hand-made by a caring and sensitive blind man? Why escape? I’ll bet the canapés in the mess are to die for.
“They’re all idiots,” Lena mutters to herself while attempting a prison escape inspired by the children in a Tide commercial.
Enter Angry Warden. EPIC BOW TIE ALERT.
“I’ve been thrown in solitary in better places than this!” Yeah, OK, Lena. “Good one.”
Wowsa, for a minute there I thought that ass-kicking scene was going to get rapey. That was some intense woman-on-woman violence. I like to think Ms. Hubley got all method and kept fighting back too hard so Ms. Donnelly (who is now, per IMDb, a personal trainer) finally had to kick her ass for real.
Scene: the infirmary. Why is Doc, Master Casketeer, hanging out the clinic? CASING HIS NEXT “CLIENTS,” PERHAPS?
Oh my. I could’ve sworn I heard, “My husband used to work with black kids.” BLIND. She said “blind kids.” Thank you for not being THAT bad, 1985.
Oooooooh, that broken glasses/“Let me read to you the letter that reveals whether or not you’ve received funding for your eye surgery” shit is proper devious. Respect.
Playing up the awfulness of climbing into a coffin that already contains a corpse is a great move. Excellent misdirection. Same for how relaxed she is when she hears the dirt hitting the lid. Jesus. Makes my palms sweat.
Slow descent into panic, natch. Jerk-laughing “Who do you think you are?” to the corpse is both sinister and totally on point for that character.
Aaaand here comes the reveal. Man, acting in a confined space with a lit match deserves its own award. (Though fire in a limited-oxygen situation is dumb. WHO’S AN IDIOT NOW, LENA?)
And there it is. Points for the screams (I’ve always thought full-throated screaming is an admirable talent that not all actors can commit to) and for the simultaneous stillness of the corpse. Yep, still gives me chills.