Better Off Buried?


I almost gave up twice on the new film The Burial. The filmmaking is that inept. I'm a fan of low-budget horror films, and appreciate them as a springboard for fledgling talent; many great directors started in that genre. But I had a hard time finding any point at which quality is actually valued in this one. It's not the editing: the pacing in dialogue is all off. It’s not the camerawork: characters in over-the shoulders look like they're in different movies. It's not the score: music cues are truncated and often don't go the length of a scene.

I hate to give up on any film, especially one that presumably has investors behind it and is being put up for public viewing. Somebody believes in it. As a lifelong cinephile, I have a respect, albeit somewhat grudging in this case, for anyone who actually makes a movie. It takes time. It's a labor of love and an act of faith.

The Burial is directed by first-timer Michael Escalante, who also does the music, and whose bio includes interning with Roger Corman's New Horizons Pictures, an impressive credential. Corman is a sort of saint of the "micro budget" entertainment The Burial aspires to.

So I return a third time and try to be more patient with it.

A plot synopsis: city dweller Brian gets a call from his brother Keith, asking him to come to his remote cabin in the woods to help him with something. Significant Other Molly wants to go along. Brian initially says no, warning that his brother is "an alcoholic." But he relents and the couple travels into the backcountry. (Keith's cabin set looks less like the ramshackle abode of an alcoholic than a meeting room in a conference center. Double glass sliding doors (that lead where?) are off the kitchen. Built-in bookshelves that would suit a library are lined with encyclopedias. A big American flag on a pole graces one corner.)

Brian and Molly find Keith in distress: something has happened and it takes a while and a lot of lifestyle exposition (chopping wood, wandering around) to get to it: in a drunken rage, Keith has killed a man and needs to bury the body. He wants Brian to help him. Suspense and sibling bickering ensues.

The action is, as I've said, difficult to watch, not due to plot mechanics but technical prowess. Camera angles are mismatched throughout, which is distracting; for example, the burial scene is blocked to look like Brian and Keith, while working together, are digging different graves. Characters creep up on each other in open fields in broad daylight.

I stay with The Burial because the actors are giving it their all—Vernon Taylor as Brian is emotive and conflicted, Spencer Weitzel's Keith is wild-eyed and ready to blow, and Faith Kearns makes Molly's pluckiness endearing. Here again, the production could help them more: scenes look to be shot on an iPhone and certain cuts give us a startling glimpse of the actors' dental work.

The plot rolls out, and I'm about to hit the STOP button again, when, at the 42-minute mark …

… Lenny arrives.

I won't give it away who (or what) this guy is, but his monologue changes everything. Wisely, Escalante keeps the camera mostly on him, framed tight, for the length of his copious rant. Actor Aaron Pyle as Lenny is compelling and histrionic and funny. And suddenly we realize The Burial has more on its mind than previously suggested. It gets metaphysical on our ass.

The Burial is self-described in press materials as The Cabin in the Woods meets A Simple Plan, though both of those films had stronger narrative arcs, and more than a few ironic surprises. It's clear, after introducing Lenny, that this film's main source of inspiration is Twin Peaks. The confidence with which Lenny is presented hints at the faux naiveté of a David Lynch, and the impulse to make art out of trash cinema myths.

The Burial's press kit declares that it's "for genre fans only; it's a bit rough." Which also isn't exactly true; gore shots are stingy and the blood looks like ketchup. Opportunities for special effects, like people suddenly disappearing before our eyes (an act relevant to the plot) are passed up as well. And yet, after Lenny appears, the film shows some promise.

I don't know that I wholeheartedly recommend The Burial, but I'd watch another film by the same crew. So okay, Michael Escalante, former intern of Roger Corman's New Horizons Pictures. You have the background and the balls: make a more watchable movie next time out.


Postscript: after watching The Burial, I thought of Andy Milligan, one of the great virtuosos of Bad Cinema. I hadn't thought of Milligan in years, and used to be a big fan. Imagine him in a room in the Afterlife with Ed Wood. Jr. and Hershel Gordon Lewis and, oh, Ray Dennis Steckler; they were cut from the same cloth and would have much to discuss. Milligan's films, like Guru The Mad Monk, The Man with Two Heads, and Bloodthirsty Butchers—his retelling of Sweeney Todd—are made-on-a shoestring fever dreams full of fake gore and dismembered limbs. They might be exploitive screeds like The Degenerates or period dramas shot in one room, with actors who talk and talk and talk and whose wigs keep  falling off. Milligan's films are bizarre, hypnotic, and unforgettable. I'd hazard a guess that David Lynch came upon them in art school and took early inspiration from them.

So why did I think of Andy Milligan after watching The Burial?

He too worked with what The Burial touts as a "micro budget," and was amateurish and lacked taste. Yet, conviction radiates off the screen. You believe. Andy Milligan loved movies, and had a genuine passion to make great ones.

He just didn't know how.

The Burial. 2021. Directed by Michael Escalante. 121 minutes/color. Distributed by Terror Films, direct to video.

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