Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Salem's Lot (1979)

Salem’s Lot (1979)
Dir. by Tobe Hooper
Written by Paul Monash
Starring David Soul, James Mason, Bonnie Bedelia, Lance Kerwin

            Would you believe I never saw SALEM’S LOT before now? That’s a pretty big one to miss for so long. I saw BRAIN TWISTERS and THE BLACK ROOM and CORRUPT LIEUTENANT and THE TAINT before SALEM’S LOT! I knew it was considered something of a minor classic, but I never really knew much about it. I never even realized, I don’t think, that the floating vampiric Bart Simpson in Treehouse of Horror IV was a reference! For once, I’m left feeling sort of like my brother, who is not naturally inclined to be a cinephile, but does occasionally watch movies with me, leading to a bizarre situation where he’s seen some seriously weird shit (STREET TRASH, RAIDERS OF ATLANTIS) without seeing some basic cultural touchstones (THE GODFATHER and GONE WITH THE WIND). Finally, I get to be the guy in the room who doesn’t get the joke! It’s kind of refreshing, actually. Maybe I should try this more often.

            (I never saw the original Tim Curry IT, either. What kind of fucking monster am I Jesus Christ.)

            Anyway, people always talked this one up, and it definitely has a lot going for it. Its pedigree alone -- a Tobe Hooper adaptation of a Stephen King novel-- would be reason enough to watch. Even if neither of those men exactly has a, uh, spotless track record. If we’re being perfectly honest, in fact, they both have a lot more misses than hits on their respective resumes, but considering that their hits, when they come, sometimes rank among the horror genre’s greatest achievements, they’ve earned quite a bit of leeway. One classic TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE forgives a hell of a lot of SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTIONs. And Hooper has two. Besides, sometimes they’re even great when they suck! Stephen King directed the only movie in history with a full score by AC/DC. Not soundtrack. Film score. If I had done that, I’d put that shit on my fucking tombstone and then blow my head off, determined to go out at the top of my game. Instead of doing that, King spent the next decade collaborating with Michael Jackson (GHOSTS) and writing my personal favorite of all his novels (Bag of Bones). Of course, the Mick Garris adaptation of that one is crap, so yeah, there are definitely some unambiguous lows to go along with the giddy highs.

            One thing I don’t associate with either of those two horror grandmasters, however, is quiet competence, and that turns out to be mostly (but not entirely) what SALEM’S LOT provides. It’s a leisurely (183 minutes across two “episodes!”) small-town ensemble TV movie which patiently takes its time establishing the characters and the town before even more patiently working little threads of dread into the scenario, which finally bloom into some ferocious horror only very late in the proceedings. Which is to say, it has a lot more Stephen King --with his affection for quirky small town characters and the colorful minutiae of their lives-- than Hooper, whose specialty is usually grueling, way-over-the-top horror setpieces. But what makes SALEM’S LOT kind of special is how well the two styles eventually mesh; Hooper asserts himself only rarely, but when he does, it packs a visceral punch that few King adaptations are able to muster, and it results in some sequences which are rightly considered iconic enough for a Simpsons parody.

            Before we get to that, though, there’s a lot of stage-setting to do. We begin with a flash-forward showing Ben Mears (David Soul, either Starsky or Hutch, there’s no way to be sure, but he was definitely in PENTATHLON with Dolph Lundgren) and young Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin, TV movie The Boy Who Drank Too Much, ENEMY MINE, and The Loneliest Runner*) apparently on the run somewhere in Mexico, which lets us know right off the bat that things aren’t going to turn out too well for our heroes here. From there we flash back to Mears’ arrival at the quaint New England town of Jerusalem’s Lot (‘Salem’s Lot to its friends), which we gradually learn was his home as a youth, from which he has been long absent. He’s returned to pursue a rewarding career in being a Stephen King surrogate character, although I notice he doesn’t seem to spend a lot of time actually writing, or at least he seems to spend a lot more time obsessing about the local mystery house of evil known as the Marsten House. That house, an austere Gothic Victorian affair shamelessly jacking the Norman Bates style, has recently been purchased by a pair of wealthy eccentric out-of-towners who run an antique shop together, the well-dressed Richard Straker (James Mason, NORTH BY NORTHWEST) and the curiously unseen Kurt Barlow (Reggie Nalder, THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH [1956], THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE).

            Now I know what you’re thinking, but amazingly this does not turn out to be the story of a flamboyant gay couple whose wacky attempts to stay closeted in conservative small town America eventually warm the heart of even cranky old father Callahan (James Gallery, SOUR GRAPES) and teach us a valuable lesson about tolerance.** Instead, and I know this will surprise you so please take a moment to compose yourself first, they’re vampires, trying to convert the subplot-prone townsfolk into a growing army of the undead. You’d think this would be quickly evident to everyone, but the town folks are very, very busy living their complicated small-town lives as if they’re not in a vampire movie. Which turns out not to be such a good survival strategy in the long run.

            In the short run, though, it means we’re treated to a movie which starts out as a friendly small-town soap opera but gradually darkens into something else. Unfortunately, Hooper’s strength as a filmmaker doesn’t really run towards folksy charm, so while the leisurely plotline about Bonnie’s (Julie Cobb, Brave New World [1980]) affair with dorky real estate agent Larry (Fred Willard, everything) and the increasing suspicions of her sullen husband Cully (George Dzundza, THE DEER HUNTER***), isn’t exactly unwatchable, there’s a distinct and unmistakable sense that it’s almost certainly unnecessary. Hooper’s being a pal and trying to accurately capture the novel’s meandering side plots (or at least trying to stretch the material into a two-part mini-series with the complicity of screenwriter Paul Monash [THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE]) but there’s really no sense that he has the same affection for these characters that King does, and consequently a good chunk of the film, especially near the start, seems larded up with a lot of extraneous characters and nonsense which is not utterly without charm, but also isn’t nearly charming enough to be included for its own sake.

            Even with that handicap, though, Hooper is not entirely stranded outside his comfort zone: the conclusion of the affair subplot I just mentioned, which finds a drunken Cully maliciously threatening the two lovebirds with a shotgun, is very possibly the most intense sequence in the entire movie, a prickly, button-pushing confrontation just bristling with coiled sexual violence which seems entirely likely to whiplash the viewer from amiable soap opera to grueling crucible of brutality. Hooper may not have a deft hand with (nor a lot of apparent interest in) this plotline’s possibilities as a cheerful sex romp, but he definitely knows how to get some mileage out of a drunk, abusive redneck with a shotgun torturing some airheaded city folk who have bitten off more than they could chew. I’ve never read the novel, but I’d wager King’s version of this scene has more interest in resolving the character arcs than transmogrifying everyone to a state of animalistic savagery, but of course that’s where Hooper would take it, and ultimately to good effect. It has fuck all to do with our main characters or with vampires of any kind, and it could easily be excised with virtually no alternation of any kind to the rest of the plot (in fact, it looks like the 2004 remake did exactly that), but there’s no denying its bleak, misanthropic intensity. And keep in mind -- this is a PG-rated TV movie, so there’s no gore, not even any bad language, and yet this scene still comes off as absolutely harrowing.

Only Hooper was gonna get that expression in this film.

Not all its soap opera aspirations pay off as potently as that one (the inclusion of an old drunk named “Weasel” appears to be exclusively an opportunity to reteam THE KILLING’s Elisha Cook Jr and Marie Windsor for one scene, not that there’s anything wrong with that impulse), but it doesn’t matter in the end, because the vampire stuff, once it starts in earnest, is absolutely top-shelf, effortlessly dropping a string of vividly intense, nightmarish images which still have the power to stop you cold, more than 30 years later. First and foremost here is certainly the design of long-unseen head vampire Kurt Barlow, who is revealed roughly halfway through to eschew the standard smoldering Eurotrash mold which has defined vampire cinema since Bela Lugosi, and instead take after something older: the iconic bald-headed rat-toothed Max Schreck look from Murnau’s 1922 NOSFERATU. It’s stunning to think that this image had been entirely absent from vampire fiction since 1922, (with the sole exception of Herzog’s Klaus Kinski-starring 1978 remake) but Hooper makes up for it with a vengeance, utilizing the grainy, vivid color film to add blazing yellow eyes and a skin cast which tilts towards an alien blue.

 The makeup turns actor Reggie Nalder’s already pinched, cadaverous face into something utterly inhuman and nightmarish, an unknowable, malignant predator. This is apparently a significant alteration from King’s novel, which casts Barlow as a more typical, speechifying European vampire, and it plays mightily to Hooper’s strength for aggressive, primal horror setpieces. The sequence where Barlow (spoiler) suddenly crashes through a window (in the form of a bat, I think, though my initial visual read was a wadded up bundle of cape, which is somehow even more squirmy and nightmarish) and haltingly grows to his full human size, is such a viscerally shocking violation of the earthy domestic kitchen scene which proceeds it that it’s genuinely unnerving, even though the first thing he does is comically bonk two adults’ heads together. A movie willing to visit that kind of perverse, random violence on a harmless, boring family is one which ought not be fucked with.

I actually decided at the last minute not to include a picture of Barlow in this review, on the off-chance that somehow you've never seen it and could still be surprised. But google "Kurt Barlow" or "Salem's Lot Vampire" or whatever and you'll find plenty of nightmare material. Also, I desperately wanted to include the Spanish-language poster because it's so goddam awesome, but it also has his picture on it so I didn't. Check it out though.

But as memorable a villain as Barlow is, the single most disquieting scene in the film actually comes before his reveal. It’s the image of one of the first vampirized citizens of Salem’s Lot, a young kid named Ralphie Glick, (Ronnie Scribner, Kenny Rogers as the Gambler) hovering outside his older brother’s window, beckoning him to his doom. Hooper pulls out all the stops on that one, raising the corpse-painted tyke out of a surreal foggy dreamscape, like a bad memory rising unbidden from a vague subconscious pit of anxiety, and then shooting the whole thing in reverse for added uncanny effect. If it lacks the primal kick of Barlow’s kitchen attack, it makes up for it with an exceedingly unsettling vibe of perverse wrongness. Even the little kid’s goofy shit-eating grin somehow adds to the effect; it’s so completely inappropriate for the situation and so fixedly plastered on that it neatly bridges the gap between “child actor not sure what to do in a bizarre artificial situation” and “profoundly disturbing unnatural expression that no human would ever intentionally produce.” The whole effect is brought home by the sound department, who produce hands-down the greatest and most nerve-wracking foley effect of “fingernails scraping glass” ever to grace the silver screen.

I just discussed three scenes in pretty great detail, which is not something I usually do in a review, but it definitely feels right here; SALEM’S LOT is very much a movie oriented towards long windups for brief bursts of shock. That’s not a bad thing per se, and there’s enough diffuse dread floating in the air that, combined with a suitably talented cast (Soul is workmanlike and no more, but the supporting cast of able character actors --particularly a delighted-looking Mason-- keep things afloat) it never feels like the interminable grind it probably ought to. It’s certainly not sleek, though. I mean, you could comfortably cut 40 or 50 minutes of the movie and never miss them in the slightest, which has to count as a mark against it. Maybe someday, someone with a little more warmth for small-town human interest stories could make this material sing a little more and justify the large and meandering ensemble cast. Hooper does a workmanlike job, but it’s obviously not where his heart is, and maybe, just maybe, that kind of thing works better as a novel than a genre movie anyway.****

Thankfully, the highs he hits with the horror stuff certainly make it worth the wait. He even manages, against all odds, to build a suitably harrowing climax, no mean feat in a genre which has been incontestably hobbled since Stoker’s original novel by the fact that vampire stories must end with a completely uncinematic and low-stakes staking-in-their-sleep. There is, to my knowledge, not a single DRACULA adaptation that avoids this inevitable derailment, and it seems that King was classicist enough that he willingly steps into the same trap, even free of most of Stoker’s narrative framework. And yet, Hooper makes it work, mostly! Part of that is the phenomenal set (designed, presumably, by production designer Mort Rabinowitz [Logan’s Run: The TV Series]) which turns the inside of an abandoned house into a surreal, spatially impossible agoraphobic sepulcher; part of it is the startling ferocity (check out the gnarly impalement-on-antlers. How the fuck did they get away with showing this on TV?!), part of it is the way it imagines the recently-vampirized as degenerate junkies lounging around a cult leader (another great trope I’ve never noticed in a vampire movie before), and part is that it allows itself to close on a comfortably depraved grace note once the climax has passed. But most of it is just the simple joy of watching two horror greats play off each others’ strengths. With King setting up the conflict and Hooper executing the visuals, the movie finally consistently delivers on the promise of the pairing, and manages, against all odds, a solid finale worth the wait. Maybe not the 30-something years I waited to watch it, but at least the many unhurried minutes that precede it.

Anyway, SALEM’S LOT is pretty durn good indeed. You should probably not put off watching it for decades like I did. And maybe I wouldn’t have, if I’d known this one last little detail beforehand: it turns out there’s a sequel, RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT, directed by Larry Cohen (?!) and starring Samuel Fuller! What is it about this book that seems to inspire such sublime pairings?

the end.

*I bring up The Loneliest Runner not because I think you’ve ever heard of it, but because it produced what may be the greatest review headline in the entire history of the Boston Globe:

Given the available options I have no choice but to assume it’s a sequel to The Boy Who Drank Too Much.

** Note to self: Hollywood pitch: THE BIRDCAGE, but the parents are vampires and the fiance’s parents are Dr. and Mrs. Van Helsing. And I guess the Hank Azaria character is a werewolf or something. This thing basically writes itself.

*** Huh, for an actor I’d never heard of, Dzundza has an impressive resume including DEER HUNTER, Robert Altman’s STREAMERS, NO WAY OUT, WHITE HUNTER BLACK HEART, BASIC INSTINCT, CRIMSON TIDE, and a whole bunch of TV, including a recurring role as one of my favorite Batman: The Animated Series second-string villains, the Ventriloquist. That’s as respectable a run for an 80’s character actor as you could ever hope to find.

**** As I mentioned, there’s a 2004 remake mini-series of the same length starring Rob Lowe, which doesn’t seem to have exactly lit the world on fire, so I can’t imagine director Mikael Saloman (HARD RAIN) did much better with it than Hooper did. But now that these long-running serial shows weighed down with endless water-treading sideplots seem to be what the kids wants, it seems like this is exactly the kind of thing that might translate better to that format. Also unfortunately the 2004 version stars Rutger Hauer as Barlow and Donald Sutherland as Straker, so I guess I have no choice but to watch it someday.

The Discreet Charm of the Killing Spree

The Ultimate in Terror. If I had a nickel for every time I’d heard THAT come-on...
Technically JERUSALEM’S LOT, but we’ll allow it.
Yes, of Stephen King’s 1975 novel of the same name.
Interestingly, the character of Father Callahan (a one-scene minor character in this movie) apparently plays a major role in King’s Dark Tower novels, which to some extent further the story of Salem’s Lot. It’s possible he’s in the already-forgotten movie version of THE DARK TOWER starring Idris Elba. There’s also a mostly-unrelated-sounding sequel film called RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT, directed by Larry Cohen in 1987.
Yes, or rather, re-adapted in 2004.
James Mason and David Soul were still pretty major gets in 1979, I think.
Stephen King, Tobe Hooper
None, though there is some domestic abuse, which the movie comes perilously close to endorsing.
Brief bat attack.
One weird thing about SALEM’S LOT is that it really stressed the problem is town actually arises from the “evil house” the Vampires are renting. It’s a weird distinction, but they’re quite clear that it’s the house that was the problem, and it’s just attracted vampires recently.
None (?)
There’s nothing really ceremonial or ritualistic about it, but there’s definitely elements of a cult in the way the film depicts the gradual vampirization of the town.
Bat to vamp, human to vamp
Several short sequences from the stalking vampire’s perspective.
“There is this town, and a vampire moves in, and a local guy has to figure out how to beat it” is probably not a plot that require 183 minutes to resolve. Especially since, at 152,041 words (according to some random website) the novel is positively sleek by King’s standards.

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