Director: Tobe Hooper
Writers: Stephen King, Paul Monash
Hey, didjya read that Stephen King novel? You know, the one about the writer with a personal darkness in his past? He goes to this small New England town, where some evil presence lurks just below the surface of everyday life. Here's the clever bit, though: the town itself becomes a kind of character, and the comings and goings of its Peyton Place-like citizens are juxtaposed with the supernatural menace that stalks them. And, let me tell you, King has, with love, crafted some very scary bits. King should do more revision, but the book's a good summer read, if you like this sort of thing. That last sentence pretty much sums up why King is rich, now that I think of it. Of course, the movie version changed everything around and it wasn't very good, but that's Hollywood for you. But since someone else has already addressed the book, it's the movie that will be covered here.
What the book became was a 1979 tv mini-series. Later, the studio lopped an hour off, called it a movie, and every videostore in North America put it in their "Horror" section. I'm reviewing that version-- although the full-length original can now be had on DVD
It's not very good.
Let's start with that writer, Ben Mears (David Soul). Obviously, Soul got the role because he was famous, at the time, for being the blonde half of 1970s wise-ass cop duo Starsky and Hutch. His appearance would have been a draw, at the time. Now it's easily the film's biggest liability. Soul evidently found his mark and range driving around in a flashy car, cracking jokes, and beating up thugs. He cannot make us believe in Mears, and the film hinges on our willingness to believe in the central character. There's a scene where he sits in a hospital and tapes two tongue depressors into a cross. Then, he calls on what faith he has left to bless the object so that it can be used against the vampires who are taking over the small town. This could be a really good moment, but that would require an actor with more soul.
But don't give up on the film yet, baby.
The movie has a few good performances. James Mason, as the master vampire's human henchman, Straker, manages to be both distinguished and evil. Pity he wasn't playing this part in a better film. George Dzundza-- the most-forgotten of Law & Order's cops-- also impresses as the abusive, cuckolded husband. Unfortunately, most of his plot ended up on the cutting-room floor when the mini-series became this movie, and so he merely shows up now and then to be a brute.
The cutting presents a few problem. The original series dragged somewhat, but the cuts destroy much of the atmosphere, and they eliminate any chance we had of getting to know, and therefore, care about, the characters. And, while we can still follow the storyline, several huge leaps leave us dizzily shaking our heads. Several prominent townspeople accept the reality of vampires on the strength of very little evidence or argument. What? A few mysterious deaths? Anemia? Okay, it's vampires; load up the crosses and holy water.
Other problems have nothing to do with the abridgement.
The film's earliest, truly bad scene involves two incompetent (and not very well-played) delivery men who pick up a mysterious crate on Straker's orders and delivery it to the local haunted house which Straker and the master vampire, Barlow, have purchased. The least well-acted of the delivery men complains that the crate is cold. Repeatedly, he complains that it is cold.
So, naturally, against his partner's and their employer's wishes, he insists on opening it, because it is cold.
Okay-- I grant that in your traditional horror movie, there's always that scene where someone does the most unbelievably stupid thing possible and thus unleashes the horror. But can we give this guy a motive that makes sense? "The crate is cold; therefore, we must open it," does not work. Even if he wasn't in a horror film, one would wonder why he would waste time, after the delivery, doing something that will, at the very least, get him reprimanded. Since he is in a horror movie, it's especially questionable that, late at night, in the rat-infested cellar of a supposedly haunted house, he would insist on opening a creepy crate merely because it feels cold.
When was the last time you opened anything, other than a beer, merely because it was cold? And I'll bet you weren't in the rat-infested cellar of a supposedly haunted house, either.
Of course, since Barlow was to be unleashed on the unsuspecting New Englanders anyway, the scene also serves no real purpose.
The middle of the film serves up the vampires. Barlow, with make-up inspired by Nosferatu, is genuinely creepy. Unfortunately, this is not a silent movie and, when he opens his mouth, he says something like "Bwha!" just like a little kid pretending to be Dracula on Hallowe'en. So much for being frightened. Barlow's only other dialogue is streams of sibilant hissing. Then again, maybe he was trying to speak; I doubt an actor would have much luck saying anything through those oversized fangs.
In another scene, one of the newly converted vampires sits in a rocking chair and stares with his shiny eyes. Again, the visual is good, but the director ruins it by having the bloodsucker repeat "Look at me! Loook at me! Loooook at me!" several times. That which is chilling at first glance can become silly when overexposed. If you're not certain what I mean, loooook at this scene.
The movie ends-- and I must warn you, before you read any further-- that I'm going to spoil the ending of the film and the novel. Stop reading if you don't want them spoiled.
Still with me? Okay.
At the end, Mears, a horror-obsessed little kid (a King stand-in?), and the obligatory babe (Bonnie Bedella) descend on the haunted house to do in the undead. Apparently, the owners hired Morticia Addams to do the house's interior. We get cobweb-covered chandeliers (undusted though Straker has been living there for some time) stuffed beasts of prey (posed as though ready to pounce) and sharp hooks and horns (sticking inexplicably out of the walls). Seems to me neither the human Straker nor the vampiric Barlow should really want fatally pointy stakes sticking out of their walls. A couple of these points even have what appears to be a dog impaled on them. In any case, the place looks rather like the "Haunted House" at Big Bob's Funworld, just off the Interstate. We are not surprised when Barlow's toothy head pops from his coffin just like a papier-mâché monster ("Let's try this door, Billy!"). In this cheesy setting, it's just really difficult to take the climax seriously.
Earlier in the film, the vampires have demonstrated the ability to turn to mist and even levitate. Yet, when our heroes are staking away in the cellar, they crawl towards them slowly like extras from Night of the Living Dead. Why the change in supernatural powers?
Finally, Mears and the kid set the house on fire. The winds will blow the flames to the town and, in Mears' words, "purify Salem's Lot." Yeah, great. They'll also wipe out the remaining human population.
In the novel, most of the townsfolk are dead, vamped, or gone by this point.The heroes have considered the implications of their actions and, as the vampires are reproducing exponentially, they decide to make their grim decision. In the movie, the town still has a number of inhabitants. But Soul and his newfound orphan sidekick shrug the matter off and just drive away.
Salem's Lot: The Movie is not a complete disaster, but its good points are not enough to recommend it. Both the novel and the movie, however, come at an interesting time. Remember, it's the 70s. Hammer Studios's vamps are history. The connection between the historical Vlad Tepes and the fictional Count Dracula, only vaguely hinted at in Bram Stoker's novel, has only been made firm in popular culture a few years earlier. Anne Rice has published, but not yet achieved her Queen of the Damned status. The Goth scene does not really exist. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Vampire: The Masquerade, and a zillion fang-films a year are still years in the future. We have here a transitional work. For fans of the vampire genre, I suppose Salem's Lot will remain on the videostore shelves for some time.
But I hope the early twenty-first century adaptation does a better job. Really, it's one of King's better books.
A variation of this review, by this author, appeared previously at Bad Movie Night.