Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Director Report Card: Tobe Hooper (1979)

4. Salem’s Lot

In "Danse Macabre," his 1981 non-fiction book about the horror genre, Stephen King said some nice things about Tobe Hooper and “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” Considering his admiration of the director, King was likely pleased that Hooper would direct “Salem’s Lot.” An adaptation of King’s second novel – an extended homage to “Dracula” that I’ve never bothered reading – had been floating around Hollywood for a few years. None of the attempts to turn the book into a feature film had worked. Screenwriters had trouble parring the story’s numerous plot threads down to feature length. Instead, the decision was made to adapt “Salem’s Lot” as a television mini-series. Running three hours in total, “Salem’s Lot” premiered on CBS in two parts. First airing in November of 1979, the film has been shown many times since then. Some consider “Salem’s Lot” a horror landmark and one of Hooper’s best films. I, on the other hand, have never liked it.

Since “Salem’s Lot” is a Stephen King adaptation, you can count on two things. The story is set in Maine and the main character is a writer. Ben Mears has moved back to his home town of Salem’s Lot. He’s there to write about the Marsten House, a local property he believes to be haunted. The house has recently been rented by a strange man named Straker, on behalf of his partner, Mr. Barlow. While Ben builds a relationship with a local woman named Susan, life in Salem’s Lot seemingly continues as normal. Until a young boy dies. And then another. More people mysteriously disappear. Ben discovers that Salem’s Lot is infested with vampires and the Marsten House, Straker, and Barlow are at the center of it.

“Salem’s Lot” is a mini-series, which mean it straddles the line between television movie and a TV series. However, the film usually airs in one part these days so I’ll just classify it as a TV movie. “Salem’s Lot” would be the first time Tobe Hooper would work in television. Though Hooper’s previous films featured violent, extreme content, this would not be the last time he worked in TV. Even when watched on DVD, “Salem’s Lot's” television roots are obvious. The commercial breaks are still clear, signaled by fades to blacks. The moment where “Salem’s Lot’ was split in two is easy to spot. Harry Sukman’s melodramatic score blares before a slow zoom-in. You can practically hear an announcer say, “Tune in next week for the thrilling conclusion!”

The space afforded by the three hour run time does not do “Salem’s Lot” any kindness. The film has glacial pacing. The first hour and a half concerns itself with unimportant side characters, the actual plot only advancing by small degrees. This is a weakness often present in Stephen King’s books, as hundred of pages are wasted on subplots and minor points that matter little to the overall story. Hooper, meanwhile, adapts awkwardly to TV standards. “Texas Chain Saw Massacre” and “Eaten Alive” had fairly thin stories, which wasn’t much of a problem for a ninety minute movie. A three hour television event seems unsuited to the frenzied story telling Hooper is used to.

There are many signs that “Salem’s Lot” is a product of 1979. The fashion, for one, is relatively dated. The film is heavily entrenched in the television style of the time. Another big clue is that it stars David Soul. Yes, Hutch himself appears as Ben Mears. The “Don’t Give Up on Us Baby" songsmith plays Mears as an everyman with a strong superstitious streak. He frequently talks about the Marsten House and its supposed haunted history. Soul is mildly compelling, even if he doesn’t delve into the character’s inner life. His skills as a writer don’t come up very often. Except when talking to Susan, the love interest played by Bonnie Bedelia. Bedelia has a fragile side to her, that makes the audience want to protect her.

Beyond the characters that exist in “Salem’s Lot” for reasons beyond padding out the run time and the body count, there are a few other important players. Lance Kerwin appears as Mark, the teenage boy who becomes something like Ben’s sidekick. Mark is a classical monster kid, painting Aurora model kits, collecting masks and posters, and fancying himself an amateur magician. While his relationship with his father is a plot thread that goes nowhere, Mark is a relatively neat character, played well by Kerwin. The biggest star in the film was undoubtedly James Mason as Straker, the Renfield to Barlow’s Dracula. Mason brings a refined sensibility to the role, able to make minor lines of dialogue slightly sinister. He’s honestly a caliber of actor far above the film’s quality.

One of the reasons “Salem’s Lot” drags so badly is a pile-up of subplots that add nothing of value. A lot of screen time is sacrificed to Cully Sawyer, an alcoholic mover, and Bonnie, his philandering wife. She’s cheating on Cully with Larry Crockett, a restate salesman played by Fred Willard of all people. After Cully discovers this, he taunts Larry, nearly shooting him. After Larry gets killed by Barlow, all of these characters and their associated plot threads vanish. A hilarious scene in the second half has Ben being attacked by an obsessive ex-boyfriend of Susan. This character also exits shortly after being introduced. A gravedigger, who is living in the same halfway house as Ben, gets turns into a vampire but, otherwise, adds nothing to the story. The film even spends a lot of time on the guys who move the box containing Barlow’s coffin. So many of these characters are totally extraneous. Cutting these elements would’ve made “Salem’s Lot” a third of the length and considerably improved the pacing.

Many people claim that “Salem’s Lot” is scary. Many of the scenes in the film meant to frighten strike me as hopelessly hokey. A reoccurring sequence is a vampire boy scratching at windows, asking to be let in. The effects are very cheesy, the vampires glaring with glowing eyes and goofy fangs. How brightly lit these scenes are only draw attention to the cheap floating effects and underwhelming make-up. A later scene, where a female vampire attacks a priest in a morgue, also focuses on the unimpressive vampire effects. An especially laughable scene has a shadowy hand appearing out of the darkness. The scene freezes, the camera zooming in on the hand. This bizarre, melodramatic technique is utilized a few times throughout “Salem’s Lot.” Every time, it made me chuckle.

Yet, for all its hokiness, an occasional moment in “Salem’s Lot” is effective. The gravedigger I mentioned above is an unimportant character. However, he does get an effective sequence to himself. While sitting in a rocking chair, he softly cries to another man, his eyes glowing. That’s mildly creepy. In the book, the villain Barlow is gentlemanly vampire. The film chooses to transforms Barlow into a “Nosferatu”-style vampire, with glowing eyes, pointed eyes, and blue skin. When Barlow appears, he flies through a window, snaking out of a black cloak. While the film overdoes Barlow hissing at everything, the vampire is still mildly creepy. The primary villain is the easily the most memorable thing about the film.

The first half of “Salem’s Lot” is painfully slow. The second half has its problems as well. An attempt is made to show that vampires have taken over the town, slowly working their way through the populace. The movie can’t convey this impression, the town seeming to have as many people in it as usual. However, by the time that second ninety minutes begin, most of the pointless subplots have been clipped. The focus turns to the central characters, to Ben and his friends closing in on Barlow. Once the story centers on the Marsten House, “Salem’s Lot” actually develops into a decent monster movie. In the proud tradition of “Dracula,” the master vampire has his casket dragged into the sun and is soundly staked by the hero. If the rest of the film had this level of pacing, “Salem’s Lot” would’ve been improved considerably.

By making the jump to television, Tobe Hooper has to change his directorial style. He can no longer rely on extreme shocks and splashes of gore, as he did in “Eaten Alive.” Instead, Hooper has to turn towards building a classic horror atmosphere. When focusing on the ominous moon glowing in the sky or the windy, chilly nights, Hooper creates a decent tone. The director’s strength for getting the most out of his sets become especially apparent once the characters enters the Marsten House. It’s a great set, full of taxidermied animals and antlers, with a great deal of wreckage on the floor. Here, Hooper’s camera begins to prowl through the dilapidated structure. These are the only times the director seems to engage with the material.

Despite clearly being a stodgy television production, “Salem’s Lot” was shot with the intention that a long version would appear on American TV while a shorter version would appeared in European theaters. The movie cut runs 102 minutes, removing over seventy minutes of footage. The theatrical edition whittles down many of the pointless subplots present in the first half. The drunken mover and his cheating wife now only comprises a few scenes. Long, totally unneeded sequences devoted to barking dogs, intoxicated bums, and skittering boxes are excised. The story suffers little without these moments. While the European adaptation still maintains many of the cheesy monster scenes and the unimpressive TV-quality production values, it’s a much shorter, far more quickly paced experience.

Some people continue to love “Salem’s Lot.” I suspect these fans first saw the film on TV as children, when they were perhaps more susceptible to the film’s effects. Clearly, the movie has its place in horror history. It would influence later films, like the superior “Fright Night.” The movie would spawn a quasi-sequel released to theaters, directed by Larry Cohen, and a remake. The remake was also a long mini-series, making many of the same mistakes as Hooper’s version. Others may disagree but “Salem’s Lot” primarily bores me when it isn’t making me laugh unintentionally. [Grade: C]

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