Friday, April 8, 2011

Television Review: SALEM'S LOT (1979, Tobe Hooper)

Stars: 3.4 of 5.
Running Time: 183 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: David Soul (Hutch on STARSKY & HUTCH), James Mason (NORTH BY NORTHWEST, BIGGER THAN LIFE, THUNDERBIRD Commercials), Lance Kerwin (OUTBREAK, ENEMY MINE), Bonnie Bedelia (DIE HARD, THE BOY WHO COULD FLY), Elisha Cook, Jr. (THE MALTESE FALCON, ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE KILLING), George Dzundza (THE DEER HUNTER, BASIC INSTINCT), Geoffrey Lewis (BRONCO BILLY, MAVERICK), Kenneth McMillan (DUNE, RUNAWAY TRAIN, CAT'S EYE), Fred Willard (BEST IN SHOW, D.C. FOLLIES), and a very special appearance by Reggie Nalder (THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE). Co-produced by Sterling Silliphant (THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, OVER THE TOP, TELEFON). Music by Harry Sukman (Sam Fuller's FORTY GUNS, John Carpenter's SOMEONE'S WATCHING ME!). Based on the novel by Stephen King.
Tag-line: "The ultimate in terror!"
Best one-liner: "You'll enjoy Mr. Barlow. And he'll enjoy you."

The mixture of Stephen King and prime time TV has often been a volatile, unstable compound, burdened by sloppy storytelling, questionable acting, and low production value (IT, THE SHINING '97, THE STAND). Thankfully, SALEM'S LOT is one of the better adaptations, and while it never quite achieves the height of pulpy excitement or depth of existential dread from the novel, it's still a fine entry into the pantheon of well-made 70's TV horror movies. That being said, if King's concept intrigues you, read the novel first– many shocking elements lose their impact upon 'TV-safe' translation, and the piss is taken out of several key and supporting characters (particularly in the case of 'Father Callahan,' a character so close to King's heart that he revisited his story in the DARK TOWER series).

Father Callahan, sans piss.

SALEM'S LOT dares to ask the fateful question: "Are all small towns evil?" and answers it with a resounding... YES! Even before the onset of vampirism, the little hamlet is a hotbed of hatred, perversity, abuse, and that particularly human shortcoming of 'choosing to look the other way.' But then, two visitors: the first is the mysterious Mr. Straker (James Mason)- an antique dealer whose partner Mr. Barlow has yet to make an appearance, though strange, coffin-sized shipments have recently come in to town. The second is Ben Mears (David Soul),

a native son turned successful, metropolitan author who returns home to write a novel about a primordial evil he sensed in the town as a child. And then the peculiar happenings begin...

Tobe Hooper, having wowed viewers and churned their stomachs with THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and EATEN ALIVE, secured the directorial reins, though at different points of development, George A. Romero and Larry Cohen were attached (and Cohen later directed a late 80's sequel!). Though the 'bigger budget/TV movie' feel seems like it could subvert Hooper's gritty, no-budget, cannibalistic terrors, he's still able to maintain his aesthetic and weave a few genuinely creepy moments throughout. One of his centerpieces is the "Marsten House," the vampire HQ and home to some sort of ancient, evil presence, the exact nature of which remains enigmatic even in the novel. In the movie, it was a $100,000 façade constructed over an existing house, and the result is effective, with shades of PSYCHO.

The interior is spot-on as well, with nice Hooper touches like taxidermy installations, walls of damp and dessicated wood, and a floor covered in- I don't know... rodent bones?

Some have said that Hooper was distancing himself from THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE by making this film, but, at least while we're in the Marsten house, at any moment I half-expect Leatherface to burst through one of the walls with his chainsaw, voice raised to the heavens in that unnerving, childish squeal!

Also, the infamous "window" scene, whose content or context I shall not reveal here, lives up quite wonderfully to its reputation of scarring teevee-watching kiddies for life!

–and it does it all with a fog machine and some wires: a far cry from today's overproduced, CGI-drenched terror tales.

There are some really nice character actor roles in here, too–
We've got noir legend Elisha Cook, Jr. as a hobo wine-swigging (wait, did he buy that from James Mason?), wide-eyed vagrant, who, in a piece of gag-casting, has an old flame played by Marie Windsor, his evil harpy wife from THE KILLING!,

Elisha Cook + Thunderbird ≥ Elisha Cook + Humphrey Bogart.

George Dzundza makes a psychotic appearance as a shotgun-toting, beer-swilling, cuckolded hubby who exudes Menace with a capital 'M,'

Eastwood fave Geoffrey Lewis plays a severe, deadpan grave digger who undergoes some...unnerving (and particularly well-acted) transformations throughout,

an extremely young Bonnie Bedelia brings more to the table than expected as the Female Romantic Lead,

a fast-talkin' Fred Willard plays a delightfully skeezy real estate-man (any connection with Renfield ends there) who wears some rockin' 70's plaid suits (and he's not just "zany Willard" here, either, he delivers a powerful performance in a scene with Dzundza where he plays to the barrel of a gun),

and finally, as the piéce de résistance, Reggie Nadler (the assassin from THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH '56) is reimagined as Nosferatu for his role as the demonic Mr. Barlow. He doesn't get a lot of screen time, but, as you can see, he certainly makes up for it in makeup and intensity.

(It must also be noted that this depiction of Barlow is completely different than in the novel, but frankly, I don't care.)

Alright, I guess that's it. I don't think I forgot anyone–


Oh, sweet God- James Mason!


Don't look at me with those judgmental eyebrows- it's too much to bear!

I'm not gonna lie. James Mason is my favorite part about this movie. Nobody does "SMUG CONDESCENSION" like James Mason. He floats in and out of the film, bending the citizenry to his will, killing children, and selling antiques at exorbitant prices.

You believe wholeheartedly that he views Salem's Lot simply as a village of trifling insects to be exploited for his nefarious purposes. And it's James Mason. I mean, if you're not kind of rooting for him, then maybe you shouldn't be watching this movie anyway.


Nothing holds a candle to the scene where he manhandles the Neanderthal police chief while being questioned about a murder that he did in fact commit. The police have confiscated one of his suits because it resembles a piece of fabric that was left behind at the murder scene. Smug condescension carries the day as Mason demands that the police not only return his suit in a timely fashion, but that they have it professionally cleaned before they do so. Then the following exchange takes place:

JAMES MASON: Ciao, Constable.
JAMES MASON: Ciao. It's a familiar Italian expression meaning goodbye.
POLICE CHIEF: I didn't know you were Italian.
JAMES MASON: I'm not. The word is.

Then he winks, not once– not twice– but three times, in a coup de grâce of Herculean snobbery.

Bravo, Mr. Mason. Your senseless, bloodthirsty war on small town America will be long remembered- you've given patronizing elitists everywhere something to strive for, and truly you've won SALEM'S LOT: THE MINI-SERIES a special place in my heart. Keep on winkin'!

About three and a half stars.

-Sean Gill


Brian Collins said...

The window scene scarred the piss out of me as a kid. Creepy. I need to rewatch this soon.

J.D. said...

Hah! James Mason IS awesome in this mini-series. As you say, his smug condescension is of Herculean proportions but he makes it work and, as you say, you almost want him to succeed if David Soul's Ben Mears wasn't so damn sympathetic. You end up really rooting for him and Bonnie Bedelia - too bad it doesn't work out - one of the heart-wrenching tragedies of this mini-series.

I also love how Hooper starts it off with Ben and the kid on the run and then goes back to how it all happened only to end up right back where we started for the kicker of a denoument. I think that Hooper's contributions can't be understated enough. He gives the entire thing a real visceral punch and some genuinely unsettling scares all within the confines of network TV putting to shame the lame remake many years later. blech!

Sean Gill said...

Brian Collins,

Yeah, I didn't see this film as a child, but I have to say, even as an adult, the window scene holds up!


Did not see the 2000's remake, and have avoided it despite the presence of Rutger Hauer, which has taken incredible willpower.

And the Soul/Bedelia frame story is well done; it differs somewhat from the novel and I have to say that they succeeded in making the frame more cinematic because of it.

Long live James Mason, and pass the Thunderbird!

Anonymous said...

Love James Mason. Not a fan of this adaptation of Salems Lot. Saw this as a early teen and it bored me to death(esp the runtime). Even the movie didn't do much for me. No, this is one of King's creations that is best left as written word. If you're a reader, I highly recommend getting the book. Reading this is much better(scarier) than watching it on screen. A few of his other stories also refer to Salems Lot. Side note -- Just watched Night of the Demons 1, and 2. Very good stuff in the first one. Tonight, The Beyond(1981). I have high hopes for that one. Also, Possession of David O'Reilly, DON'T waste your time. I need to flip through your site and see if you reviewed these yet or not.


Sean Gill said...


I fully agree that the book is superior to the miniseries, particularly in regard to the sheer scope and near-existential dread as the town fully falls victim to vampirism, and in regard to Fr. Callahan. Still, I find Hooper's adaptation enjoyable despite the constraints, and of course there's James Mason.

NIGHT OF THE DEMONS is one of those films that's slipped through the cracks- I need to see it one of these days. O'REILLY looked questionable so I've skipped it. But I think you'll find THE BEYOND to be something special- there's a lot going on, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense, and all of it is Italo-horror gold.