Friday, October 2, 2009

The RETURN OF 31 DAYS OF HORROR: #2 Salem's Lot

Though it’s considered something of a minor classic I’ve never actually seen Salem’s Lot before. The reasons are pretty varied, 1) My feelings for Tobe Hooper are mixed to say the least. 2) It’s made for TV. There’s not a lot I’m actively snobbish about, but few things will turn me off quicker then “A Made For TV Movie”, let alone a “Made For TV Horror Movie” A should be oxymoron if there ever was one. Particularly since its source material is King’s goriest read .3) It stars fucking Hutch.

Let’s start with Tobe Hooper, with at whom I’m not mad but disappointed. I believe The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is perhaps the most purely terrifying horror movies ever made. And the fact that Hooper has done nothing in his career that I would rank above “kinda OK” frankly just pisses me off The exception of course being the wonderful sick joke that is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.

God that movies awesome. Oh yeah wait, Salem's Lot.

Much of the horror in the novel came from the fact that King had the luxury to watch the town disintegrate in macrocosm. (To be fair I did the movie no favors by rereading the book right before watching it, however, I probably wouldn’t have watched it if I hadn’t. So it’s kind of a chicken or the egg type thing.) Watching the plague of vampirism sweep through and destroy the town in a matter of days was truly unique and frightening. King’s ear for the small town has hardly ever been used to better effected. Getting really into the heart of darkness of a cross section of the towns people. Comparing the day to day petty evil that goes behind the closed doors of the child abusers, wife beaters, and alcoholics, with the mythic evil of Barlow was a great idea. And it helped smooth over a lot of King’s flaws.

Now naturally the movie’s going to lose a lot of this, but I didn’t expect it to lose all of it. The movie is so focused on it’s main characters that it hardly seems to notice that there’s a town around it at all.

David Soul makes a dickish and unlikable hero, and stylistically the whole thing is very eighties TV. Making the whole endevor feel like a very special episode of Starksy and Hutch in which Hutch battles The Children Of The Night. There are a few things to recommend it, an ultra fey performance by James Mason, that’s always fun. An appearance by Elisha Cooke Jr. and an eerily young Fred Willard stand out in the bland cast.

There’s nothing terrible about Salem’s Lot, but nothing right about it either. It’s just kind of there, your average vaguely shitty smash and grab adaptation. And as always with Hooper, Mediocrity is a bitter disappointment. Also Hooper seems to be under the woefully mistaken impression that there is nothing scarier then a freeze frame. Using it to end every scare scene, which quickly goes from annoying to causing a Pavlovian, burst of hatred. I fear the freakout that might occur the next time I’m in a theater and some poor innocent movie uses a freeze frame for noble reasons.

Everyone is cast old, Mark Petrie and the Glicks are clearly teenagers. Soul and Susan Norton are both clearly pushing forty rather then thirty. Oddly enough Father Callahan the one character specifically written as old in the novels is the only one cast young. I’m hardly a purist when it comes to adaptations but these random changes to the books dynamics are just head scratchingly strange.

To be fair Hooper does have some genuinely scary moments here and there. There are a couple of great jump scares, such as a grave digger’s encounter with Danny Glick the first kid turned (The scene works despite the fact that it takes place IN DAYLIGHT, just another example of the films sloppiness. And that it ends in another accursed freeze frame). And a couple of genuinely eerie scenes like The Glick’s first appearance outside of his brother’s s window. In fact most of the horror scenes are pretty good (except for those infernal freeze frames). One moment where Mark faces the camera as two soft focus vampires creep behind him, is truly amazing, terrifying because we realize that Hooper has been showing the vampires for much longer then we have noticed them, thus making Mark’s Obliviousness believable.

Hooper even makes one notable improvement on King’s work. While King painted Barlow, as your standard foppish Eurotrash vampire, Hooper’s transformation into a feral night creature works quite well. Despite the fact that Munrau should sue, there’s no denying that that is one freaky design.

A lot of the time though he just ends up highlighting the movies problems. Take for example the scene in which Barlow invades the Petrie home and kill’s Mark’s family and destroys The Priest Callahan. In the book it’s a terrifying scene that simultaneously fulfills several character arcs and many of the book’s themes, while scaring the ever loving piss out of you. There’s a build to it. And by the time it happens there’s an almost overwhelming feeling of dread.

There’s nothing here, not even a reason for The fucking Vampire to be there (Come to think about it Barlow isn’t even invited in, another example of the film’s sloppiness). It doesn’t help that though Barlow is scary when he’s silent, the fact that Hooper chooses to have him do a Young Frankenstein impersonation through the scene, which makes him somewhat less intimidating.

All in all Salem’s Lot isn’t a disaster, just a disappointmnent. One of far too many in Hopper’s career.

PS Just wanted to give a special shout out to Final Girl and Countdown To Halloween for the links. Chances are you're coming to my site from one of their's but if not click the links to show them some love.

Final Girl for those of you not "in the know" is the best horror blog on the web. Stacie Ponder writes daily paeans to things that go bump in the night that make my own scribbling look oafish and terrible. Once you go you won't come back... I do so hope you'll come back.

Countdown To Halloween on the other hand has done the Herculean task of fitting together every site and blog that is doing some sort of Halloween thing and putting them all together on a blog that's easy to use and follow. One which inspires curiosity and seasonal happiness rather then stark existential terror at the amount of stuff out there.

Click on over and kiss your day goodbye.


Shawn Robare said...

Yeah, that's the thing about some successes. I love TCM, but it's really a fluke for a number of reasons. You can't plan madness like that. Listening to the interviews on the Family Portrait special, you start to get the feeling that Hooper was a little out of his mind. So much of what makes that movie work is the realistic stress and madness of the actors, which was brought on through no small amount of pain and long hours in very uncomfortable locations.

I do really like Poltergeist, even though everyone gives much of the credit to Spielberg, I do think some of the more gruesome elements were the work of Hooper.

As for Salem's Lot, you've hit the nail on the head. For some reason most people don't know how to handle King's work when translating it to the big or small screen, especially TV.

Bryce Wilson said...

Thanks for the great comment.

Yeah, I don't know about Poltergeist, the only moment that feels very Hooper to me is the mirror scene. All the other big scares (The Clown, The Poppin' Coffins have Spielberg's fingerprints all over them).

Lifeforce is fun, but only for Mathilda May related reasons.

And yeah King is tough to adapt. So much of what makes his work work is internal. The Mist, Carrie, The Dead Zone, Creepshow, Christine, and Stand By Me are really the only ones I love unabashedly.

Stacie Ponder said...

Thanks for the nice shout out!

I agree with you RE Hooper, but I totally disagree with you about Salem's Lot! Maybe it's because I've never read the book, I don't know...but I love this movie and while it's not perfect, I think it's pretty damn frightening.

And don't discount made for TV horror movies! Things have changed, surely, but 20-30 years ago, made for TV horror was some of the BEST horror around. Dark Night of the Scarecrow, Don't Be Afraid of the Dark, Home for the Holidays...there's lots and lots of treasures to be found.

Bryce Wilson said...

Thanks again Stacie.

Salem's Lot is a frightening movie. It's just the things inbetween the fright scenes that bug me. (And the Freeze Frames). If you get a shot you should read the book though, I think you'd enjoy it.

I'll definitely take your advice on the TV movies though. I'm always happy to be proven wrong.

PS. Got Slaughter High today. I'm Psyched.