Sunday, 17 May 2015

May Sucks: Salem's Lot (1979)

Salem's Lot (1979)
Director: Tobe Hooper
Starring: David Soul, James Mason, and Lance Kerwin
Running Time: 184 min

  I just read this book a couple months back and thought that it was about time that I watched the movie.  I've seen most films based on Stephen King's work, but this one has continuously slipped by me, probably because it was TV movie.  Anyway, I'm pretty jazzed to check it out and take the long trip up to the evil Marsten house, luckily, I'll be doing it during the daylight, just in case.

  Writer Ben Mears returns to his hometown of Salem's Lot to write a book about the Marsten house, a spooky depreciate old house that has more skeletons in its closet than any politician at the time.  When Ben arrives he approaches Larry Crockett, local real estate agent to see if he can rent the Marsten house to work on the novel, but to his surprised, Crockett tells him he just sold the place to two antique dealers, Straker and Barlow, who just arrived in town.  Crockett does recommend a boarding house that Ben can stay at while he works on his book.  Ben thanks Crockett and heads over to the boarding house to set up shop.  Just as Ben leaves, Crockett gets a phone call from Straker, who needs him to get two people to drive out to Portland and pick up a large crate that will arrive the next day for their business.  Crockett tells him that is no problem and he guarantees that it will be delivered the next night.  Then Crockett heads out to find two people to make the delivery.
  After getting settled in the boarding house, Ben wanders around Salem's Lot and sees a young woman relaxing in the park with a copy of his latest novel splayed open on the grass beside her.  He wanders over and jokingly tells her that the way she has the book is bad for the spine.  The woman recognizes Ben from the photo on the book and is completely charmed by him and witty book pick-up line.  The two spend the rest of the day together and end the day "chatting" by the lake.
  The next day, Ben goes over to the local junior high school to find his old English teacher, Jason Burke.  He finds him working with his students in the auditorium on a play written by one of his promising young writers, Mark Petrie.  Jason tells him that it is good to see him, but he's got to work on the play with the students but he'll have time to catch up and have dinner with him tonight.  On his way out of the school, Ben runs into Susan, who is also a teacher at the junior high school and they notice that her ex-boyfriend is spying on them from his creepy van.  Anyway, he also makes plans to see her after his catch up dinner with Jason for more dinner at her house.  That dude loves dinners!
  That night, the guys Crockett hired head out to Portland to pick up the mysterious large crate from Portland.  When they touch the giant crate, its cold and neither guy knows why.  They move the creepy crate into the van and drive it back to the Marsten house.  The two guys drag the crate into the cellar and get spooked by some strange noises upstairs.  They run out of the house, forgetting to lock the house up as asked by Crockett and Straker.  Meanwhile after two dinners and meeting Susan's parents, Ben and Susan head back to the secluded lake to "chat" some more.  Sadly, chatting is all that actually goes on because they hear the engines of some vehicles near them on the road.  They wander over and find Crockett dead in his car!  The police come and ruin a romantic evening for the two of them and then Ben drives Susan home.
  However, this wasn't the only odd occurrence that happened that night, the Glick brothers went missing after they left their friend, Mark Petrie's house.  Unfortunately, only the older boy returned home but in a very shaken up condition and can't remember what happened to his younger brother.  The next day, the older Glick boy and few other people in the town start coming down with odd symptoms and eventually, people start dying.  Ben knows this has something to do with the Marsten house but can't quite put his finger on it.  
Later that day, when Jason Burkes friend from the bar falls victim to this mysterious tiredness,  Jason offers him a room for the night, so Jason can watch over him.  Jason notices that there are strange bite marks on his neck and that night he thinks he hears voices coming from the room.  He investigates later on and finds his friend has passed away.  Good work Jason.  He then calls Ben, who rushes over immediately with a crucifix that Jason requested and Jason tells him what he suspects has happened, that vampires killed his friend and are slowly taking over their town.  Ben being an old friend and trusted confidant, of course thinks that what Jason is saying is crazy and they try to come up with another plan or a way to prove that it is vampires.  Eventually they do realize its the damn vampires and try to enlist help for other men in the town.  It was the 70's people!  Can Ben and Jason stop this crazy vampire plague and the evil master behind it all or will Salem's Lot fall prey to these bloodsucking beasts and have their souls siphoned from them for good?

   I really like this and I think that director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Lifeforce) and writer Paul Monash did a great job adapting this book to a television mini-series.  There are so many integral characters and things going on that it must have been extremely difficult to decide what stays and what parts of the story gets axed.  I watched the three hour unedited version and I couldn't imagine what they had to do to get in under two hours for a theatrical or video release, but I am really interest now to see it.  Anyhow, Monash and Hooper cut the time the old fashioned way, by giving certain characters double duty & axing some other very cool but not so much relevant scenes from the novel, which I'll touch on later.
  This picture also has an amazing cast, with David Soul (Starsky & Hutch, Johnny Got His Gun)  taking on the lead as Ben Mears.  Honestly when reading the book, I didn't picture Mears to look anything like David Soul but after my initial grumbling, Soul's version of the character grew on me and he really becomes the Mears character for me.  Also a great performance by James Mason (North by Northwest, Yellowbeard) who plays the villainous vampire henchman Richard K. Straker.  He gives the character a devilish charm that makes him likeable even though you know how evil he is.  Additionally, there a ton of great minor players like Elisha Cook Jr, George Dzundza, Fred Willard and Geoffrey Lewis who put their talents and terrified gazes into this film.
  For a TV movie, Tobe Hooper has created some exceptionally creepy moments in this film, I think my favourite being the scenes when the vampire children come to the windows at night.  These are gorgeous sets, with billowing smoke and the actors usually harnessed, I hope (?), dangling on the other side of the window, which creates a marvelous looking and haunting image for the audience.  Even looking at the picture below sends shivers down my spine.  Also, I love the look of the Kurt Barlow character, who is the head vampire.  Hooper totally nailed it.  Like in the novel, King made this creature similar to the vampire in Nosferatu and Hooper followed suit and developed a hideous looking creature that would probably scare anyone during 70's prime time or even today.  Last but not least, I love what Hooper did with the Marsten house and how he was able to make the house just as much a terrifying character has Barlow, Straker or any townie vampire.  Hooper, like in the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" gives this house such an evil look and feel that even seeing it from afar gives you the chills.  It's like Hooper watched all the haunted house movies available and chose all the best spooky stuff out of them.  Which is probably what he did.  Anyway, I loved it and think that this house of horror is totally underrated when people talk about films with spooky houses.     

  So what's not great about it?  Well like I mentioned earlier, this is a TV movie, made in the 70's, so the networks back then were probably a little gunshy about producing this film and there isn't a whole mess of blood in it.  Which doesn't mean there isn't some good scares, but a lot of the time the horror shots get faded to black or the gruesome stuff is done off camera.
  Also, as mentioned before there are some really cool stuff in the book that doesn't show up in the film.  Like the vampire baby attacking it's abusive parents or school children getting their revenge on a jackass bus driver.  These things would have been awesome to see but I'm sure there wasn't time or budget for them.  Additionally, the priest character in the story doesn't get as much time and isn't as developed here as he is in the book, which I think is a shame.  In the novel, KIng gives this character a interesting arc but in the film, he is only a given a few moments and his showdown with the creature is very brief.  This is a little disappointing because the religion ascpect is monumental in defeating these creatures and what happens to the priest is really neat and twisted, so I'm just sad that it got dropped. 

  With that said, this is still a fantastic TV movie and a must see for any fans of horror or vampire films.  Not quite a perfect adaption of Stephen King's novel but director Tobe Hooper comes pretty damn close and brings enough chills and thrills that will satisfy anyone's taste for the genre.  Amazing cast and fantastic look and feel to the film that only a true master of genre can bring.  So, if you are looking for a terrifying PG film for you and your family on a dark and stormy night, then pop this in and have a crucifix or wooden stake close at hand.

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