Friday, October 10, 2014

Festival Of Fear: Day 10 ~ Friday Flashback: Salem's Lot: Grab Your Crucifix, We're Going In!

Just because a film is on television - or is a two-part mini-series to boot - doesn't mean it isn't going to be fun.  I can think of a ton of movies that were on TV (i.e. Dark Night of the Scarecrow, The Little Girl that Lives Down the Lane, Bad Ronald, The Stand, IT, The Woman in Black 1989) that are really worthy of your attention.  But let's make one thing very clear:  Salem's Lot   (1979) is one of the best.

Ben Mears (David Soul, a.k.a.Hutch from Starsky & Hutch) returns to his hometown after being away for an extended period of time.  He's chosen to come back in order to write a book about the creepy house on the edge of town - the Marsten House. It's a home that has a reputation for being haunted (of course) and Ben has always held feelings of fear where the house is concerned.  He first asks about possibly staying at the home, but is quickly shot down by the local townsfolk who tell him a peculiar old man and his "employer" have bought it.  The eccentric Mr Straker (James Mason) and his oft-gone Mr. Barlow (Reggie Nalder) are living there now, with intentions of putting down roots and opening an antique shop in town. Ben instead rents a room at a boarding house and begins asking questions around the town about the mysterious duo in the house on the hill.

Ben (very) quickly starts up a relationship with Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia) and in doing so becomes friends and confidants with her father, Bill (Ed Flanders).  He also confides in his old school teacher, Jason Burke (Lew Ayres) that he thinks the Marsten house is in fact, evil - and has been for as long as he can remember.

Things help the case for weirdness along when late at night the Marsten house receives a large crate, and soon there is an apparent murderer running amok.  While Ben and Susan are getting their groove on, people are dying in strange ways, though a common denominator seems to be a bite to the neck.  While it would be  plain and simple (and even logical) to explain away the problem by just admitting there is a vampire in town, no one in the town is willing to admit this, even though person after person winds up infected with the blood of the undead, effectively turning them into vampires as well.  The antiques business seems to be drumming up more customers than they expected.  In other words, business is good.

No one has to hit Ben over the head with a stake for him to catch on that Nosferatu has moved into the house on the hill.  He becomes dead-set to stop this inherent evil and take back his town before they all become blood-drooling spawn of the devil. 

Salem's Lot probably pales a lot in comparison  to the horror films of today, if only for the gore content and the amount of violence that was allowed on network television back in the late 70's.  Now if we turn on the  tube at any given time we're apt to see a man carving a swastika in someone's chest, sticking a meat fork in someone's brain, or burning someone alive (and that's just Sons of Anarchy, folks).  But what Salem's Lot DID have is atmosphere.  Loads of throat-choking fog drifting in and out of view, child-vamps knocking on your window in the dead of night, labyrinth basements of doom, and the ever-present pause for effect that commercial station identification inevitably brought.  You also get a continual sense of doom, a feeling that starts at the opening credits and rolls on throughout the entire running time.

With the good, inevitably comes the bad.  In this case, as bad acting, of course. Not everyone could have used lessons but let's face it, many of the cast needed some serious schooling on how not to OVER-act.  Starsky & Hutch was a fave show of mine back in the day so for me, David Soul could do no wrong. Even if he couldn't act, how could you do wrong with his blond wavy hair, sexy voice, corduroy jackets with patched elbows, and a super-cool Jeep??  But other than him, it was all pretty lame, but tolerable. The script more than made up for any acting shortcomings.

Effects wise, Salem's Lot conjured up one of the most effectively ghoulish vampires in cinematic history.  With a major ode to Nosferatu before him, Kurt Barlow is the epitome of a terrifying creature of the night.  None of this "take me to bed or lose me forever" kind of bullshit.  Just pure and simple evil.  A vampire who sucks your blood then throws you across the room while making a minion of your beautiful wife - or your youngest child.

Though the end result had Stephen King's source material ending up a little disheveled, the novel itself is really one of King's best, and it goes without saying that the man knows how to make your skin crawl. But in taking a few liberties with King's novel, what Salem's Lot the film really achieved is that it made vampires damn scary. All they wanted to do was eat you and force you to do their bidding for all eternity.  Seems easy enough.  Cinema keeps turning the wheels on the vampire legend, and quite often the lore just goes right out the window.  Lore is replaced with lure, with vampires itching to get the pretty girl into bed and making her one of his kind so he can love her forever.  Um, NO.  Vampires in legend just want to make you suffer, kill you, and/or force their will upon you.

As Jerusalem's Lot (as the town was formerly known) starts to slowly change its percentage of humans to vampires, Ben, Bill, Jason Burke, and young Mark Petrie (who has a penchant for horror films and knows all the right moves when it comes to effectively killing a vampire) set plans in motion to stop the evil Mr. Straker and his master Barlow from making the town a giant tomb.  Or should I say crypt?  And with Ben's girlfriend Susan all but a concubine of the undead, there's no time like the present to stamp out the vamp.

It's really easy to overlook the hokey here and enjoy this Tobe Hooper-directed gem.  He injects enough scares to make it a legitimate horror film despite its mild television roots. It has endeared itself to the horror crowd if for no other reason than it is a great representation of a frightening vampire film, in which the undead are terrifying as hell and awaiting your eternal devotion.


your secret admirer said...

Christine (babe), talking of atmosphere, i always liked the bit where them two geezers have to transport that box back to the house, the way the box gets cold and starts moving around in the back of the truck, and then they start pannicking when they get to the house and dont complete the job properly, that entire sequence is so good and genuinely scary and unnerving and funny all at the same time.

Christine Hadden said...

You're exactly right. It's comical yet unnerving. That film is underrated.

Michella Sarah (The Movie Starlet) said...

I've never seen this one, but i literally just ordered it, as well as the 2004-remake, from Amazon this morning. Reading your review just made me nore excited to finally get to see it :) Any thoughts on the remake?

Christine Hadden said...

I actually own the remake but haven't even watched it yet! How awful of me. If you watch it first let me know. But I can't imagine it having the nostalgic value of the original....I just love this one!

Michella Sarah (The Movie Starlet) said...

The mailman dropped by with the Salem's Lot dvd's, and i've finally gotten around to seeing them both for the first time. Honestly, i think they're both great. The 2004-version have slightly better acting, and it does follow the book a little more closely at times. However, Hooper's version wins on two counts; atmosphere and horror. It's much more eerie and creepy than the remake, and the iconic scene with the boy scratching on the door is absolutely terrifying.

That being said, i think the remake is a very decent effort to tell one of King's (in my opinion) strongest stories. It looks great, too, and has a very competent cast. But the original wins on the scare-factor and atmosphere big time :)

Christine Hadden said...

I will have to break down and watch the remake then, if it does fare well. It will definitely be hard to top the atmosphere of the original, and I can't imagine Barlow being as creepy...but we'll see!!