October 02, 2011

Salem's Lot

Salem's Lot (1979) is from a novel by Stephen King, adapted for television by Paul Monash and directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre). I already reviewed it a couple years ago, but after watching it again last night I want to revisit it. It's probably the most memorable adaptation of a Stephen King novel with the exceptions of Carrie and The Shining. However, it's more interesting than The Shining and more restrained than Carrie.  

Salem's Lot, because it was shot for television, is limited by the constraints of cable. There's no gore and really no violence, which makes the job of the writer and director significantly more difficult in terms of amping up the horror. They were forced to build the atmosphere in a way that would give us the creeps. If you look at Hooper's directorial debut, Texas Chain Saw, you'll see an altogether different movie. Chain Saw is frenetic, unrelenting and grueling. In terms of plot, it's an episode of Scooby Doo, except the villain is a maniac with a chainsaw, not a local farmer trying to cover up his counterfeiting racket in the basement. Meanwhile, Paul Monash wrote the screenplay for Carrie, a movie that seems stylistically as diametrically opposed to Salem's Lot as you could get. My question is: how did two people whose previous work was so hyperbolic and garish manage to come up with this slow-paced, straight-forward vampires-in-New-England chiller?

You do start to miss the violence, because Salem's Lot might be a banal sitcom about small-town America if not for the vampire element. It's rather tame, but intermittently Hooper and cinematographer Jules Brenner have constructed some of the best vampire movie set-pieces ever. The King vampire, Barlow, is a direct nod to Count Orlock in Murnau's silent-era classic Nosferatu (1922). Barlow was quite different in the novel, but the change lends a sense of unspeakable horror and dread to the adaptation. Salem's Lot's banality is only ever at the surface: beneath it, there is the dreadful sense of doom that we felt in Carrie and Texas Chain Saw. The work of Monash and Hooper is very much a part of the subtext. Very little is overt. Hooper seems to be imitating Hitchcock more than ever. He did it a little bit in Chain Saw, when one of the kids unsuspectingly walks into the layer of Leatherface and meets an unexpectedly quick demise. We knew something was going to happen, but we didn't know when because there was no immediate warning.

Salem's Lot is chock full of warnings--musical cues, telegraphed shots that tell us, "someone's about to get it." And yet, there are still shudders. When we finally see Barlow's ghastly purple face with his beady, piercing eyes and yellow fangs, it's truly horrifying: one of the most nightmarish images I can recall in movies. There's no denying the film's power, and I think in the case of Salem's Lot the fun and the excitement lie in the hours of restraint that give way to the minutes, even seconds, of chilling horror that pop up unexpectedly, more and more as the film progresses. Perhaps this is simply the psychological explanation for why we like horror movies in general.

The cast is fairly convincing: David Soul plays Ben Mears, a writer who grew up in Salem's Lot and has returned to write a book about the Marston house, an iconic den of evil now presided over by the vampire and his human guardian; James Mason plays that guardian, and he utters every line with delightfully cryptic arrogance; Lance Kerwin plays Mark, Ben's teenage muse by proxy: he's into writing (as well as monsters and horror make-up). He and Ben develop a predictable but unlikely kinship (unlikely because their characters have almost no interaction until the end); Bonnie Bedelia plays the love interest, Susan, a character from the Old School of Wimpy Horror Movie Heroines, except she poses as a "partially-liberated feminist." In fact, Susan's character is mostly reactionary. She tows the line. Thankfully, Bedelia plays the part with an understated, intelligent grace. She lets the subtlety of her performance do the work, rather than jamming the meaning of her lines and her motivations into the "foreground" of her performance. Indeed, Susan would have been as bad as she was written if played by a lesser actress.

With Lew Ayres, Ed Flanders, Fred Willard, Geoffrey Lewis, Reggie Nalder (as Barlow), and George Dzundza, as a fat, drunk New England truck driver (a combination you would never want in a human being if you can help it).

Followed by the dismal A Return to Salem's Lot and a 2004 remake (also made for TV).

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