Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Maine Vampire Massacre: What's Wrong With SALEM'S LOT (1979)

Tobe Hooper is one of those strange cases of a filmmaker who has made one Great Film (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre), a couple of good-to-interesting ones (Poltrergeist, Eaten Alive), but an otherwise unending chain of junk. The worst of it is, that it's difficult to discern how the taste and talent he brought to Chain Saw have more or less failed Hooper since 1974. And his 1979 TV miniseries of Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot is as good a case study as any.

Salem's Lot basically reconfigures Bram Stoker in Stephen King terms. i.e., it's Dracula set in contemporary small-town Maine. David Soul (bleck) is Ben Mears, a writer returning to his hometown of Jerusalem's Lot to write about a local haunted house. To thwart a vampo-menace in the form of Messrs. Straker (James Mason, fun but phoning it in) and Barlowe (the legendary Reggie Nalder, scary as all shit), Ben ends up teaming up with his dull lady-love Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia) and boy wonder monster-movie nut Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin). Most everybody else in town dies. Also Fred Willard as the vampire's real estate man wears a funny plaid suit.

Ken Hutchinson is on the case! The case of vampires!

In his first foray into the supernatural, Hooper's vision of the otherworldly is just too prosaic. King's novel is about the inside-out rotting corruption of a community because of contagion they will not address. The film pays lip service to this idea, but in no way demonstrates it. In the next year's The Shining, Stanley Kubrick would also ditch some a King source novel's ideas, but also imbued the story with richer themes. Hooper replaces the sloughed core idea with nothing, despite having 3 hours of running time to fool around with.

I'm reminded of the commentary track on the Texas Chain Saw Massacre DVD, in which Hooper laughs off suggestions that the film is about the breakdown of the American family, animal rights, or '70s social malaise. Which does not, of course, stop Chain Saw from being about these things. But it speaks to Hooper's refusal to consider any implications to his story. And in a way, 'Salem's Lot is a meditation on Dracula, why Stoker's story works, and what its characters represent, so a filmmaker who resists subtext is walking a dangerous road when adapting the book. Ben ponders why he's drawn to investigate the supposedly haunted Marsten House, and Mark's parents question his interest in monster toys, and these scenes are supposed to be about our very attraction to the genre: does it mean there's something wrong with us? Do these interests unintentionally fuel evil? Hooper includes these moments, but makes them weightless and unjustified.

In the specific case of Salem's Lot, there are a half-dozen genuinely frightening scare scenes. The drunken wobbly floating of vampire children outside of foggy bedroom windows, scratching at the panes is indelible. The many-hour build up to Barlow's arrival in town doesn't so much build suspense as lull one into expecting it might not happen, but when the Master makes his on-screen entrance it is a contender for all-time jump-scare king. Hooper delivers the goods in the form of scare setpieces that are actually frightening, a skill that is more unique in the annals of horror than it ought to be. A knack for disorienting editing and surprising shock images are in full force. Or they are for probably 10 minutes of the 3-hour film.

The book 'Salem's Lot shows King taking his first steps towards the enormous casts of characters, and fictional towns with detailed, storied histories which are the trademark of his epic novels. The miniseries keeps introducing characters, but their affairs and daily doings are so dull that it is of little consolation that so much care is being taken to preserve King's cast list. Besides a subplot about Larry Crockett (Willard)'s affair with his wedded secretary, which leads to a funny-intense showdown at the end of her cuckolded husband's shotgun, everything happening in town is perfectly extraneous. This might be fine if it weren't such a chore to sit through. Even the romantic leads seem to be feigning interest in their blooming relationship. They must know it's only happening to create a damsel to put in distress for the third act.

Brilliant graphics! Pretty poster! Unworthy telefilm!

Not only is this stuff boring, but it's at the expense of better material. The character of Father Callahan (James Gallery) is retained, but a subplot about his crisis of faith is gone, even though it has serious ramifications. The Doubting Holy Man is a hoary figure in the genre by this point, but in this story he is an important piece of one of King's recurring tales: small towns rotting into chaos from the sins of their citizens (Cujo, Needful Things, IT). Instead, much time spent on Ben and Susan flirting by the lake and uh, walking around town.

It is in these non-thrill scenes that Hooper's shortcomings are most obvious. Perhaps he's just as bored as the audience, but Hooper continually cuts away from even important dialogue scenes mid-conversation. "Get out of town, and take everyone you can convince to go with you," Ben frantically tells Susan CUT TO!: Ben walking down the street the next day? The usual purpose for this would be to show Susan, you know, leaving town, or convincing people to go with her. Editing a miniseries is surely a huge undertaking. Perhaps it demonstrates that building suspense for almost two hours before any payoffs is nigh impossible. In any case Salem's Lot is far too sloppy for its reputation as a major work from an important genre figure. It would seem Tobe Hooper's limited skill set just didn't serve an ability to tell stories outside of his one enduring masterpiece. But Sweet Jesus, swimming in an overlong, tepid ocean there's some real harum scarum shocks in Salem's Lot.


Anonymous said...

I am looking forward to your analysis of Tobe Hooper's direction of the pilot of X-FILES rip-off DARK SKIES, and the cultural significance of the scene in which a monkey possessed by an alien shoots and kills Neil Campbell's uncle.

Jason said...

I know that you give good & bad points in your post here... but as far as any of the bad points are concerned, I must say that you are soo wrong about the 1979 "Salem's Lot" TV Mini-series... it is in every way an extreme MASTERPIECE. The script is actually better than the novel. If you understand charater pacing then I can't find one bad scene or a boring moment anywhere within the entire film. For some reason Hooper has made some TERRIBLE FILMS. Yet, perhaps 1979's "Salem's Lot" is THE definitve vampire film of all time, not to be surpassed? I'd say so. Take care.


Anonymous said...

Salem's Lot is not bad, but it is okay that you do not like it.

It's a freakin' awesome tele-series, ESPECIALLY when compared to that piece of garbage remake with Rob Lowe from not too long ago.

David "Double-'0'" Soul rocks and I watch this every year at least five times, so somebody pick up the rights and remaster it as a double DISC with special features!!! NOW DAMNIT!!!

Anonymous said...

if stephen king doesn't hurry up and write a sequel to this terrific book the i will do it myself!

Chris Stangl said...

Well Tony, I'd pick up the DARK TOWER books, if you're hungry for more SALEM'S LOT action.

Anonymous said...

I just wish they'd put the original teleplay on CD. The one in stores now is so edited it's hard to watch. The school bus scenes are cut, the crisis of faith in the kitchen is shortened, classic James Mason lines are cut. Wish I could find the original. Oh well, there's still the book.

Anonymous said...

watched it again, a fabulous movie that does an excellent job of capturing the laid-back camera work of the 70-80 that I so miss - when the audience actually still had time to wonder and imagine - when not everything was graphical overload...