Thursday, October 30, 2014

Salem's Lot

Maybe, when adapting Stephen King, Tobe Hooper should stick with the novels. The Mangler is based off a short story that appeared in King's Night Shift collection, and it's bad in the all the ways I outlined in my linked review. But Salem's Lot (1979) is based on King's second novel, and everywhere The Manger fails, Salem's Lot succeeds. A three-hour TV miniseries, it's better acted, better directed, better written, and creepier and scary with believable, human characters and a much stronger threat.

Ben Mears (David Soul) returns to his hometown of Salem's Lot, Maine to write a book about the Marsten House, house with a dark history of attracting evil. Ben tries to rent the house, but it's already been purchased by a pair of Europeans, the sophisticated Mr. Straker (James Mason) and the never-seen Mr. Barlow (Reggie Nalder). While writing, Ben romances Susan (Bonnie Bedelia) and reconnects with his old teacher, Jason Burke (Lew Ayres), but weird things start happening. A young boy disappears on a walk home one night, his brother dies in the hospital, and a sleazy realtor is found dead in his car. Others start turning up dead or vanishing. It isn't long before Ben and the others realize there's a vampire on the prowl in good old Salem's Lot.

Salem's Lot was King second book, and this was the second adaptation of his work and the first TV miniseries, paving the way for the likes of It, The Stand, and a second take on The Shining. It was originally intended as a feature film, with the likes of George Romero and Larry Cohen being touted as possible directors before the decision was made to use the extended format of television to retain as much of the novel as possible. Even with three hours in running length, Hooper and teleplay writer Paul Monash alter the text in a number of ways: combining characters, eliminating others, moving around plot details, and altering others entirely. The biggest change is in the nature of Barlow, the master vampire. In the novel, he is a cultured, gentleman-like aristocrat very much in the Dracula mold who gives speeches about his history and what he plans to do to our heroes. In the miniseries, he is a mute, pale blue, rat-like creature, closer in look to Nosferatu, right down to the rat-like fangs.

Even with all these changes, Salem's Lot is mostly faithful to the book, at least in spirit and retaining several of the book's most potent scenes: vampire children floating in the air, clawing at windows, shrouded in fog; Mrs. Glick rising from the dead in the morgue as Ben tries to fashion a makeshift crucifix with a pair of tongue depressors; and Barlow's attack on Ned Tibbets in the jail, in which Barlow's ugly face suddenly fills the frame with a searing jolt on the soundtrack. Even the non-undead scene of George Dzundza's cuckold husband pulling a shotgun on Fred Williard gets a great jolt.

Since this is network TV, there's an absence of blood and gore, and most of the violence is implied, like another Hooper movie. But unlike The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Salem's Lot is a more refined, traditional horror story, one you could even call classy. Instead of the rotting, impoverished home on unemployed, inbred slaughterhouse workers, the story is set in a cozy small-town where everyone knows everyone's business and outsiders like Ben and Straker are mistrusted. And unlike Chain Saw, the narrative has a more recognizable structure, a beginning, a middle, an end, build-up, and resolution.

Visually, even though this is a TV project, Salem's Lot has a very cinematic feel; it doesn't look confined or static. Hooper takes his time to build the suspense, like when Jason, hearing the sound of a rocking chair, walks up stairs, and the camera follows him up. Overall, Hooper's choice of composition suggests a depth and not a flat square one expects with TV, and the editing is dynamic, especially in the Mrs. Glick scene, cutting between her body under a sheet, Ben making his cross, and a clock on the wall until the tension is ready to pop. The Marsten house, once we get inside it, is an impressive, crumbling piece of rotting architecture; the aforementioned shots of the floating vampires outside windows is spooky and dream-like; and although the makeup on the vampires isn't elaborate, save for Barlow's, their eyes are unnerving, those glowing, piercing, inhuman orbs.

The cast is impressive. Soul, then a name for his role on Starsky and Hutch, is OK, but the supporting cast is a dream. Mason, playing what is basically the Renfield role, steals the movie with an almost absent-mindedness menace and intelligence; one could argue he's the main villain more than Barlow, who's total screen time only amounts to a handful of minutes (interesting to note, both Mason and Nalder played villains in Alfred Hitchcock movies, North by Northwest and The Man Who Knew Too Much respectively). Still, Barlow is a creepy creature, suggested more often than shown (we don't get a good look at him until more than two hours into the movie). Elsewhere Ayres, Bedelia, Williard, Dzundza, Marie Windsor, Elisha Cook, Ed Flanders, and Geoffrey Lewis round out the various small-town types and bring them to life (or undeath when need be).

King fans will be horrified by the changes, and they do have reason to gripe in places. The first half spends a great deal of setting up the characters and the town, but in the second half, a number of characters vanish, and the narrative jumps from set piece to set piece with only a few lines of dialogue to explain where we are and why. Near the end, some of the changes from the book wreak havoc on the clarity of the narrative, particularly with Susan's final fate. You're left wondering where, when, why, and how.

And unlike in the novel, the notion of vampires taking over the town doesn't quite come across. Reading the book is seeing a town become Hell on Earth and overrun with monsters. This miniseries tells us this is happening but doesn't show enough to convince of it. Regardless, it's still an effective, creepy adaptation with enough scenes that are the stuff of nightmares.

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