IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: SALEM’S LOT (1979)

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I read Salem’s Lot by Stephen King shortly after it was first published when I was in the 6th grade, and it was the first novel that ever truly scared me.  More importantly, as someone who spent his childhood watching Hammer Films and the Universal monster movies, it was the first book that ever truly entertained me.  It was that book that got me hooked on reading.

As such, my expectations were high when four years later the film version of SALEM’S LOT (1979) arrived as a TV movie directed by Tobe Hooper and starring David Soul and James Mason.  And while it was well-received by critics and fans alike, I was somewhat disappointed by it.  I just couldn’t shake my feelings for the novel, which I felt was vastly superior.

The biggest disappointment for me at the time was the film’s interpretation of the story’s vampire, Mr. Barlow.  Barlow was creepy and terrifying in the novel, with lots of dialogue to back up his evil presence.  In the film, he was changed to a mute Nosferatu clone, and while he did indeed look frightening, the fact that the make-up resembled the classic 1922 Nosferatu make-up on Max Schreck was a let-down.

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Reggie Nalder as the vampire Barlow in SALEM’S LOT (1979).

Anyway, it had been years since I had seen the film version of SALEM’S LOT, and so I thought it was time to watch it again and place it IN THE SPOOKLIGHT.

In SALEM’S LOT, writer Ben Mears (David Soul) returns to his childhood home of Salem’s Lot (Jerusalem’s Lot in the novel), drawn there by the Marsten House, a house that watches over the town like a demonic gargoyle.  In short, it’s the town’s haunted house. Ben has been obsessed with this house his entire life, an obsession that began when he ventured into the house as a boy on a dare and saw the hanging body of a man there, a man who while hanging opened his eyes and looked at him.

This moment is a perfect example of the difference between the movie and the book.  In the book, this scene, this image, although not even a major part of the plot, was one of its most frightening.  Indeed, for me, of all the scenes and images from the novel, this is the one that scared me the most back in 1975 and stayed with me the longest, the hanging man who opened his eyes.  In the movie, it’s mentioned briefly by Ben Mears in a conversation, and it’s nothing more than an afterthought. There you go.

So Ben returns home to write about the Marsten House and seek out old acquaintances, like Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia), who he starts to date. He’s writing about the Marsten House because he believes the house itself is evil, and as such it attracts evil.

And he’s right, because currently living in the house are two men, Mr. Straker (James Mason) and Mr. Barlow (Reggie Nalder).  Barlow is a vampire, and Straker is the man empowered with protecting him.  Together, they prey upon the townsfolk of Salem’s Lot, gradually changing nearly everyone in town into a vampire.  Unless that is, Ben Mears can stop them.

It’s a great story, but it plays better in the novel than in the movie, which is hindered by dated dialogue by screenwriter Paul Monash.

I was a huge fan of the TV show STARSKY AND HUTCH (1975-79) back in the day, and so at the time when I first saw SALEM’S LOT I gave David Soul who starred in the show a free pass. Watching it today was a different story.  Soul’s interpretation of Ben Mears has its problems, mostly because at times Soul seems to be sleepwalking through the role.  He also doesn’t do fear well.  When Ben Mears is supposed to be terrified, he comes off as more dazed than anything else.

By far, the best performance in the movie belongs to James Mason as Mr. Straker.  Of course, this comes as no surprise as Mason was a phenomenal actor who was no stranger to villainous roles.  His dark interpretation of Dr. Polidori in FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY (1973) was one of the most memorable parts of that horror movie, and his villainous turn as attorney Ed Concannon in THE VERDICT (1982) was every bit as effective as Paul Newman’s lead performance as Frank Galvin.  Both men won Oscars for their performances that year, Newman for Best Actor, and Mason for Best Supporting Actor.  These roles are from the tail end of Mason’s career, which began in the 1930s and spanned five decades.

As Straker, Mason is frightening.  The scene where he taunts a priest is one of the best in the film.

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David Soul and James Mason in SALEM’S LOT (1979).

The rest of the cast, which is chock-full of character actors, is so-so.  In the key role of young Mark Petrie, the boy who loves monsters and monster movies, and the character who I obviously identified with when I first read the novel in 1975, Lance Kerwin is just okay.  Like David Soul, his interpretation of fear comes off more like a “deer in the headlights” daze.

Likewise, Bonnie Bedelia is okay as Susan Norton, but Lew Ayres is effective as school teacher Jason Burke, and unlike Soul and Kerwin, Ayres does do fear well.  Ed Flanders is solid as Dr. Bill Norton, and Geoffrey Lewis enjoys some fine moments as Mike Ryerson, especially once Mike becomes a vampire.  Veteran actors Elisha Cook Jr. and Fred Willard are also in the cast.

And while Reggie Nalder does look horrifying as Barlow in his Nosferatu-style make-up, ultimately he doesn’t make much of an impact in the movie because his scenes are few and far between.  Even though I prefer the Barlow character from the novel to the one here in the movie, I still would have liked to have seen the vampire more in the film.

The story, which flows naturally in the novel, with its expansive cast of characters, doesn’t flow as well in the movie, as the townsfolk and their personal issues play like characters in a soap opera.

Director Tobe Hooper, fresh off his success with THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), definitely puts his personal stamp on the movie and creates some scary scenes. Chief amongst them is the creepy and very memorable scene- it might be the most memorable of the entire movie— of young vampire Danny Glick floating outside Mark Petrie’s window, beckoning to be let inside.  It’s certainly one of my favorite parts of the movie.

Another frightening image features Geoffrey Lewis’ Mike Ryerson as a vampire, sitting in a rocking chair.

But the biggest parts of the story strangely fall flat.  The end, for instance, when Mark and Susan enter the Marston house in search of Barlow, lacks the necessary suspense.  In the book, these scenes were terrifying.  In the movie, not so much.

The pacing is a little off as well.  The film runs for 184 minutes and originally aired on television in two 2 hour segments.  The bulk of the first half is spent introducing all the characters, while Barlow doesn’t really show up until the second part, and then things move very quickly, often too quickly.

The film did very well and earned high ratings, and for a while there was talk of turning it into a television series, but the idea never materialized.

I like the film version of SALEM’S LOT, and even though it hasn’t aged all that well, and is a bit dated— in contrast, the classic TV vampire movie THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) still holds up remarkably well today— it’s still a fun movie to watch, with some genuine creepy scenes, especially for a TV movie, and we certainly have Tobe Hooper to thank for that.  While the vampire is OK, and the leads meh, you do have James Mason chewing up the scenery as the diabolically evil Mr. Straker.

The biggest drawback is that the source material, the novel by Stephen King, is so darned good, it makes this above average thriller seem much more ordinary than it really is.

SALEM’S LOT is kinda like its vampire, Mr. Barlow.  Scary, but nowhere near as powerful as depicted in the novel by Stephen King.

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Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

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THE CIRCLE (2017) – Cautionary Tale Almost Thought-Provoking

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If there’s one fundamental weakness about THE CIRCLE (2017), a story about a young woman’s involvement in a cutting edge social media company that threatens to change life as we know it, it’s that in this day and age where we see technological advances unfold on a seemingly daily basis, the ideas it presents as potentially dangerous and disturbing are already happening.  As such, none of what occurs in THE CIRCLE is all that mind-blowing or insightful.

THE CIRCLE is based on the novel of the same name by Dave Eggers and tells the story of Mae (Emma Watson) whose life is going nowhere as she is stuck in a thankless temp job, until she catches a break when her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) who works for the hottest company on the planet, the Circle, gets her an interview there.  The interview goes well and Mae is hired (of course).

The Circle is a social media company run by Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) that is all about connecting people across the world, gathering information and data, and doing away with privacy and secrets, all in the name of making the world a better place.  For example, their technology is able to help police locate missing children within minutes.  Bailey promises that politicians and dictators will no longer be able to operate in the shadows.  All decisions will be public and in real-time.

They’re able to do this as they unleash a new technology, miniature cameras that are practically invisible and can be placed everywhere around the world.  Not only do these cameras provide live video feeds but also satellite data of the area.  The Circle utilizes other innovative technologies as well.

At first, Mae is somewhat skeptical as she finds it all a bit much, and she’s also initially put off by the company’s social policy which encourages its workers to remain on “campus” over the weekends and engage in social activities with fellow employees.

But when Annie arranges for Mae’s parents to be on the company’s health care policy, which is a huge deal because Mae’s dad Vinnie (Bill Paxton, in his final film role) suffers from multiple sclerosis and his present insurance covers very little of his treatment, Mae begins to see the company differently.  She rises in the ranks and soon catches the eye of her boss, Mr. Bailey.

Eventually, Mae agrees to take part in a huge cutting edge experiment, where she will be connected online 24/7, inviting the world to join her every minute of every day.

Pardon me for not finding this so “cutting edge.”  Why not?  Because we do it already!  Go anywhere in public on any given day and you’ll see nearly everyone walking around with some sort of smart phone or mobile device.  We’re there already.

And that’s the fundamental problem I had with THE CIRCLE.  The dangers of what its “science fiction” tale are trying to predict are already happening.  The world is already connected.  Privacy is pretty much gone.  Cameras are already everywhere.  Heck, we have a U.S. President who’s addicted to a Twitter account.  In fact, I’d argue that what’s currently happening in real life in terms of our society’s dependency on technology is far scarier than what’s depicted in THE CIRCLE.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t get some things right.  It does.  The point about the Circle wanting its employees to socialize together over the weekends jabs at what many companies do today, viewing the social aspect of its employees nearly as important as the work aspect.  To” old timers” like myself such notions are cringe-worthy. Work is work, not a playground.  In fact, my first thought when Mae is introduced to her co-workers on her first day was that there was no way I’d ever be able to work for a company like the Circle.  It makes STAR TREK’S Starfleet Academy look like boot camp.

The screenplay by director James Ponsoldt and Dave Eggers covers a lot of ground but ultimately is too superficial to make much of an impact. In spite of its innovations or maybe because of them, The Circle never felt like a real company to me in this movie. And Mae, a fairly likable character, was never fleshed out enough to be someone I really cared about.

As such, Emma Watson does an okay job as Mae.  She was criticized for her performance as Belle in BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) for being too plain and flat, but I thought she caught Belle’s persona rather well.  After all, Belle is bookish and intellectual, and she’s not supposed to be portrayed as a princess type.

I found Watson even less engaging here as Mae, but again, she seems to have been saved by the source material.  After all, one of the points THE CIRCLE is making is that we are all so connected to our technologies that it’s taking away from our real life relationships, and so it’s possible that Mae is supposed to be superficial and shallow.  Either way, she is, and for right or wrong, Watson nails this disengaged personality.  She does come to life for one scene, when her friend Annie gives her the news that her dad will be covered on the company health care policy.  Watson shows some genuine emotion here.  I wish she had done this more often.

As Mae’s friend Annie, Karen Gillan does a nice job.  At first, Gillan makes Annie the go-getting workaholic, but things gradually change as Mae rises in the company, something that Annie sees as a threat.  Throughout the film, Gillan displays more emotion than Watson ever does.  We’ll be seeing Gillan again next week as she reprises her role as Nebula in the Marvel sequel GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2 (2017).  She also was in THE BIG SHORT (2015).

Perhaps the strongest performance in the film, and I suppose this should come as no surprise, belongs to Tom Hanks as Circle founder Eamon Bailey.  There’s something genuinely creepy about Bailey, and I think it’s because Hanks plays it straight.  In other words, he doesn’t make Bailey sinister or imbue him with hints of ulterior motives.  He plays him like a syrupy sweet sincere man, like that older uncle who seems for all intents and purposes to be a nice guy but perhaps lingers with that hug a bit too long or looks you in the eye as if he’s seeing through you, and there is just something off-putting about him, although you can’t put your finger on it.  Hanks plays Bailey like this. It’s a subtle, masterful performance.

It was also a bit sad to see Bill Paxton in his final film performance.  He’s excellent, as always, as Mae’s very sick father.  His passing earlier this year made his performance here as the seriously ill Vinnie even more poignant.

Glenne Headly plays Mae’s mom Bonnie, and she’s very good as well.  Headly has made a ton of movies, but I still always remember her for her hilarious role as Janet Colgate in DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS (1988) which also starred Michael Caine and Steve Martin.

I thought Ellar Coltrane was ineffective as Mae’s friend Mercer.  He’s supposed to represent the last gasp of humanity, as he shuns social media and constantly laments to Mae that her new way of life is awful and that there is something dreadfully wrong with it.  Unfortunately, nearly everything Mercer says is cliché, and he tends to whine a lot, and so whenever he was on screen I wanted to kick him in the pants.

Likewise John Boyega (Finn in the new STAR WARS movies) was disappointing as Ty, a shadowy figure at the company who befriends Mae and who is always telling her of the dangers of what the company is up to.  The character is just begging for a larger role during the film’s third act, but this never really happens.  Boyega isn’t on-screen enough to have much of an impact in this one.

Director James Ponsoldt does an okay job at the helm, but things could have been better. First off, there’s no sense of pacing.  Suspense never builds, and the film never becomes the type of thriller it could have been.  It’s all rather stoic and plain, and there’s very little emotion to be had.

I had very low expectations for this movie, because I had heard less than flattering things about it, but it wasn’t awful.

Its story about the dangers of social media and invasive technologies is interesting but falls just short of being thought-provoking because these dangers have already come to pass, and so the story seems old hat and as a result more tepid than titillating.  It should have taken things farther.  For instance, what could people with access to this type of technology really do?  I can come up with a few better ideas than just watching one young woman go through her day.  The forces behind the Circle should have been more ambitious, and the stakes much higher.

On the other hand, I wasn’t completely bored.  And I enjoyed the two solid albeit supporting performances by Tom Hanks and Bill Paxton.

In the lead Emma Watson lacks emotion and depth, and she doesn’t really make Mae a person I cared for all that much, but considering the story THE CIRCLE is trying to tell, that may have been the point.

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JACK REACHER: NEVER GO BACK (2016) – Mediocre Sequel Lacks Energy & Punch

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JACK REACHER:  NEVER GO BACK (2016) seems to be begging me to never go back to the theater to see any more JACK REACHER films.

And there will be more JACK REACHER movies, since Tom Cruise owns the film rights to the Jack Reacher novels by author Lee Child.  Now, while I didn’t particularly enjoy this second film in the Jack Reacher film series, I’m not at the stage yet where I’d never go back.

After all, I enjoyed the first movie, JACK REACHER (2012)  a lot.  It was a fun action movie, and Tom Cruise did a nice job in the lead role as Jack Reacher.

But now comes the sequel, JACK REACHER:  NEVER GO BACK, which takes several steps backwards.  The story isn’t as good, nor is the cast, and most disappointing of all is it’s directed by a very talented director Edward Zwick, who over his long career has made several movies that I’ve really liked, including GLORY (1989), BLOOD DIAMOND (2006), and DEFIANCE (2008).

With Zwick at the helm, this movie has no business being as flat and mediocre as it is.

JACK REACHER:  NEVER GO BACK opens with our hero, former military officer turned investigator and vigilante Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) taking care of a crooked sheriff whose been doing wrong by illegal immigrants.  Reacher credits the arrest to a  military officer named Turner (Cobie Smulders), who he has never met.  But they hit it off over the phone and agree to meet for a date.

When Reacher arrives at her office, he’s informed that she’s been arrested for treason. Of course, Reacher smells trouble, and he sets his sights on clearing her name.  He has to add his own name to the list of people to clear since as soon as he starts looking into this vast government conspiracy, he’s implicated as well, and so he has to conduct his investigation while also being a fugitive from justice.

Reacher breaks Turner out of her holding cell, and together they seek answers, but not before they add a third person to their group, a teenage girl named Samantha (Danika Yarosh) who may or may not be Reacher’s daughter.  When the bad guys threaten Samantha to get back at Reacher, he whisks his maybe-daughter away from her home so she’ll be safe, and of course she jumps right into helping them with their investigation.  Now, that’s realistic.

The first strike I had with JACK REACHER:  NEVER GO BACK is its story is nowhere near as tight or as compelling as the plot in the first JACK REACHER movie.  The mystery here just isn’t all that interesting, and the subplot with Reacher’s “daughter” is as cliche as these things go.

It doesn’t help that the villains aren’t that memorable either.  The main baddie is a hitman type named The Hunter (Patrick Heusinger), who is supposedly an unstoppable killer, but since this is a Jack Reacher movie, there’s little doubt which character will have the upper hand when the two meet for their deadly showdown.  The head bad guy, the man behind the scenes pulling all the strings to this vast conspiracy, remains largely in the shadows throughout, so much so he hardly matters at all.

And while Tom Cruise is back playing Jack Reacher, a role I really enjoyed him in back in the first movie, I wasn’t as impressed this time around.  There was something really cool about the Jack Reacher character and the way Cruise played him in JACK REACHER.  There was an edge to Cruise’s performance that really brought the character to life.  That edge seems to be gone here.

There just seemed to be far less energy behind Cruise’s performance in this sequel.  I didn’t get the same sense this time around that Reacher was a deadly force to be reckoned with, someone that could put a major hurt on a bunch of people with his bare hands.

Cobie Smulders, who plays Agent Maria Hill in the Marvel AVENGERS and CAPTAIN AMERICA movies, as well as on Marvel’s AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D. TV show, is fine here as Turner, the tough military officer who makes a nice partner for Reacher as they take on the crooked military villains.  But it’s not a role that jumps out at you or makes you remember the character long after you’ve seen the movie.

Likewise, Danika Yarosh is okay as teen Samantha, but the role is rather cliche.  The rest of the cast is serviceable but undistinguished.  Another strength of the first JACK REACHER movie was its cast, which was pretty darn good and featured Robert Duvall and Richard Jenkins in supporting roles.  No such star power this time around.

I wasn’t overly impressed by the screenplay by Richard Wenk, Marshall Herskovitz, and director Edward Zwick.  Combined, these guys have some pretty impressive writing credits, but that didn’t seem to help them there.  Wenk has written some movies that I’ve really liked— THE MECHANIC (2011) starring Jason Statham, for example— but his previous credit, the recent remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016) wasn’t one of them.

The story here was pretty standard, and the dialogue wasn’t really up to snuff either.

As I said, Edward Zwich has directed some solid films, but JACK REACHER:  NEVER GO BACK lacked intensity and visual flair.  None of the action or fight scenes remain etched in my mind.

The whole film was all rather flat.

I’m still willing to see future Jack Reacher movies, since I enjoyed the first film so much, but if any more play like this one, I’ll take the title to heart and vow then and there to never go back.

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