IT CHAPTER TWO (2019) – Horror Sequel Long, Laborious, and Dull

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IT CHAPTER TWO (2019) clocks in at a sprawling 2 hours and 45 minutes. That’s an awful long time for a movie not to be good.

The film starts well with a strong opening sequence, followed by a generally captivating first act, but then like the Energizer Bunny, it just keeps going and going and going. By the time the end credits roll, the whole thing had become a colossal bore.

IT CHAPTER TWO is the sequel to IT (2017), a film I liked well enough but didn’t love. Both movies are based on Stephen King’s epic novel of the same name, so epic it took two movies to cover all the material. IT was also filmed before as TV-movie back in 1990, also a two-parter, and that one was also well-received.

Truth be told, I’ve never been a big fan of the Stephen King novel. Like this movie, it tends to go on forever, and the story it tells could have been just as effective if not more so at a much shorter length.

The story told in IT CHAPTER TWO picks up twenty-seven years after the events of the first movie, which ended when the group of middle school friends, known as “the Losers,” defeat the monster known as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) which had been terrorizing their town of Derry.

It’s now present day, and it turns out that Pennywise wasn’t really killed (surprise, surprise!) and so the “Losers,” now adults, return to Derry to finish the job. And that in a nutshell is the film’s plot. So why on earth does this one have to go on for nearly three hours? The answer is simple. It doesn’t have to! If the story warranted a three-hour running time, there wouldn’t be an ounce of fat on it. This one is full of blubber.

And that’s because the screenplay by Gary Dauberman remains superficial throughout, touching upon various elements of the story but never really getting down and deep with any of them. In short, it never seems to get to the point! As a result, in this movie, I didn’t care about the characters or what happened to them.

As I said, the film gets off to a good start with a powerful opening sequence, and it does a generally good job with its introductions of the now adult “Losers.” And the scene where they all reunite for the first time at a Chinese restaurant is one of the best scenes in the film. But it’s largely downhill after that.

Mike (Isaiah Mustafa) explains that the way to kill Pennywise is by using a Native American ritual, and for that they have to offer a sacrifice, which means each of them has to find some artifact from their past to offer. So, the middle of the film follows each character as they seek out their own particular artifact, while Pennywise shows up to simply be a nuisance rather than to kill them outright. And then, when they finally do have their artifacts, it’s showtime! The big battle to take down Pennywise, which means lots of gory CGI effects. ZZZZzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Wake me up when someone says something interesting.

I’m also not a big fan of stories where characters find themselves in impossible situations, and then they can get out of them by saying, “It’s not real! None of this is really happening!” And then like poof! Everything is all better. This happens a lot in this movie. And for me, that’s just too easy.

In the first IT, I enjoyed Bill Skarsgard a lot as Pennywise. He was so good I didn’t find myself missing Tim Curry, who played the monstrous clown in the 1990 movie. But here, Skarsgard is way less effective. Part of it is minimal screen time. Part of it is inferior dialogue, but mostly it’s because rather than see Skarsgard as Pennywise, we see a whole lot of CGI Pennywise. Pennywise in this movie reminded me an awful lot of the way Freddy Krueger was portrayed in the later NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET movies, and in fact, at one point in this movie, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 5 is listed as playing at the Derry movie theater. And if you don’t remember, those latter NIGHTMARE movies weren’t very good. Neither is IT CHAPTER TWO.

The rest of the cast is generally okay, but they’re simply playing characters who were much more interesting as kids in the first movie.

I mean, I like Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy, and they’re both fine in their roles as Beverly Marsh and Bill Denbrough, respectively, but there’s not a lot of meat on these roles and they generally just go through the motions.

Bill Hader probably fares the best as Richie Tozier, as he gives the liveliest performance and gets the film’s best lines. Isaiah Mustafa as Mike makes for a lackluster narrator, while Jay Ryan as Ben Hanscom and James Ransone as Eddie Kaspbrak are both serviceable.

No one in the film rises above the material. What they all have in common is that even as adults they are terrified of Pennywise, and they do fear well, but the problem is the film doesn’t instill this fear into its audience. And that’s because in this movie Pennywise simply isn’t all that scary.

Director Andy Muschietti, who also directed the first IT and the horror movie MAMA (2013) which I remember liking a lot, puts all his chips on the CGI side of the table. This one is full of special effects, and as is so often the case, these effects do very little in carrying this movie.

In fact, while it started off as a film I was generally into, by the time it reached its two-hour mark, with still nearly an hour left to go, I was ready for this one to be over.

There’s also a strange homage to John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982) which comes out of nowhere. It’s the scene where the severed head sprouts legs, and here Bill Hader even delivers the now famous line originally uttered by David Clennon. Since this sequence was so out-of-place, it felt less like an homage to me and more like a rip-off.

I didn’t like IT CHAPTER TWO at all. It’s an exercise in overblown and over-indulgent horror. It’s based on a gargantuan novel and so there is a lot of source material to choose from, and I’m sure the notion of adapting it to film is no easy task. But that’s also not an excuse for making a film that simply doesn’t work.

IT CHAPTER TWO goes on for nearly three hours without offering any satisfying tidbits, surprises, or character nuances to keep its audience riveted. It’s a laborious horror movie, and as such, it’s one of my least favorite films of the year so far.

—END—

 

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PET SEMATARY (2019) – Remake Standard Horror Vehicle

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For me, Pet Sematary has always been one of Stephen King’s scariest novels. When I first read it nearly thirty years ago, it really got under my skin. I also enjoyed the 1989 film adaptation of PET SEMATARY.

While I didn’t really see the need for a remake, considering the source material, I felt, well, why the heck not? So I went into the theater to see this one with fairly enthusiastic expectations.

PET SEMATARY (2019) tells a tale that remains chilling today.  Dr. Louis Creed (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) relocate their family— eight year-old daughter Ellie (Jete Laurence), three year-old son Gage (twins Hugo and Lucas Lavoie) and cat Church— from Boston to rural Maine in order to slow their lives down and spend more time with each other.

Not long after they settle in, Ellie discovers a strange “pet sematary” in the woods in the back of their property, and their neighbor Jud (John Lithgow) explains that it’s been there for years, a place where the local children bury their dead pets. Cemetery is spelled “sematary” because in the past the children had misspelled the sign.

In front of their home is a rural road where huge trucks roar by at speeds which seem to rival supersonic jets. These rigs also don’t tend to make any noise until they’re right on top of the property. Not very realistic. I live on a rural road. You can hear the rumble of trucks coming from a distance.

Anyway, when Church is killed on that road, to spare Ellie heartbreak, Jud shows Louis another cemetery, this one located deeper in the woods behind the pet sematary, and advises Louis to bury the cat there, without telling him why.

The next day, the cat returns, alive, but very different, aggressive, and not very agreeable. Jud then explains to Louis the secret of the second cemetery, that things buried in the soil there return. Of course, they don’t return the same.

Later, when Ellie is tragically killed by one of those monstrous rigs racing along the rural highway, Louis decides his daughter has been taken from him too quickly, and against his better judgment, buries her in the pet sematary, knowing that she will return.

Oh, the things that parents will do for their children!

As I said, Pet Sematary has always been for me one of Stephen King’s scariest novels, mostly I think because of the pain of the parents’ grief and the knowledge that what Louis is about to do will end badly for everyone involved.

One of the biggest weaknesses of this new movie version of PET SEMATARY is that somehow, in spite of the frightening source material, it’s simply not that scary. Part of this is the changes made to the story. Then there’s the dialogue which isn’t very sharp, and lastly the film simply fails to capitalize on the true horror aspects of the novel.

Let’s start with the first half of the film, before anything or anyone is buried. Directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer don’t really take advantage of the natural creepy elements here. When Elle first discovers the cemetery, she initially sees some local children wearing masks taking their pet there, images which should be weird and creepy, but they hardly register as such since we see them so briefly.

When Louis fails to save a dying student at the clinic, a plot point that is critical in the novel, the victim Victor Pascow returns numerous times to warn Louis against his involvement with the sematary. These scenes also barely register here. Neither do the flashback scenes with Rachel and her sister who was suffering from spinal bifida. These scenes were unnerving in the novel. They’re rushed and glossed over here in the movie.

Once Louis learns about the pet sematary, and after seeing how disastrous the return of Church proved to be, it really strained believability that— regardless of how much he missed his daughter— that he would bury her there. He’s gotta know how she will be when she returns. The film failed to convince me that a grieving father would feel this is a good idea. It’s not like there’s a chance she’d come back normal. The film makes it abundantly clear that it’s not going to happen.

The change here having Ellie killed and resurrected rather than Gage didn’t really add anything new to the story, other than giving Ellie a bit more to do when she eventually comes back.

I can’t say I was all that impressed by the screenplay by Matt Greenberg, based of course on the Stephen King novel.  I could give or take the changes made to the story, including the ending, as nothing new here did all that much for me, and the parts that stuck to the original simply weren’t told with any sort of conviction. There was something very flat about the whole production.

Jason Clarke, who’s been in a ton of movies, including an excellent performance as Ted Kennedy in CHAPPAQUIDDICK (2018), is an actor I like a lot. He’s very good here as Louis Creed, although again, I simply did not believe he’d think burying his daughter in the pet sematary was a good idea. Clarke also turned in notable performances in the genre films TERMINATOR GENISYS (2015) and DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES  (2014).

Amy Seimetz is okay as Rachel, but as written, the character strangely doesn’t figure as prominently in the story as one would expect.

Young Jete Laurence is very good as Ellie, and she is admittedly rather creepy when she returns from the grave.

John Lithgow is sufficiently earthy as lifelong Maine resident Jud, but one of the highlights from the 1989 film was Fred Gwynne’s performance as the character. Gwynne, who was forever typecast and remembered as Herman Munster on THE MUNSTERS (1964-66) delivered an outstanding performance in that 1989 film that was one of the best parts of the movie. Lithgow here did not make me forget about Gwynne.

I can’t say that I liked this new version of PET SEMATARY all that much. It’s not as good as the 1989 film, and it’s nowhere near as scary as King’s novel. It’s passable horror entertainment, but since it fails to convince its audience that its main character would indeed take the drastic steps he does to resurrect his deceased daughter, the film never really resonates or becomes more than just a standard by-the-numbers horror vehicle.

Stephen King fans deserve better.

—END—

Best Horror Movies of 2017

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Here’s a look at my Top 5 Horror movies of 2017.

But first, four honorable mentions, movies that didn’t make my Top 5 list but that I enjoyed all the same:  SPLIT, ANNABELLE: CREATION, ALIEN:  COVENANT, and PERSONAL SHOPPER.

And now, my top 5:

5 IT

IT (2017), the latest film adaptation of a Stephen King novel, does what King stories do best: it creates believable characters, puts them in harm’s way, and then makes you squirm as they fight for their lives. IT is a very good movie that actually works better as a drama about a group of friends dealing with the threats in their lives than as a straight horror movie because it’s not really that scary.  Its scariest scene might be its first scene, where young Georgie first encounters Pennywise in the sewer.  This is a frightening sequence, a great way to start the film, and while Pennywise does have some decent moments later, none are quite as potent as this first one.

Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise here in the 2017 version was good enough to make me forget about Tim Curry while I watched this movie.  Taken as a whole, I thought this new version was better than the 1990 TV rendition. The driving force behind this 2017 movie is Bill and his friends, both the way they are written and the way they are acted.

The child actors are all excellent, and they’re the part of the story that for me, works best in this film adaptation of IT.

 

4 THE BELKO EXPERIMENT

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How low can humanity go? For instance, would you willingly commit murder to save the lives of those around you? That’s one of the questions asked in THE BELKO EXPERIMENT (2017), a new horror movie by director Greg McLean and screenwriter James Gunn, the man who wrote the insanely entertaining Marvel superhero movie GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014).

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT is a quick efficient thriller that grabs you within the first few minutes and never lets you go, a hard-hitting actioner that remains intense from beginning to end. Director Greg McLean makes this one lean and mean.  It clocks in at a mere 88 minutes. There’s no fat here.

THE BELKO EXPERIMENT isn’t going to win any awards for being a deep and thought-provoking drama, but it is a heck of a thriller, an intense horror movie that makes its point.  It’s also quite violent, although it is not a gore-for-gore’s sake movie. In terms of intensity, it reminded me a lot of AMC’s THE WALKING DEAD, only without the zombies. And while there’s nothing in this film as painfully disturbing as the infamous Neegan scene in THE WALKING DEAD, the film does capture the horror people feel at being helpless in a situation in which they have no control.

 

3 IT COMES AT NIGHT

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IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017) is everything that the rebooted THE MUMMY (2017) is not. It’s simple in its execution, it’s believable, it’s frightening, and its depiction of horror on the big screen is as pure as it gets.  The only thing the two films have in common is they opened on the same weekend.

IT COMES AT NIGHT takes place during a time when some unknown disease has crippled the world, thrusting people into heavy-duty survival mode.  We follow two families sharing one house as they try to survive in this apocalyptic world, never knowing how much to trust each other. IT COMES AT NIGHT is an example of movie making at its finest.  Writer/director Trey Edward Shults has taken a simple straightforward story and made it compelling and frightening, without gimmicks or special effects. A walk into the surrounding woods at night is a sweat-inducing experience.  The camera stays in close with the characters, who we get to know and care for. Solid cast, led by Joel Edgerton. Riley Keough is also memorable. And Kelvin Harrison Jr. stands out as Travis, the innocent young man who has to see and live through these horrors.

If you like your horror pure and simple, without convoluted stories or  overblown special effects or gratuitous blood and gore, if you simply like to be scared, and to watch a story about characters you care about thrown into a situation which puts them in extreme danger, then IT COMES AT NIGHT is the movie for you.

 

2 A CURE FOR WELLNESS

A CURE FOR WELLNESS is an interesting hybrid— at times, it’s highbrow artistry, imbuing the screen with unsettling and bizarre images, while at others it’s a straightforward mystery melodrama, eventually morphing into an atmospheric horror tale reminiscent of the old style Hammer Films.

A young business executive named Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent by his company to the Swiss Alps to retrieve the company’s CEO from a wellness center.  The spa is a beautiful castle in the Alps, the seemingly perfect location for people to get away from it all.  When Lockhart arrives, he finds it inhabited by elderly people who are there seeking a “cure” for their problems, people who have spent their lives working and as a result their bodies are broken and sick.  The spa, with its purifying water, offers a cure to these maladies and promises to restore its occupants to full health.

Lockhart isn’t interested in any of this and just wants his boss back.  The head of the center Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs)  tells Lockhart that Mr. Pembroke is in the middle of a treatment, but if Lockhart returns later that evening he will be able to see him.  But Lockhart is involved in a car accident and finds himself recuperating as a patient at the spa, and that’s when all the trouble starts.

A CURE FOR WELLNESS is full of powerful images that are both bizarre and unsettling. The film throws a lot at you and gives you much more to chew on than your average thriller. It’s also a compelling mystery. And as the film becomes more of a straightforward melodrama towards the end, it takes on the look inside this elegant castle of the period piece Hammer Films of yesteryear.  A CURE FOR WELLNESS is a thought-provoking and very chilling movie experience.

 

1 GET OUT

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The best part of GET OUT is that it is so unlike most other horror movies today. It uses as its canvas a true-to-life story about the awkwardness and difficulties of a mixed race relationship which serves as a springboard to a genuine tale of horror.  In the world of horror movies, it’s a breath of fresh air.

In GET OUT, an African-American young man Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) travels with his white girlfriend Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) to meet her parents for the first time.  Even though Rose promises that her parents are not racist, Chris still has reservations about the weekend.  He knows how difficult these things can be. In this case, he has no idea.

Written and directed by first time director Jordan Peele, known more for his work as a comedic actor, GET OUT strikes a nice balance between drama, horror, and even some comedy.  The script is excellent.  The dialogue is spot on, especially for Chris, as he processes what is going on, at first taking everything in stride, then becoming somewhat suspicious, and eventually getting into full steam red flag mode.

And the film doesn’t skimp on the horror.  When we finally learn what is going on, it’s a decent reveal and is a natural progression on everything that has come before it.  It doesn’t come out of left field. GET OUT is a refreshing horror movie, one that moves away from the standard horror movie tropes we so often see, and I for one was happy for it.

It’s my pick for the Best Horror Movie of 2017.

Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IT (2017) – Creepy Tale Showcases Young Talent

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IT (2017), the latest film adaptation of a Stephen King novel, does what King stories do best: it creates believable characters, puts them in harm’s way, and then makes you squirm as they fight for their lives.

IT takes place in the late 1980s in the town of Derry, Maine.  A young boy named Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) is outside playing in the rain when he encounters what appears to be a clown in the sewer.  The clown, Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard) speaks to him, and since Georgie is only a child, he doesn’t find it overly strange that there’s a clown talking to him from a sewer, which is too bad, because Pennywise attacks and kills the young child.

The story jumps ahead one year, to 1989, and follows Georgie’s older brother Bill (Jaeden Lieberher) and his group of “loser” friends as they deal with bullies and parents who are either useless or harmful. It is not a good town in which to be a kid.

There’s Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer), a young hypochondriac who can’t stop talking about germs and illnesses, Richie (Finn Wolfhard), who can’t stop talking, period, Stanley (Wyatt Oleff), Mike (Chosen Jacobs), and the new kid in the neighborhood, overweight Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor).

And then there’s Beverly (Sophia Lillis), the one girl in the group, who they all secretly have a crush on.

All of these kids are severely bullied.  The main bully in town is Henry (Nicholas Hamilton) and he and his friends pretty much terrorize Bill and his friends on a regular basis.

The adults in their lives aren’t any better.  The worst is Beverly’s father, who sexually abuses her.

It’s these constant threats which draw these kids together.  Bill is obsessed with finding out what happened to his younger brother, and as he and his friends investigate, they learn that the town of Derry has a history of people disappearing, especially children. Soon afterwards, they start having strange visions and dreams of the evil clown Pennywise, and they realize that the threat in their town, the thing that is preying on children, is in fact Pennywise.  And since the adults in town are useless, they decide that it is up to them to seek out and destroy this evil.

IT is a very good movie that actually works better as a drama about a group of friends dealing with the threats in their lives than as a straight horror movie because it’s not really that scary.

Directed by Andy Muschietti, who also directed MAMA (2013), a horror movie from a few years back that I liked a lot, IT does have a decent number of horror scenes which work well, but its scariest scene might be its first scene, where young Georgie first encounters Pennywise in the sewer.  This is a frightening sequence, a great way to start the film, and while Pennywise does have some decent moments later, none are quite as potent as this first one.

Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman wrote the screenplay, based on the novel by Stephen King.  Of the three, Dauberman has the most extensive credits.  He wrote ANNABELLE (2014) and ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017), the second film being much better than the first.

The dialogue here in IT is excellent, as are the characters.

This is the second time IT has been filmed. It was a four-hour mini-series in 1990 starring Richard Thomas, John Ritter, Harry Anderson, and Annette O’Toole. It was well received at the time, but it is somewhat dated today.  It’s most memorable for Tim Curry’s performance as Pennywise.

Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise here in the 2017 version was good enough to make me forget about Tim Curry while I watched this movie.  Taken as a whole, I thought this new version was better than the 1990 TV rendition.

The driving force behind this 2017 movie is Bill and his friends, both the way they are written and the way they are acted.

The child actors are all excellent, and they’re in the part of the story that for me, works best in this film adaptation of IT.  These kids are bullied and abused, and what happens to them in their everyday lives is every bit as disturbing as what happens to them when they encounter Pennywise.  As a creature that preys on children, Pennywise is symbolic of the everyday evils these kids face in the real world.

When these kids bond and their friendships grow stronger, that’s the part of the film that works best, the relationships between this group of kids.  And these child actors are more than up to the task of making it all work, and work well.

Jaeden Lieberher is excellent as Bill.  A few years back, Lieberher stood out in ST. VINCENT, a comedy with Bill Murray that I liked a lot.  Lieberher is just as good here. He plays Bill as a sensitive boy who in the quest to learn what happened to his little brother becomes resilient and strong-willed, the perfect leader of this group.

Sophia Lillis is also excellent as Beverly. Like Lieberher, she makes her character sensitive yet strong.  These kids have been beaten back in life at a young age by those around them, and yet they somehow find the strength through each other to seek out and take on the evil Pennywise.  Like the rest of the young actors in this one, Lillis is also incredibly believable in this role.

I also enjoyed Jeremy Ray Taylor as the newest kid in town, Ben Hanscom.  Finn Wolfhard makes a funny wisecracking Richie Tozier, even if he did look like he just rode his bike off the set of STRANGER THINGS.  I also really liked Jack Dylan Grazer as the young hypochondriac who can’t stop talking about germs and illnesses.  And I thought Nicholas Hamilton made Henry Bowers a very disturbing psychotic bully.

I absolutely loved Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise, but his best scene is his first one.  Don’t get me wrong.  It’s not as if Pennywise disappears from the movie, because he’s in a decent number of scenes, but he doesn’t do enough in these scenes to give them the full impact they should have had.

Another thing I didn’t really like about this movie is I thought that it trivialized some of the awful things happening to the kids, especially the storyline with Beverly and her father. He’s obviously abusing her, and their scenes together are creepy, but this is serious stuff, and it deserves more serious treatment than a couple of quick scenes in a horror movie.

Likewise, bullying is a serious matter, and while the bullying scenes in IT are certainly brutal and effective in that they show how cruel and sadistic these older boys were towards Bill and his buddies, there was just something lacking in these scenes, something less authentic.  Part of the problem is they were similar to a whole host of other bully scenes in other movies.  The scenes with Bill and his friends are crisp, refreshing, and real.  The bully scenes are not.

IT is a creepy drama about a group of kids who are terrorized by the adults in their lives, by their peers, and by a menacing supernatural entity known as Pennywise. It’s sure to satisfy both Stephen Kings fans and horror fans alike.

About the only people who should stay clear of this one are those of you who live in mortal fear of clowns.  Yup, that wouldn’t be a good combination.

—END—

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.  

 

 

 

 

 

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.

salems-lot-soul-mason

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.

—END—

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.  

 

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: CUJO (1983)

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cujo poster

I love horror movies.  I love books by Stephen King. But movies based on King’s stories? Not so much.

And that’s because for the most part film adaptations of King’s work have been less than stellar.  There are the obvious exceptions- Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980) of course, and I’ve always liked SALEM’S LOT (1979), although it is nowhere near as effective as the novel.  There are others as well, but the point is in general, I don’t have a lot of favorite horror movies that are based on King’s stories, which is rather weird when you think about it.

Take CUJO (1983) for example.  The best thing about this movie is its name.  Say “Cujo” and you instantly picture a ferocious rabid dog.  The word is almost synonymous with monster dog, which is pretty cool, from a horror writer’s standpoint.

But the actual movie?  It’s a mixed bag of doggie treats.

For the most part, this tale of a family in a small town in Maine who crosses paths with a rabid dog is lame and dull, but once the film gets to the sequence where Cujo attacks the mother and child in their stalled car, things change for the better.  Way better.  Things get so intense you might forget you are watching CUJO and think you’re watching JAWS (1975) instead.  It’s as frightening a sequence as you’ll find in a horror movie.

CUJO is one of those movies where you almost don’t need to watch the story unfold – just skip to the final third of the movie and watch Cujo do his stuff.

The plot is about a married couple, Donna Trenton (Dee Wallace) and her husband Vic (Daniel Hugh Kelly) and their young son Tad (Danny Pintauro).  All is not well in the Trenton household, and Donna is having an affair, which Vic discovers. Uh oh.  Not to worry though, because Vic is the self-reflective type, and his way of dealing with the problem is to go off on a business trip to give his wife some space.

And if marital problems weren’t enough, the Trentons are also having car trouble, and so Donna and Tad drive to their local mechanic so he can fix their car.

Enter Cujo.

The big lovable St. Bernard Cujo was introduced earlier in the movie.  He belongs to mechanic Joe Camber (Ed Lauter) and he’s friendly, but that was before he was bit by a rabid bat, and right on the nose, no less!

Yup, Cujo is now rabid, and he’s none too happy about it.  When Donna and Tad arrive at the repair shop, Cujo attacks, and as their car dies just as they arrive, they find themselves trapped inside the dead car with Cujo trying to smash his way in.

Up until this point, the story is rather lame, but once Cujo attacks Donna and Tad, things intensify.  And it’s not a brief scene.  It goes on for nearly the final third of the movie, which makes the second half of CUJO a heck of a lot better than the first half.

The script by Don Carlos Dunaway and Lauren Currier, based on Stephen King’s novel, is pretty mediocre and plays like a standard soap opera vehicle until Cujo tastes blood.

The acting is pretty dreadful.  Dee Wallace is less than inspiring as Donna Trenton.  Like the rest of the movie, she gets better once the Cujo attack sequence begins, as she gets to scream a lot and act terrified.  With a ton of credits, Wallace is no stranger to genre films, having appeared in a bunch of them, including THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1977) and of course E.T.THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982).

Daniel Hugh Kelly isn’t any better as hubby Vic.  He’s about as interesting as a slice of white bread.  And young Danny Pintauro is supposed to be cute and cuddly as Tad,  but I found him terribly annoying throughout this movie.  Pintauro would go on to star in the Tony Danza sitcom WHO’S THE BOSS? (1984-1992).

The rest of the acting here is just as unimpressive.  Cujo the dog easily delivers the best performance in the movie.  Actually, there were several dogs used as Cujo, so I guess it was a group effort.

cujo

Director Lewis Teague does little with the first half of the film, but he more than makes up for this with the frightening second half.  And a lot of the suspense comes from some nifty editing in these pre-CGI days.

CUJO gets off to a slow start, but be patient.  The payoff is well worth the wait.

Statistics say that there are about 1,000 cases of people bitten by dogs every day in the United States.  Hopefully none of them look like Cujo.

Sit, Cujo, sit.

—END—