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.

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 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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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.

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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.

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