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.  

 

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Like Its Undead Characters, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1994) Has Aged Well

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Interview With The Vampire posterStreaming Video Review:  INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (1994)

By

Michael Arruda

 

I have to confess that I’ve never been a fan of Anne Rice’s novel Interview With The Vampire for the simple reason that when it was published in 1976, I had just read another vampire novel that immediately became one of favorite books of all-time:  Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot.  As a twelve year-old reading Rice’s novel, I simply couldn’t get King’s novel out of my head.

And so when the movie version of INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE was finally released in 1994 I wasn’t all that excited to see it.  Plus, I was not a Tom Cruise fan at all, and so with Cruise in the lead as the vampire Lestat, I was even less interested in it, and to be fair, I did not give this movie a fair shake upon its initial release.  I was quick to dismiss it.

Recently, I decided it was time to give this movie another look.  For starters, as Tom Cruise has aged, he has chosen more interesting film roles, and I’ve actually enjoyed his performances over the last ten years or so.  Plus, after the TWILIGHT movies, I figured INTERVIEW would seem vastly superior in comparison.

I was right.

INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE has aged well.

INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE begins in modern day, where a young man Daniel Malloy (Christian Slater) interviews a vampire, Louis de Pointe du Lac (Brad Pitt).  As Louis tells his story, the time shifts to the past, to 1790s New Orleans, where Louis, distraught over the recent death of his wife and infant baby, wants to die.  Instead, he’s turned into a vampire by Lestat de Lioncourt (Tom Cruise).

The story then follows the love/hate relationship between these two vampires.  Louis hates being a vampire, and refuses to drink the blood of humans.  Lestat seems to go out of his way to torment Louis, while claiming to be trying to help Louis survive.  When Louis threatens to leave, Lestat turns a young girl Claudia (Kirsten Dunst) into a vampire so Louis will have another friend besides himself.

Eventually, Louis and Claudia escape from Lestat and travel to Paris because they have heard that other vampires reside there.  They meet the vampire Armand (Antonio Banderas) who leads a band of vampires who live on the streets of Paris.  Eventually, Lestat returns to reclaim Louis and Claudia, setting the stage for the film’s conclusion.

The biggest reason I’ve never been a huge fan of INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE is its high drama vampire plot.  I prefer my vampires a bit more monstrous than the undead folks who populate INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE.  While I do enjoy the individual struggles these vampires face, I don’t like the main story they find themselves in.  I like watching Louis deal with his disdain for vampirism.  I like watching Lestat’s manipulations and dramatic musings.  I like watching Claudia’s bursts of teen angst and emotion.  However, the main story arc here plays more like a soap opera plot to me than a vampire tale.  It also doesn’t play like much of a horror movie.

So, what did I like better this time around watching INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE on Netflix Streaming twenty years after its initial release?

For starters, the acting is very good.  I liked Brad Pitt as Louis, although at times he did seem a little less horrified than he should have been about his condition.

Tom Cruise probably impressed me the most, which I find ironic, since his performance probably turned me off the most when I first saw this movie back in 1994.  He’s very good as Lestat.  He doesn’t quite capture Lestat the way I imagined him from the book.  I remember him being a darker character in Anne Rice’s novel, but Cruise infuses him with so much dramatic energy, at times, it was like watching Liberace as a vampire, and Cruise captures this essence without being comical.

A very young Kirsten Dunst is also exceptional as Claudia, and she steals most of the scenes she’s in.  Likewise, Antonio Banderas was impressive as Armand, as was Stephen Rea as Armand’s fellow vampire Santiago.

I also enjoyed the look of INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE.  Director Neil Jordan has created a very good looking horror movie.  It’s all very atmospheric and hearkens back to the Hammer vampire movies of old.  Jordan’s previous film before INTERVIEW was THE CRYING GAME (1992) which back in the early 1990s I liked much better than INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE.

Anne Rice wrote the screenplay, based on her novel, and it’s adequate as those things go.  Again, the story has never wowed me.

Another reason I enjoyed INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE more today than when it first came out is the TWILIGHT series.  Having had to suffer through those movies over the past decade, the way they reduced vampires to one-dimensional caricatures in a young adult romance, was one of the more painful cinematic experiences I’ve ever had to endure.  One movie, okay, that’s not so bad.  But an entire series of these clunkers?  Ugh!

So, in comparison, INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE is like the Mona Lisa, which by the way, is another movie title by director Neil Jordan, as he directed the well-received MONA LISA (1986) starring Bob Hoskins.

INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE has aged well. It boasts a solid directorial effort by Neil Jordan, and visually it’s very impressive.  It’s well-acted by Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Kirsten Dunst.  True, it’s still not my favorite vampire tale, but it does have rich resonating characters who more than make up for the weaknesses in the story.

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