Wednesday, May 1, 2013

REVIEW: Salem's Lot

Salem's Lot
Director: Tobe Hooper
Year 1979

Salem's Lot is a fantastically atmospheric made for television movie that is based off of Stephen King's novel of the same name. Filled with genuine dread and primarily focused on the inhabitants of the sleepy country town of Salem's Lot, the film does a tremendous job in establishing its location and diligently crafting its characters in an authentic light. With its foreboding tone, iconic visuals, and hair raising creature effects, Salem's Lot is a cinematic adaption that, though changes up a few things, never compromises the overall scope of King's original story.

The film follows a young novelist named Ben Mears, who after returning home to Salem's Lot to start work on his next novel, begins to be haunted by a vivid moment in his past. Brought on by the central focus of his book the Marsten House, a real life house from his childhood that Mears considers to be a beacon for malevolent men, Ben becomes obsessed with the stately manor and its sordid history. Curiously, the Marsten House has just acquired a new tenant in the form of Richard Straker, an antique dealer, who Ben believes is all together evil. Ben's fears become all too real when a series of unfortunate incidents begin to occur within the quaint country town and Straker seems right at the heart of it. With the townsfolk of Salem's Lot quickly turning up dead and then surprisingly coming back to life to feed on the living, it's up to Ben and a collection of surviving citizens to stop this mysterious plague of vampirism before it consumes the entire town.

David Soul takes on the role of Ben Mears, the Salem's Lot native who decides to come home in order to cull inspiration from his childhood memories for his new novel. Soul is astoundingly sympathetic in the underplayed role, and his naturalistic approach to the character makes for an inspiring choice. This was my first introduction to the actor's body of work, and I think my unfamiliarity with Soul as a thespian combined with his genuine portrayal of Mears, made for a tremendous combination that just cranked up the believability factor for my own personal viewing. His natural reactions to all the supernatural events that are taking place around him, as Salem's Lot slowly begins to turn into a ghost town, are perfectly acted out and respectfully somber and gradual.

The same can be said for the rest of the cast, as even the most robust and wildly camp of characters stay grounded within their small town settings. From Bonnie Bedelia's sweet and innocent performance as Susan Norton, to Julie Cobb's flirtatious desperate housewife Bonnie Sawyer, to Geoffrey Lewis' and Elisha Cook Jr.'s spaced out portrayals as the local idiots, everyone has a specific role to play that helps flesh out the denizens of this unique little town of Salem's Lot. Lew Ayres, Ed Flanders, and Lance Kerwin especially give great performances as the last remaining few of the town that decide to stand up and battle the vampire menace, in their own individual ways.

Of course amidst all of these sympathetic characters is the arch villain of the piece, and that honor goes to James Mason as Richard K. Straker, the mysterious antique dealer who recently took up residence in the old Marsten House. Mason delivers a stark performance which is drenched in unfaltering chillness. He is calm, cool-headed, and above all deceptive to the people of Salem's Lot. What is even more interesting about this film is that Straker is not the only fiend that we are presented with. The other side of this dark coin is Straker's partner Mr. Barlow, who is only hinted at over the course of the movie's runtime. I don't want to give too much away, but what Straker lacks in menacing grotesqueness, Mr. Barlow more than makes up for it. The guy is a frightening nightmare come to life.

Speaking of nightmares, the creature effects for this film are disturbing at best and the practical way in which they bring these things to life are mesmerizingly cool. With pale faces and glowing dead eyes, the vampires of Salem's Lot are an intimidating bunch. There's just something unsettling about seeing a darkened figure standing in the shadows, staring at you, with only their piercing eyes giving way to their presence. The moments in which the normal everyday citizens of Salem's Lot come back from the dead, changing into these hideous ghouls, are always memorable and are highly enjoyable sequences that just keep getting better as the film moves along.

I credit the pacing of the movie to be the main reason these moments are so palpable. Director Tobe Hooper deliberately sets up these moments with long breaks in between in order to ratchet up the tension and make these instances really pack a punch. This restrained pacing also enables the film to take its time in introducing us to all the assorted citizens of Salem's Lot and believe me there are a bunch. With things slowed down, we're able to inhabit the same space as these colorful characters and actually feel as if we are a part of all that is going on. It's the little things that make the film so engrossing, like witnessing the various character interact with each other on a day to day basis, and to see how each relationship grows or is destroyed throughout the course of the film. In the end, what you get with all of these varying elements is a vampire film that is unlike anything that came before it, and that is a wholly good thing.

Salem's Lot is a surprisingly slow burn of a horror flick, which opts to gradually introduce you to the horror before unleashing the true nightmare that this film eventually does become. With a stellar cast of excellently portrayed characters, the film has a distinct advantage of being able to delve down into the relationships that connect all of these New England residents together, and actually spend a great deal of time getting to know what they are all about. David Soul, Bonnie Bedelia, Lew Ayres, and James Mason all go above and beyond the call of duty in order to bring their characters to full life and the effort does wonders for the vivid nature in which this film is presented.

The creature effects and overall imagery of the quiet town of Salem's Lot is without a doubt one of the film's strong points, giving clear validity to all the supernatural things that are thrown at the audience. Restrained and respectful, the production oozes atmosphere, allowing us to just be swept up in the moment and take it all in. With a strong sense of paranoia and genuine foreboding, Tobe Hooper's adaption of Stephen King's haunting tale is a thing of morbid beauty. It may be to gradual for some in its approach, but for me the ultimate payoff is well worth it. If you are a fan of vampire tales or just a lover of slow mysterious horror, then give this one a chance. You're in for a unique treat. Salem's Lot is.....

Hell of a vacation spot to pick Ben. Jackass!

I suck at writing.

Straker takes some time away from killing, to just chill.

Fra-gee-lay...... That must be Italian.

Who likes short shorts? She likes short shorts.

Hi. Can Billy come out to play?

You mind getting off of my bed asshole?

Back you vampire pervert!

Shit! You woke up Old Man Jenkins!

Hello there. Enjoying the show?

That is one happy vampire.

Save me Popsicle Stick Gods!

Listen, we're probably going to die tonight, so lets get this naked party started?

Vampire hunting staring contest...... GO!

Death by antlers!

I'm going to bash your skull in! Get ready for Straker's Fright Night!

What's a guy have to do to get some sleep around here?

Come here you little shit!

Say cheese!

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