[Stephen King Day] Salem’s Lot (1979)

Director: Tobe Hooper

Cast: David Soul, James Mason, Lance Kerwin, Bonnie Bedelia, Lew Ayres

Screenplay: Paul Monash

184 mins. Rated PG.

 

Today, we look at the second official adaptation of Stephen King’s work in Salem’s Lot, from director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist). Salem’s Lot premiered in a 2-part miniseries back in the late 1970s, and I watched the complete cut of the film in order to best collect my thoughts. Let me be clear, this review is for the 184-minute cut of the film as opposed to the shortened European cut released to cinemas after its US release.

Salem’s Lot is the story of Ben Mears (David Soul, Filth, TV’s Starsky and Hutch), successful novelist, who returns to his hometown of Jerusalem’s Lot in Maine to write a book on the Marsten House, a creepy old house on the hilltop at the edge of town. Mears discovers that the house has already been rented out to Richard K. Straker (James Mason, North by Northwest, Lolita), a mysterious new resident who is planning on opening an antiques store in town with his absent partner, Kurt Barlow. After moving into a boarding house, Mears quickly becomes acquainted with the townspeople, especially the attractive Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia, Die Hard, TV’s Parenthood). Mears also strikes up a friendship with a former teacher, Jason Burke (Lew Ayres, All Quiet on the Western Front, Battle for the Planet of the Apes). But all is not well in Salem’s Lot. People start going missing while others come down with a mysterious illness. Mears and company suspect the true cause is something far more horrific when victims appear with two puncture wounds on their necks and the truth behind the small town makes itself known.

Now, I thoroughly enjoyed the original Stephen King novel on which this movie is based, and while I enjoyed the adaptation, you can easily tell the budget is not where it should be. This being fairly early in Tobe Hooper’s career, it is pretty obvious that he doesn’t have the tools in place to make this film what it needs to be. I liked David Soul’s portrayal of Ben Mears, and the chemistry with Bonnie Bedelia’s Susan Norton works well enough. I even enjoyed James Mason’s take on Straker. Fred Willard even appears in a small role as the slimy real estate agent who resides in Salem’s Lot.

The losses in the film comes from the tone and the excitement. Hooper seems to be checking off important scenes that build narrative but the actual fear and horror are so few and far between that the film just doesn’t have that…uh, bite.

There’s also a decision in the design of our main vampire (okay, he’s on the cover, deal with it) as a Nosferatu-type misses the mark of the character and becomes fairly flat and without villainy. He’s creepy to be true, but it seeks to remind viewers that this has been done before, and better.

Salem’s Lot appears to appeal to fans of the source novel in more ways that a general audience, but it is missing that classic Stephen King feeling in favor of exposition overload. It’s just missing that fear and horror, so much so that the PG rating becomes a slap in the face. This is one I would only recommend to fans of the novel. All others need not apply.

 

2.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, click here.

 

 

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[Oscar Madness] Poltergeist (1982)

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Director: Tobe Hooper

Cast: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Beatrice Straight, Heather O’Rourke

Screenplay: Steven Spielberg, Michael Grais, Mark Victor

114 mins. Rated PG.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Effects, Visual Effects
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Music, Original Score

 

Poltergeist is an interesting film. It is equal parts comedic and utterly chilling, and not without an ounce of controversy.

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From director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Mortuary) comes Poltergeist, a tale of the Freelings: Diane (JoBeth Williams, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Big Year) and Steve (Craig T. Nelson, TV’s Parenthood, The Incredibles). Their new home has been having some issues…issues like a living tree and clown doll trying to kidnap their son,  a closet that warps daughter Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) into some purgatorial dimension, and chairs that slide across the floor. You know, normal new house problems. When Carol Anne is lost somewhere in the house, the Freelings must join together with paranormal researchers to save the young girl.

JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson command their roles with precision and chemistry as the chief parental units. In fact, the relationships of the entire Freeling clan are what holds this family and the entire film together. If you don’t feel for the family, you don’t feel for the film, and thankfully, this family works. Director Hooper commands a completely different tone for this film than previous efforts like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Eaten Alive, the tone being more alike Spielberg’s other 1982 work with E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, but more on that later…

What makes this film a classic is the practical effects. Some of them are still realistically well put together over 30 years later. A few of them are still horrifying, like the mirror dream sequence and the actual skeletons in the pool (seriously, they were real skeletons). All in all, the film is still really shocking, especially for a PG film (the PG-13 didn’t really exist at the time).

So, there was some controversy about who the real director was: Hooper or writer Steven Spielberg (A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, Close Encounters of the Third Kind)? Tonally, it looks to be Spielberg, but reports have surfaced that could go either way. Spielberg does seem like a backseat director to me, but I’m thinking Hooper myself.

Finally, let’s discuss the Curse. This film has often been considered to contain a curse much like the one that the Freelings are attached to (perhaps because of the real skeletons used during filming). Actress Dominique Dunne, who played Dana Freeling, was killed by a former boyfriend in 1982 after filming completed. Then, Heather O’Rourke, who played Carol Anne, died in 1988 after surgery to repair a bowel obstruction at the age of 12. She was filming Poltergeist III at the time.

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Poltergeist, a movie with history, permanently engrained in history. While the film does run on a bit longer than it needs, and featuring one too many paranormal investigators, but still a strong horror classic. Check it out, if you haven’t already. There is a reboot/remake on the way.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

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