Monday, March 10, 2008

NO ONE COULD REALLY CALL ME A STEPHEN KING FAN. I've read a grand total of 4 books by the man: two short story collections ("Night Shift" and "Skeleton Crew"), one non-fiction work ("Dance Macabre") and one horror novel. More on that in a minute. I didn't really like one short story collection (Night Shift) but I liked the other (the novella "The Mist" and "Survivor Type" favourites). "Dance Macabre" was an extremely interesting and entertaining book musing on the horror genre and I'd highly recommend it to anybody. The one, sole horror novel I've read by the man is "Salem's Lot". I am of the unshakeable opinion that horror works best in the short story format and cannot usually be sustained at novel length. But "Salem's Lot", in my humble, is one of the best horror novels I've ever read. Now, I was lucky enough to read the book in freshman year for my English book report. Yeah, I know. You don't USUALLY get that lucky. But I did. One small anecdote here: I was reading "Salem's Lot" in my living room on a windy September night. At the time we had pretty high bushes in front of the living room windows. Well, naturally I was reading the part where the little vampire boy is scratching his fingernails Danny Glick's window when OF COURSE the wind outside my house decided to cause the branches of the bushes to scrape against my living room windows! Talk about a major chill up and down my spine. I'll never forget it. But that's the book and I'm not here to talk about that. It's the made-for-TV mini-series I'm here about.
Luckily for me, right after I had finished reading the book, the 1979 Tobe Hooper mini-series of "Salem's Lot" was broadcast for the first time. I couldn't wait. Now, in the years since it has been pretty much an iron-clad certainty that every movie made from Stephen King's horror novels isn't very good. And the only ones that were ANY good at all came early: Brian DePalma's pretty good "Carrie" or Stanley Kubrick's reworking of "The Shining". Everything else. . .well, let's just say I'm not much of a fan of "Christine", OK? Now, this doesn't go for the non-horror films such as "Stand By Me", "The Green Mile", "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Misery" (yes, I consider that a thriller/satire and not a horror film); these are usually pretty good. I'm talking about the likes of "Maximum Overdrive", "The Lawnmower Man" and "Sleepwalkers" for cripes sake. Not exactly a successful track record. But I would say the hands down BEST filmic adaptation of Stephen King's horror stuff would have to be this "Salem's Lot" mini-series (and not the execrable new Salem's Lot mini-series of a couple years ago, naturally). There's really nothing else that can touch it ("Stephen King's It" was good but fell apart at the end). And keep in mind I'm NOT talking about the butchered cut-down theatrical version but the full length 3 hour + mini-series! The "cut" version shouldn't happen to a dog. Not even Faithful.
Does anybody really need to hear the plot for this??? The quiet little Maine town of Salem's Lot is home to the spooky/probably haunted Marsden House. Writer Ben Mears returns after his wife dies and soon discovers a master vampire has taken up residence and begins vampirizing the whole town. It's the way Stephen King deftly handles this basic plot that makes the book so good. And all that is translated quite faithfully to this flick.
Say what you want about "Poltergeist" but with "Salem's Lot" Tobe Hooper proved something, I think. And talk about a dream cast: David Soul as Ben Mears. David Soul, fer cripes sake!!! Who'da thunk it?!?! But he's absolutely perfect. The same can almost be said for Lance Kerwin as Mark Petrie; the only thing HE was known for before this was that silly TV show James at 15. . .and 16. . .and. . .! Then there's Bonnie Bedelia -- not exactly your top film star but memorable in the well-received "Heart Like a Wheel" or even as Bruce Willis' missus in the Die Hard movies. I mean, these three you'd NEVER think of using to head up your cast for a Stephen King TV mini-series but here they are. And I like 'em in this. Then, of course, there's the rest of the wonderful cast beginning with venerable James Mason who is perfection as the evil Renfield-like henchman Straker. Alternately evil and humourous (and usually both), Mason's line deliveries are choice. Particularly when he is informed that the town sheriff is ALWAYS on duty, Mason snidely remarks that that fact makes him feel all "safe and snug". The big boss vampire Mr. Barlow is an updated version of Max Shreck's Nosferatu and I think the make up works extremely well; truly terrifying. Barlow is played (also perfectly) by veteran spooky character actor Reggie Nalder (who appeared in 2 very good episodes of Boris Karloff's Thriller as well as an episode of Star Trek).
Then there's the rest of the ensemble -- PACKED with great people. Old Hollywood is represented by such former stars as Lew Ayres (I'll always remember him as Katharine Hepburn's brother in "Holiday"), film noir siren Marie Windsor (Cat Women of the Moon, The Killing, Force of Evil), and squirrely character actor Elisha Cook Jr. (in everything from "The Maltese Falcon" to "Blacula"). Add to these more contemporary character actors like tragic Ed Flanders (best known for St. Elsewhere but also "The Legend of Lizzie Borden", "The Exorcist III", "Bye Bye Love" and. . .yes. . ."The Ninth Configuration"), George Dzundza (who is pretty amazing here as the cuckolded husband Cully holding a shotgun on Fred Willard (who started out as Martin Mull's sidekick and went on to more movies and TV than I can name), twitchy character actor Geoffrey Lewis who is also superb here as Mike Ryerson ("LOOK at me, teachaaaaaahhhhhh!"), Kenneth McMillan ("Chilly Scenes of Winter") as cowardly Constable Parkins Gillespie, TV veteran Barbara Babcock as Lance Kerwin's mom, young Brad Savage (all over Disney movies like "Return From Witch Mountain", "The Apple Dumpling Gang" and "No Deposit No Return" for a few years) as doomed Danny Glick. I won't try your patience with any more cast members but they are all uniformly excellent.
Favourite scenes? The whole film is pretty much one favourite scene after another. The pre-credit sequence in Guatemala with David Soul, Lance Kerwin and the glowing holy water ("Another one has found us!" "We have to go further."). David Soul's well-modulated recollection of his scary experience in the Marsden House to Lew Ayres. Danny Glick's vampiric younger brother scratching at the window. Mrs. Glick awakening as a vampire ("Where are you, Danny darling?") and David Soul's cross made from tongue depressors. Crockett and Boom Boom Bonnie getting caught by Cully. Ned and Mike transporting the "crate" to the Marsden House. James Mason carrying the plastic-wrapped bundle into the basement and unwrapping it to find Ralphie Glick inside. Geoffrey Lewis (with his glowing eyes) in the rocking chair taunting Lew Ayres into a heart attack. The confrontation in the kitchen between Barlow and the priest. The vampires crawling up behind an unsuspecting Lance Kerwin in the root cellar. Oh come on, I can't list them all. You've seen the movie. Or have you? You really should you know. I know you'll enjoy Mr. Barlow. And he'll enjoy you!

7 comments:

Cheekies said...

i've seen it a grand total of zero times. guess maybe i should some day

Cerpts said...

You is an embarrassment to cheekies everywhere.

Pax Romano said...

'salem's Lot is my all time fave King novel.

I enjoyed the tv movie, my only problem was turning Barlow into Nosferatu as opposed to the suave character he was in the book. Oh and as much as I like David Soul, I thought he was all wrong as Ben Mears. My first choice was Michael Sarazzan (sp?).

Other than that, it was a fun and creepy adaptation .

Cerpts said...

Wow, Pax, you too?!? My fave too (since it's the only horror novel by him I've read -- hey, saves a lot of time reading all the rest, then doesn't it?).

Michael Sarrazin, eh??? Interesting. My mom LOVED Michael Sarrazin and I saw every film he made when I was a kid. I think he would have been great as Ben Mears too (although I'm perfectly happy with David Soul in the part for some reason).
Yes, I do remember that the "Nosferatu" Barlow was a major departure from the description in the book. However, it works really well for me and I think I would've been very disappointed had he been portrayed as suave. It would've been kinda like FRIGHT NIGHT, I think, which was disappointing to me. I much prefer the very scary visual of Reggie Nalder as the Nosferatu-like vampire. It also, I think, ties in the feeling of a "plague" taking over the town by using the Nosferatu visual; for those not in the know, Max Shreck's Nosferatu in the 1922 was blatantly linked to rats carrying plague as a synonym for vampirism. Nice little filmic reference with the earlier silent film, I thought.

Pax Romano said...

cerpts,
Of course, that was a nice touch, but as a crazed fan of the book, I liked how Barlow was very old when he is first spotted and by the time Susan meets him, he is very young and handsome and extremely eloquent.

But the Nosferatu touch was much more visual, I'll give you that.

Cerpts said...

I did think it was a nice touch when they had Barlow say, just before he's staked: "I hate the Marsden House! I hate this coffin! The only part of this dump that doesn't make me puke is that door - because that's they way I'm gettin' out!"

Oh hold on, I may be slightly confused. . .

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