Salem's Lot

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  1. rkellner

    rkellner Active Member

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    [​IMG] Reviewer: rkellner
    Review Date: October 11, 2016

    Released by: Warner Brothers
    Release date: 9/20/2016
    MSRP: $14.97 (Buy now at Amazon and help support the site)
    Region Free
    Progressive Scan
    Codec: AVC, 1080p
    Full Frame 1.33:1
    1979

    “The house was a monument to evil sitting there all these years holding the essence of evil in its smoldering bones.”

    A bit of context is required when reviewing Salem’s Lot, which is based upon Stephen King’s second novel ‘Salem’s Lot released in 1975 following the highly successful acclaim of his first novel Carrie, which would be adapted for cinema and directed by Brian DePalma the following year. With 1977’s release of the novel The Shining and 1978’s release of The Stand, King was one hot commodity and was turning into the household name in horror that we know him as today. The idea for the book came from his time teaching a high school literature class where Dracula was an assigned book to read, and he started kicking around the idea of what would happen if Dracula was still around today and came to America. He would probably prey upon a rural setting instead of a big city (sorry A Vampire in Brooklyn). Toss in some metaphors of the death of the American small town, and make your hero a mildly successful author who has returned back to his hometown in Maine (translation: King, himself) and you have a pretty interesting premise to build upon.

    Following the financial hit of the big screen adaptation of Carrie which cost less than $2m to make, but grossed $30m at the box office, an adaption of ‘Salem’s Lot was a no-brainer; however the challenge remained on how to take a novel that was 400 pages long but squeeze it into a two hour long feature length film. Carrie was 200 pages and had a centralized storyline that could be broken down into three acts without too much challenge, but ‘Salem’s Lot was another beast all together as it portrays a town full of characters who fall prey to a vampire plague as well as playing out across multiple points in time. After a number of Hollywood screenwriters unsuccessfully tried to pair it down to a cohesive two-hour tale, including The Stuff/God Told Me To director Larry Cohen, who would later do Return to Salem’s Lot, the logical choice was to make it a two night, television horror event, which solved the problem of needing at least three hours to tell the story right, and pay respect to the huge cast of characters. With all the intentions of adapting the story correctly and with respect, but with the obvious censorship issues of 70’s broadcast television, how does this “Made for TV Movie” hold up after almost 40 years?

    The Story

    inline Image Salem’s Lot Maine, population of 2000, is a quiet Maine community whose best days may be behind it, but the town is still a cohesive, close knit community. Sure, it has its share of local drama such as the bored housewife who is not-so-secretly cheating on her husband with her boss, the former high school jock who is insanely jealous of his ex-girlfriend dating others, and a small town police force that has a natural distrust for outsiders…but for the most part, it seems to be a decent slice of rural Americana circa late-1970’s. Well, that is except for the local “haunted house.”

    inline Image You likely know it well and can probably relate. Every small town seems to have one. It is that one piece of property with an architecturally creepy façade, overgrown landscaping, that seems to be perpetually abandoned. It is that one large house that has instantly been the inspiration for countless tales of the supernatural and other such macabre narratives, and has inspired generations of school aged boys to dare one another to step foot in it. The difference here is that in this small town of Salem’s Lot, their local “spooky house numero uno” does in fact have a dark, morbid history filled with death, murder, and suicide…and it has attracted a new tenant that may only come out at night.

    inline Image The book/film follows the fate of Ben Mears, played by David Soul, who at the time was a hot commodity on TV after playing Hutch from Starsky and Hutch for the past five years, a somewhat well known author who has returned to his childhood home of Salem’s Lot after two decades to find that things have not really changed. The small town flavor, the local politics, the attractive small town women with aspirations of being a part of the lively big city life, and of course the goings-on at the creepy Marsten residence where as a child, he witnessed a sight so shocking, that he soon left town, never to return until now. In fact, the house is going to be the subject of his new book which will detail the dark history of the house and its passing from doomed family to doomed family. Timely enough, his fascination with the house is coming not a moment too soon.

    inline Image Soon after his arrival and scoping out the house, he finds that it is guarded over by Richard Straker, played excellently by classic actor James Mason (Lolita, Journey to the Center of the Earth, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea) a worldly antique dealer who just purchased the house and antiques business on behalf of his boss, an ancient vampire, Mr. Barlow, played by the uncredited Reggie Nalder (Dracula’s Dog, Dracula Sucks). In addition to his growing fascination of the Marsten home and its new residents, Ben also takes an interest in Susan, a local high school art teacher, played by Bonnie Bedelia, who has enjoyed a 65 year career in TV and film (Die Hard, Needful Things, Parenthood). We also get to meet Mike, the owner of local cemetery (played by Geoffrey Lewis, who has over 220 film and TV credits), Gordon the town drunk (played by the always reliable Elisha Cook, who has close to 220 film and TV credits), a young Fred Willard (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, Modern Family) as the local real estate agent named Crocket who has a sultry affair with Bonnie, played by Julie Cobb (Charles in Charge).

    inline Image As his second novel, Salem’s Lot would introduce many literary conventions that King would revisit over and over in his work. For example, the film and the novel paint an interesting portrait of the day-to-day lives of this small town in Maine. Granted, most of those that we meet serve no other real purpose than to become the fodder of whatever unholy element the story focuses upon. Whether it is vampires plague in Salem’s Lot, aliens in The Tommyknockers, an evil supernatural clown in IT, or most of North America in the epic but daunting The Stand, you can rest assured that only 10% of the characters in the first 50 pages, make it to the last 50 pages of the script. You can also see aspects of Stephen King writing himself into the story line as characters. Examples of this are the main character, Ben Mears, as a professional writer, Jason Burke, the literary schoolteacher. King himself held both jobs, and would include troubled authors as the main character in other novels to come such as The Shining and Misery. Also, Ben finds a partner in the fight against the blood suckers of the night in Mark, blond high school student, played by Lance Kerwin (Enemy Mine, and many ABC Afterschool Special’s) who is obsessed with local folklore as well as the Hollywood horror movies of old. It is very likely that a young Stephen King and Mark share a lot of things in common as you see his room is adorned with classic movie monsters and elements of magic. In fact, it is this knowledge of horror films and the vampire mythos that saves him from becoming a creature of the night himself, proving once again kids that horror movies can be educational if not life-saving given the right scenario!

    inline Image I like the fact the film/novel takes a note from the 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson which maybe be best known as the source material for the 1963 unquestionable horror classic The Haunting directed by Oscar winner Robert Wise, which is based on the premise of a house like this being purely evil and leaving behind a dark legacy of misfortune and death that plagues a property from generation to generation. In this case, Salem’s Lot makes the case that an evil house such as the Marsten residence will act like a homing beacon to similarly evil people, maybe even those that are not of the living anymore.

    inline Image The biggest issue that divides fans of the novel and miniseries (among other changes) is the fact that Barlow in the film is depicted as an extremely tall, blue faced, hissing Nosferatu-like monster in the adaptation, as opposed to the European accented Dracula-esque character of the novel. In an interview with Producer Richard Kobritz, he said the decision to go with the terrifying monster figure came out of concerns that a speaking, romanticized villain just wouldn't be frightening enough for modern audiences, especially given John Badham's remake of Dracula (1979) starring Frank Langella was released the same year. Allegedly, Stephen King was against the change, but after he saw the footage and the makeup tests, he thought it may help the audience focus more on the main characters. In my opinion, they made the right call. The limited scenes of Barlow in this are still extremely strong and hold up spectacularly such as the vampire siege of Mark’s house. In addition, the vampire scenes of those who have been bitten by Barlow and transformed into the vampire undead are highly effective such as the mortuary scene and the ones involving young boys floating outside windows of their friends (stolen later by The Lost Boys and My Best Friend is a Vampire). I have no doubt that the scenes of these vampire children wanting to be let in gave a decent amount of the population who were of an impressionable age nightmares for years to come.

    inline Image The movie was directed by the notable horror director Tobe Hooper who was offered the role after the producer of the film watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. In fact, it does not take too much imagination to see the parallels between the two horror tales with the central story being about an evil family in a decrepit, run down house in the middle of nowhere that having been preying upon the local population for decades. You can also see the similarities in set design of the house in Massacre and the macabre insides of the Marsten mansion which are both littered with feathers, garbage and adorned with a huge amount of decaying taxidermy. The camera work and direction on this are very strong with the best parts coming when the suspense is really getting amplified. You can tell that this is a director with a passion for telling horror stories at these times as the film tends to really seems to click. Even though shot for television in the 70’s this still has some strong graphic elements to it. The scenes of vampire attacks still come across as shocking, and there are occasional moments of gore which likely gave TV sensors fits back in the day and seem much stronger in content than any of the “scary television movies of the week” that I have across.

    inline Image The novel was adapted for TV by Paul Monash, who was probably the most likely choice after writing the script for Carrie as well as a two decades of successful TV shows which depicted the fates of a huge cast like The Untouchables and Peyton Place. Even though this was shot to be broken up every ten minutes or so by commercials, the film does an extremely natural job of editing these commercial breaks into the narrative. In fact, I only noted one place in this where a “cliffhanger” musical cue transitioned into a scene change after what had to be a commercial break.

    In summary, this made-for-television horror film from 70’s still holds up remarkably well 35 years later largely due to the strong work of the director, a great story created by one of the defining horror authors of our generation, a solid score, and some well done vampire scenes that have likely stuck in the collective consciousness for decades after the fact.

    Image Quality

    inline Image The print quality on this bluray is really excellent. The film is shown in its native TV format of 1.33:1 in a 1080p MPEG-4 AVC encode. It is largely free of any artifacts, dirt or damage, although it shows some occasional flickering. The print retains some nice film grain, the skin tones look accurate (except for the vampires, of course), and the colors and lighting look spectacular in both the day and night time scenes, especially those in the mansion interiors. This represents a nice bump up from the seventeen year old DVD and is obviously as good as this has ever looked for a home viewing.

    Sound

    The audio on this is great too provided by a DTS-HD 24-Bit Mono soundtrack. The strong haunting musical score comes across well in the mix and the dialog is strong. Being a made for TV production, this isn’t going to be the fanciest surround sound 7.1 audio track, but for what it is, the mono audio comes across as clear and lively. Note, there are a couple times in this when the dialog comes across as unnaturally loud for a line or two. Not sure why that is, maybe some odd post-production dubbing. The blu ray also has mono audio tracks in German, Spanish, Portuguese, and French.

    Supplemental Material

    The first notable feature on here is a new full length commentary with Tobe Hooper that I believe was recorded for this blu ray release. Tobe provides a high amount of detail on the preproduction, filming the miniseries, and stories from after it was aired. He does also talk about the differences between the US TV cut and the European edit which appeared in theaters which had some alternate, more violent footage inserted. There are a fair amount of times though in the commentary track when Tobe falls silent for awhile. Not quite sure if he is just sitting back and enjoying the film, or if he just doesn’t have much to add.

    The only other extra is a trailer for the European theatrical cut. While there aren’t really any revelations here, it is interesting to see the framing in widescreen as opposed to full screen like the original TV edit. I would be led to believe that unlike most full screen presentation, it was the intended aspect ratio.

    Not to downplay what they put together here, but it would have been nice to see the additional footage that they shot for the truncated international theatrical release as an extra feature, or some inclusion of Stephen King input, although I don’t think he ever really appears in front of the camera for film extras.

    Final Thoughts

    There are a lot of made for TV horror movies that don’t seem to hold up well watching them with the modern eye. We are used to far more graphic content in television today, and have probably seen every worthy (and unworthy) incarnation of the vampire mythos that needs to be told. So, can an old PG rated vampire tale still hold up after 35+ years? Incredibly the answer is yes. Salem’s Lot is still a great watch, even if it narratively sags a bit in the first half or so. Tobe Hooper commands the picture well and brings the same eye for tension and scares that put him on the map with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The makeup and vampire scenes are still effective, even to this jaded horror viewer. The new bluray of this is likely definitive with a great HD scan and strong HD audio. Since this blu ray is available most places for around $10 on the first week of release, it comes as a Highly Recommended pick up, but it also shows that not too much care was taken to assemble extras or pay production crews to film unique extra content for the release like a company that Scream Factory has become known for. But with the core feature looking and sounding great, you can do far worse for the price of two PSL’s. You know what I am talking about…

    Rating

    [​IMG] Movie B+

    Image Quality - A-

    Sound - B+

    Supplements - B-


    Technical Info.
    • Color
    • 1 Disc
    • English: DTS-HD Master Audio Mono
    • French: Dolby Digital Mono
    • Spanish: Dolby Digital Mono
    • Spanish: Dolby Digital Mono
    • Portuguese: Dolby Digital Mono
    • Subtitles
    Supplements
    • Commentary
    • Trailer
     

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