Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Weeks Too Late: Salem's Lot

Salem's Lot. Directed by Tobe Hooper & Written by Paul Monash.

Preconceptions: Most of my favourite horror movies were made in the 70's. There is something in the way they're shot and the grain of the film that sets me on edge and makes me feel as though the events are actually happening. This isn't nostalgia, since the idea of my birth wasn't even yet being cursed by my family. One of my numerous (and crotchety) problems with the majority of recent horror is the number of filters and HD crispness, in endeavoring to look real the flicks end up looking so pristine that they're clearly fake. I was delighted to realise that I had a giant hole in horror viewing, because I hadn't seen Salem's Lot. Yes, it's technically a TV mini-series, but given that it's such a long story giving it more screen time sounded like a good thing. I quite enjoyed Hooper's original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and more recently his contribution to Masters of Horror (the first show I'd resurrect from the dead using powers man was not meant to know, if y'know, I worked on getting them instead of watching movies).

General Review
: I wish I could say that this movie neatly fell into a slot between the Stepford Wives, Dawn of the Dead and Last House on the Left. I guess I should have known better, given that none of my horror buff friends had recommended it and the fact that the horror genre has a tendency to pull the football away from me at the last minute (no, this time it won't for

While I'm not a huge Stephen King fan, one of the things I think he does better than a lot of writers is filling a town full of believable people rather than carbon copy NPCs who might as well be trash bags full of blood with smiley faces drawn on them. When they start getting mowed down by the serial killer, monster or plague which makes it a lot more meaningful and frightening (no matter what Doomwench might have to say on the issue). At the outset I figured that the tapeworm length of Salem's Lot was a selling feature. There would be time to flesh out a number of characters aside from the main guy and his love interest (because there is always a love interest) so that I'd feel concern and suspense when Nosferatu came a-scratching at their windows.

Oh horror movies, why do I even hope? I'm beginning to think this journal is a round about intervention by Doomwench to get me to finally give in to pattern recognition and give up on them entirely (my co-writer is very tricksy). So no, the additional time (Salem's Lot being about an hour and a half longer than it needed to be) did not build up the side characters. Hells bells, it didn't build up the main characters. Mostly, what the extra time meant was that there were long arguments about whether crates should be opened, whether crates had moved and whether crates were colder than the surrounding air. Hooper, Monash do you have something you'd like to tell us about crates? Some sort of unnatural love? Were your parents murdered by crates? Were you given a crate as a pet (ala Portal) that was horribly mangled and this movie was a loving tribute? Whatever the reason, we spent a lot more time talking about crates than we did setting up: atmosphere, the heroic nature of our protagonist, the shady history of the town.

While I'm mentioning the main character, if you want several characters to notice how devastatingly handsome he is, perhaps don't pick an actor with a clearly receding hairline and a little paunch. I'm a fan of the everyman actor who isn't more of a sculpture than a man, but women shouldn't be double taking when he walks by. Even if I suspended this particular bit of disbelief, there is the performance of the entire cast to contend with. The townsfolk were such cartoon hicks that I expected them to tie a rocking chair to their cars any moment. The main kid (as well as looking like a baboon) refused to use contractions in a way that I guess was supposed to make him seem intelligent, but mostly made him seem as though he was from another movie. The love interest was more of a coat rack than an actor (perhaps she started the school that Keanu Reeves attended). She spent most of the movie trailing after other characters looking vacant and occasionally putting her hands to her lips to indicate surprise or fear.

Despite being terrible, there were a few brief moments of the gripping, challenging horror that characterized my favourite movies of the time (a few 20 year old spoilers to follow). Our hero leaves his love interest behind, choosing to sacrifice her to the monsters and burn her alive in order to destroy the vampires. Her screams as we cut away were one of the scariest moments of the movie. Another one of the few bright spots is the first time we see a vampire. The make-up is surprisingly subtle and corpse-like and the effect of him floating outside his brother's window is menacing. Unfortunately, these are buried in hours of go nowhere plot and a main vampire who looks far too ridiculous to be a threat.

Don't fall for the same trap I did. This movie is nothing like the other great horrors that came out around the same time or the good Stephen King adaptations. It's a movie that somehow confuses standing and looking at something as atmosphere and long repetitive arguments as dialogue. It's a movie that has no monsters for the first half and nothing else to add suspense or interest until they show up. It is a waste of three hours.

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