November 27, 2013

Castle Rock Cash-In presents... A Return to Salem's Lot

This is a tie-in to Angelle Tusa's Castle Rock Companion series, which explores the cinematic adaptations of the works of Stephen King. Check out her review of Salem's Lot.

We open in the jungles of South America, where a native tribe is sacrificing a young man (classic image of him stretched out on an altar with his heart being cut out) so as to bless the fertility of the king's newly wed young daughter, while topless women dance about in a circle. Viewing the scene is Joe Webber (Michael Moriarty), an anthropologist who coldly takes over filming when his cameraman wigs out in disgust at the sight. What does this scene have to do with the ensuing film? Jack all! Yes, it establishes Joe as an anthropologist, which is key to the plot, but his callousness at seeing human life ripped away not only doesn't play in the story to follow, but is largely contradicted by it.

Anyway, Joe is called back and forced to take custody of his son, Jeremy (Ricky Addison Reed), a chainsmoking and frequently swearing young punk who stole his stepfather's car and is under threat of being locked in a juvie psych ward. Looking for a place to settle down, Joe inherits a small, beatup country home from the passing of an aunt, in the town known as Salem's Lot. When they arrive, the windows are boarded up and the streets seemingly deserted with the exception of a couple shop owners, a gas station attendant, and a constable and deputy, all of whom offer up little but tense glares. At night, that's when the town comes alive, as children come out to play, couples walk the street, and everyone goes about their business as if it were the middle of an average day.

Before you worry about them drawing out the mystery too long, it's by the 20 minute mark that they admit we're dealing with vampires. In fact, they lured Joe here (his aunt isn't dead, just a vampire) because they want him to conduct and anthropological study on their society and history, and write for them a Bible of sorts they can carry along with them down the ensuing generations. What follows is supposed to be a black comedy satire as we see children raised on anti-human propaganda until they wed, still as children, or how Salem's Lot has become a top cattle producer as bovines can survive having their blood drained every night and quickly replenish for the next, or how the few people around during the day are hybrid drones, born from the mating of humans and vampires, with abject loyalty to protect their parents, even as they're looked upon as little more than pets.

This unfortunately creates a confusing timeline, as we learn this vampire community has been living in Maine since the 1600s, when their ship full of colonists was reportedly lost at sea. They never rectify this with the first film, where we saw the town become converted into vampires, as many of the people here have trends and behaviors dating back to the 17-1800s, yet several people, like Aunt Clara, or Joe's teenage crush Kathy are still around (which gets creepy because she's still supposed to be 17 and is getting it on with the 44-year-old Moriarty). This is one of those sequels that feels "in name only", like they either just ran off and did their own thing, or had an idea for their own film in mind and agreed to slap the franchise brand on it so as to get funding. There's no mention of any characters from the earlier film, and the big bad isn't Barlow, but rather the community patron Judge Axel (long-time character actor Andrew Duggan in his final role), who turns into a rubber-headed demon Muppet on several occasions.

While all of this is going on, Jeremy finds himself enticed by the vamp side, by the sense of community and the promise that he'll one day be seen as an adult without actually having to ew gross grow old and stuff. A big part of the lure is Axel's daughter Amanda (Tara Reid, all of 9 years old), who instantly latches on to the boy with her classic blond curls. This creates tension between father and son, as well as tension with the community as Joe refuses to play along if his son isn't left out of the deal. While it leads to some neat character moments, it derails the majory of the plot setup as we actually see Joe do very little in the way any anthropological work, with most of his research coming in the form of general exposition, and all his writing done off screen. It becomes more a battle of wills with him fighting at the community while also trying to not give them a reason to eat him and be done with it. And we have seen them eat people as, while they do stick with cow blood for the most part, bits are concocted with them pulling over speeding and stoned teenagers, or finding some hobos in the woods, or even hijacking an entire bus.

The story picks up a bit when we meet Van Meer, an aging Jewish man going from small town to small town in search of the Nazi who killed his family. Which is another plot thread that never goes anywhere as he's quickly taken under Joe's wing, told the truth of what's going on, and after the two bond over a comical scene of abusing some sense back in Jeremy (a horrible, horrible scene), Van Meer recalls past experiences in Romania as he and Joe whittle a bunch of stakes and, during the day, go from home to home, taking out as many vampires as they can before lighting the entire place on fire and escaping, the end. There's some more stuff with Jeremy and the Judge going all Muppet head, but these two guys pretty much wipe out the entire town in a day and the film is over with no extra stings promising further sequels.

The reason I say things pick up during this stretch is entirely because of Van Meer. Samuel Fuller was a bit of a legendary figure in cinema in his day, and what he lacks in actual acting skills (he tends to bark more than he speaks) he more than makes up for in just being a wonderful personality to watch. He was pushing 70 at the time, but has a wiry strength to his physicality as he dives into impressive action and nails vampire after vampire to their coffins. His crusty scowl and cigar always chomped in his mouth are also wonderfully endearing, especially after having spent an hour with the lethargic Joe and shrieking Jeremy.

Larry Cohen is a storyteller I've always found interesting, but much moreso as a writer than as a director. His script here is fun, with snappy lines that should work and some interesting commentary as he looks at vampires from a different angle than usual. Sadly, much of it is killed by clumsy setups, sloppy scene blocking where dialogue is paused while people shuffle to new marks, and much of the cast is either untalented or out of place, none of which ever allows the material to really click. Fuller is great as Van Meer, and Duggan, a Cohen vet, makes for a wonderful villain at times as the Judge, but the majority of the cast is as poor as the direction. Cohen was notorious for using guerrilla tactics and shortcuts to bring his films in as cheap as he could, and it shows as everything has a rushed, half-assed quality, which is pretty much in line with every other Cohen film that I've seen.

So overall, no, it's not a recommend. It's not a strong entry in Larry Cohen's canon (and, honestly, none of his own film are as strong as some which he only wrote), it's not a good sequel to the original film, and it's not even a good, or anywhere near as interesting as it thinks it is, satirical take on the vampire genre in general. It's a boring, crappy movie and you all can skip it.

As a final note, this is, to date, the last sequel to a Stephen King film I had yet to cover, bringing the Castle Rock Cash-In project to its end. A big thank you to Angelle for letting me tag along on her Castle Rock Companion series, which you can continue to read at Another One's Treasure.

Castle Rock series index.


Angie Tusa said...

Some of the ideas you presented in the beginning had promise, even if they didn't make any sense as a sequel to the film. Almost an attempt to write I Am Legend from the vampires' perspective, though obviously brought down to the scale of a small town. As a fan of vampires, I'd be interested to see that. Unfortunately, it sounds like they dropped the ball on this one.

I am very grateful to you for visiting these films, since while I was curious about a lot of them, I don't think I would have had the patience to sit through them like you did.

Since they seem to be focusing on remakes/new adaptations of his works right now, I'm really curious to see if any of them do end up producing sequels.

NoelCT said...

Yeah, there's definitely an I am Legend vibe to the final third of the film, but without any of the ethical conflict, as the vampires are universally painted as willing murderers who absolutely don't need to drink human blood (the cows work just fine), but prefer the flavor of it and make up any excuse they can so as to partake. There's not a single sympathetic or conflicted viewpoint among them.

I think much of my patience comes from having seen the majority of them (including this) before, so that was a bandaid I already yanked off. :)

As for new ones, we'll see. The direct-to-DVD sequel market seems to have wound down a bit from the boom of a few years ago, but I wouldn't be surprised to see them crank out another Corn every few years just to keep clutching at that license. And Carrie's under-performance at the box office means we probably won't see that rush of remakes several studios had been planning. A few, sure, but not the big wave that seemed to be stirring up.

Tony Williams said...

Nicely done, both of you.