Nether Regions 01.26.10: A Return to Salem's Lot
Posted by Chad Webb on 01.26.2010
Welcome to the review of a sequel that is universally hated by everyone, except me....
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
A Return to Salem's Lot
Starring: Michael Moriarty, Ricky Addison Reed, and Andrew Duggan Directed By: Larry Cohen Written By: Larry Cohen and James Dixon Theatrical Release Date: September 11, 1987 Running Time: 100 minutes Missing Since: 1993 Existing Formats: VHS only Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Amazon Used Sellers
A Return to Salem's Lot is a sequel in name only to the original Salem's Lot mini-series. On some sites it is even described as an unofficial sequel. On the cover, vampire master Kurt Barlow is again displayed to remind people of the original Stephen King story. Let me assure you, Barlow is nowhere to be found in this film. Annoying as this might be for some, it is what we see that really counts. If you take a gander at the IMDB page for this title, you will observe a 3.9 rating, along with numerous user comments that are relentless in their attack. Many of the comments account for a few sentences each, and most say the same thing: "This has nothing to do with the original."
Michael Moriarty: Deserving Recipient of an Honorary Oscar.
Yes, that is quite true, and I understand why people would be upset about this. However, A Return to Salem's Lot informs the viewer of this early on, so what are those people doing for the rest of the picture? Most likely, they are sitting and stewing on the fact that no original characters return, and that aside from the name of the town and the involvement of vampires, this is nothing like Tobe Hooper's Salem's Lot. In all honesty, A Return to Salem's Lot deserves more credit than it has received though. It is a witty, action-packed, and engaging effort from filmmaker Larry Cohen. The question arises: If this was not named A Return to Salem's Lot, would the reception be different? I think it would.
The story follows Joe Weber, an anthropologist and filmmaker who has been studying a tribe in the Amazon. He is called back urgently by his ex-wife, who says there is an emergency involving his son Jeremy. The emergency turns out to be that his ex Sally has a new man, but cannot handle her aggravating son. She just wanted Joe to take him, which he does. He has two options: Peru or Salem's Lot. He was deeded a bungalow in Salem's Lot by his Aunt Clara, and decides that is best. As soon as he arrives, the reception is anything but warm. The bungalow is barely standing, and he is quickly visited by Constable Rains, who informs him that he will hold the deed until Joe sees Judge Axel later that night.
In the evening, a random car with a group of kids is pulled over by the Constable. Now that it is dark, we see people rising from coffins. The kids are soon attacked, but one girl manages to escape, and takes cover in Joe's house. Joe and Jeremy take the horrified young girl to the Judge's mansion, but she does not last long. It turns out the entire town is overrun with vampires. Joe's arrival excited them because they want him to write a bible about their history. He does not respond positively to this offer, but a problem arises when Jeremy starts to enjoy the possibility of becoming a vampire when a cute little blonde named Amanda flirts with him. The townspeople threaten to turn Jeremy unless Joe agrees to write the bible. They have been awaiting Joe's arrival, but he has other plans.
As much as I loved Salem's Lot, it did not take me long to grasp where Larry Cohen was heading with this sequel. I got over the lack of continuity and moved on when I realized how imaginative this story was. The initial attack on the kids was a rarity for the people of Salem's Lot. It turns out they are all rich from real-estate, but are all dairy farmers as well. They feed on the blood of cows because humans are risky for them. According to them, humans are still the best, but because they are filled drugs and diseases, sucking on them is not a regular occurrence. The myths of garlic and mirrors are dispelled when Joe sees the Judge's wife cooking with garlic, and then sees his reflection with the Judge in a mirror.
It was bizarre scenes like that which had me intrigued and enjoying A Return to Salem's Lot. Cohen was not content to confine the aim to just another ordinary tale of a hero overcoming vampires. This has :gasp: depth, and is even complex in some respects, which was surely a shock to fans picking this up on VHS back in the day. Imagine for a second that this sequel did involve previous characters, would you have been satisfied with what would have probably been a retread of the original? This might introduce new faces and be laced with a comedic tone, but I would take that over a lazy recycling or cookie-cutter slasher-fest any day of the week. Perhaps it is because I have come to appreciate Cohen's wry and satirical sense of humor, but this is more ambitious than many would care to admit.
Judge Axel and his wife should be comfy while sleeping.
Some might argue that Cohen just peppers the film with these ideas rather than developing the script as a whole. Maybe, but in 100 minutes, I was pleased, and felt that many of his twists were expanded upon adequately. Plus, this is a B-movie after all, so I tend to be more open. One of the best scenes has the Judge and his wife, an old couple, talking about Joe in their coffins. They are wearing pajamas and their coffins are in a room which would resemble that of many elderly couples. The Judge says Joe must embrace their culture willingly because he does not want to forcibly attack him. They then turn off the lights and go to bed. The concept is that these folks are not the insane blood sucking ghouls that legend has turned them into. Instead, they are well-mannered and kind conservatives trying to convince humanity that their way of life is not worse than typical humans.
Instead of 70's hunk David Soul leading the battle, we have Cohen regular Michael Moriarty as our hero, Joe Weber. Moriarty uses a slightly wacky, yet captivating approach to his acting. In Cohen's Q: The Winged Serpent, he was borderline irritating, but still passionate. He is more grounded and overwhelmed as Joe Weber, but Moriarty is a fun performer to watch, and this is solid portrayal of a man weighing the options in front of him. Should he trust these vampires and write the bible, or eliminate them? Moriarty is given a hefty portion of the memorable lines and scenes. Upon meeting the Judge and discovering what he is, he tells him "I'll kick your a$$ around this town until you couldn't suck orange juice."
Another of the terrific elements is that of the daytime drones. Jeremy asks the Judge how and why people work during the day in Salem's Lot when everyone is vampires. The answer is that they breed people for service, and Joe encounters many of them when he tries to take Jeremy and run. What ensues is one of the many hysterically ridiculous fight scenes where Moriarty rolls around the rapids in a fisticuffs with one drone. The fights do not look very brutal, but they could have been haphazardly thrown together. Instead, Cohen puts them in the rapids, or on a school stage, and as a result, I had a blast observing them. Every fight is exaggerated, but impossible not to laugh at. Many might have cringed, but they didn't bother me.
Joe has a strange relationship with his son, but upon closer inspection, it rings somewhat authentic from a father who never spent any time with his kid before his mother dumped him in his lap. Joe is reunited with a girl he had a crush on as a boy named Cathy, now a sexy blonde, while Jeremy is following Amanda, his own blonde. The blonde is played by a very young Tara Reid by the way, in one of her best roles, I kid you not. The next morning, he bluntly asks Jeremy "Did you get laid last night?" Their rapport is quite natural, and is not meant to be schmaltzy or sitcom-ish. Jeremy smokes and uses profanity in front of his father a great deal. Ricky Addison Reed injects some spunk to Jeremy. This was his first and last role in film or TV.
Midway through the story, a bumbling old man drives into Salem's Lot with a picture. He is looking for a certain man, but Joe advises him to go away. He obliges, but returns later. That man is...wait for it...Samuel Fuller! I'd know that cigar chomping anywhere. The famous director was an enormous influence on Larry Cohen, which would explain his rare on screen appearance here. He is Van Meer, a Nazi hunter who has no trouble turning into a vampire killer. Fuller is outstanding as Van Meer, and quickly usurps Moriarty in terms of tallying unforgettable lines and scenes. Watching him scold Jeremy is one of the funniest moments, but he gets down and dirty in the action when he shoots vampires with his trusty Luger while simultaneously being caught in a bear trap. Fuller's intense and exuberant character was exactly what this movie needed to spice up the final act.
For all its pro qualities, A Return to Salem's Lot is far from a perfect experience. When Joe and Jeremy first land in town, whispering can be heard vaguely, but one must assume this is an ability of the vampires because it is never mentioned. During Joe's sexual adventure with Cathy, we listen to a voice over, presumably from her, while they do the nasty. Some of the minor supporting actors are less than stellar, but they usually do not linger for excessive amounts of time. One of the drones confronts Jeremy by yelling "Boy!" in a manner suspiciously close to Angus Scrimm from the Phantasm series, but on the other hand, that nameless guy proves that anyone could have played the Tall Man.
Director Larry Cohen standing next to a camera.
Larry Cohen is a filmmaker known for his hurried and freewheeling style. He worked on Hell Up in Harlem and the first It's Alive simultaneously. He's a versatile director that was completely free from studio interference on many of his efforts. In A Return to Salem's Lot Cohen is cognizant of when to integrate a bold thought and when to switch to a shootout, explosion, or stake stabbing. His satirical target is small town snobs and their hypocrisy, but he also intends to draw parallels between our society and that of the vampires. Cohen has a lot of guts to do this, but that is what separates his films from other B-movie directors, and it too often goes unnoticed when others review his material.
Andrew Duggan is Judge Axel, the central villain, but he is the opposite of menacing, and that's the point. He's an old man wearing a suit and tie. The special effects are cheesy and cartoonish, but cool nonetheless. At least it's not CGI. In many cases the vampires' fangs are not visible, but this compliments the themes. The munching on people is never conveyed as overly aggressive, but rather normal for that town. Cohen and cinematographer Daniel Pearl toss in some haunting images towards the big finale that shows the crew understood how to grab the audience's attention visually as well as mentally. The music is also acceptable from Michael Minard as it grows progressively louder during random times.
In terms of following the original tale, this is very weak, but if the viewer is so overshadowed by just that, they are missing out on what is actually a very inventive and entertaining take on vampires. This is not award worthy cinema, but it has to be one of the most misunderstood B-movies of all-time. The overbearing detractors are taking it at face value, and refusing to give it an appropriate chance. A Return to Salem's Lot is not saturated with suspense, but I do not believe that was the goal. Larry Cohen has crafted a hilarious, intelligent, and rousing film that holds all the B-movie requirements like nudity, one-liners, and memorable action. I would be amazed if this ever received a DVD release, but if Troll 2 can get a DVD, so can this, no matter how many people hate it.
I got a chance to watch the SAG awards, and for the most part they were predictable, but there was one exception. The grand-daddy award for "Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture" went to Inglourious Basterds, which made me happy, but I was surprised. So far the Golden Globes and the SAG's know that Chad's top 10 list is the way to go. The weird thing is that The Hurt Locker and Up in the Air have been winning all the critic's award by state (including recently the PGA awards), so the fact that these two big shows have not gone to them might eliminate some of their momentum now. I was glad to see Glee win as well. I've just started watching that, and in truth, it is a lot of fun.
I also checked out A Little Night Music, a Broadway musical starring Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones. It was inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles on a Summer Night, and the musical version did have an adaptation in 1977 starring Elizabeth Taylor. I have both from Netflix, but haven't watched them yet. The Broadway show however was good-natured fun even if it was a bit predictable. The songs were lively and solid, while the acting was uniformly excellent. Even at 85 years of age, Angela Lansbury can still tear the house down. Tomorrow is Tuesday, which means new releases for me. I plan on picking up the new Magnetic Fields CD, Realism, and might get Saw VI since the completist in me must own it.