Wednesday, April 16, 2008

For The Thousandth Time: Part V (Gone To Bed Series)

Yup. Time for another Gone To Bed entry. My last one, which was all about Horror of Dracula, got me thinking about another film that A) I have gone to bed to hundreds of times, and B) is also a film that initially scared the absolute shit outta me. Part I was disturbing, not unwatchable disturbing, but just bad enough to get me massively paranoid that night. If my old, dear friend, Michael reads this post - he will well remember he and I making crosses to protect ourselves that Saturday night in 1979. We went down to his Dad's workshop in the basement and we fashioned ourselves some damn fine crosses to keep away ANY and ALL vampires that night (well, as previously stated, any and all does not include incredibly hot female vampires that might just need a small snack). But, I digress, for you see, that night was the first installment of Stephen King's Salem's Lot; and what an ENORMOUS night it was for yours truly. (sidebar - there were no incredibly hot vampires in Salem's Lot, Bonnie Bedelia made a very, in Barlow's words, "toothsome" and attractive vampire, but alas, she was not seen as such until the epilogue - mere minutes from the end of the film. Now Marie Windsor would have made a great vampire, especially in her heyday 1950s - yeah, she would've been deadly in more ways than one).

Let's take a look at the evidence before I get into that 2nd Saturday night and thoughts on the film in general. GOD, I love Harry Sukman's score. One of the best original scores ever written for a TV miniseries. The Trailer:

That was the trailer that was cut for the theatrical release in foreign markets. It's a damn fine trailer too (even if it "shows" a bit too much towards the end).

Now then, the following Saturday, part II aired. Holy Shit. What a night. Remember, I was just nearly ten years old. I sat there watching the film with my Mother, she was eating it up. I was getting almost "sick" scared, where you can slowly feel knots in your stomach slowly building up. To make matters worse, my Mom was gobbling some artichoke hearts out of a large jar with a tooth-pick. So, I grabbed a tooth pick too and started gobbling up the vinegar soaked hearts, trying to give my stomach something to do, other than grumble and knot up. By the time the sun had gone down and Ben and Mark confront Barlow, I was SCARED SHITLESS. And I really went over the edge when we start to see the other vampires, Mike Ryerson, The Glick Boys, Larry Crockett, etc., slowly crawling down the narrow passage from Barlow's lair. Man, I was PETRIFIED. The 3:14 mark is when the locals start crawling towards Mark - Let's take a look see:

How petrified? Well (and this is a legendary story in my family), I COULD NOT SLEEP and in fact got so sick, that I ran out of my room and down the hall to throw up. Sadly, I didn't make it and puked all over my Mom's brand new suede "Coach" bag (some consider it poetic justice for encouraging me to watch it and providing artichoke hearts). She was not, however, of the opinion that it was justice of any kind. A major turning point for me occurred shortly after watching this film. I had already read "JAWS" and considered myself quite the adult for having done so. But, I was still on a diet of stuff like, Tolkein, Roger Zelazny, Piers Anthony, comics, and a lot of classics. A few weeks after Salem's Lot had aired, I was with my Mom and brother in a book store and asked if she would buy it for me. "The movie that made you throw up all over my new Coach bag??! I don't think so." But, I somehow got her to cave in. The rest is, as they say, history. My brother had copies of The Shining and The Dead Zone (both amazing, especially Dead Zone) in the house. I devoured those just as voraciously. But, Salem's Lot remains my favorite King novel. It's one of the VERY few novels that successfully managed to actually SCARE ME. Truly scare me. The only other novel that ever did this in that same, primal way, was Peter Straub's Ghost Story. I would like to write a great deal of literary criticism about those two books as I feel that they were perhaps (along with Blatty's The Exorcist) the most "important" novels of "horror" in the 1970s. Maybe another post...

Salem's Lot abides in no small part due to its exceptional cast. The film rests on the basically competent shoulders of David Soul. I was an avid viewer of Starsky and Hutch in the 70s, and was fond of Soul. But, for some strange reason really identified with his portrayal of Ben Mears, clearly not as much as I identified with Lance Kerwin's Mark Petrie, as we had major similarities, (close in age and interests) but as intended by King - Mears and Petrie are supposed to be mirror images of one another. So, Ben was the type of adult I wanted to be at that time. However, when I watch Soul's performance now, I find it consistent but strongly underplayed. I feel like he occasionally needs a strong serotonin shot or something - too uptight and morose. I'm not saying I need Chuckles the Clown here, but maybe he could smile while he's trying to pick up Susan Norton or something... Nevertheless, Soul is as good as he needs to be.

Now then, one of the greatest reasons Salem's Lot worked so well then and still packs a powerful right hook today is because of James Mason. One of the cinema's greatest actors, he lends a magisterial aura to the film. A blend of condescending disdain and aristocratic malevolence. And, ladies and gentlemen, he delivers. My adoration for this actor is immeasurable. I've mentioned before that my favorite "musical" of all time is "A Star is Born" (1954), and that Mason's performance is beyond words, but again, really, he is magnificent. His inclusion in the cast of Salem's Lot is a major coup. Just watch any scene with him - ANY scene, and you will see him play this part to perfection. The part of the intellectually superior European who condescends to everyone, hoping that at least one person ("Constable" Parkins Gillespie, it turns out) will be intuitive enough to sense his contempt and general cynicism towards the small-town bumpkins he has to share oxygen with. It's a brilliant performance from a brilliant actor. Mason is, as usual, fabulous and fun, he lends genuine class to a lurid shocker. What more can a fan ask for?

Geoffrey Lewis? Brilliant. And I told him so two years ago in Cleveland.
Lew Ayers? Perfect
Bonnie Bedelia? Perfectly cast - nice mix of wholesome, near mousy, sex appeal.
Lance Kerwin? Super intense! But, also perfect
George Dzundza? Just the right amount of fat, drunk slob - perfectly played.
Fred Willard? Horribly dressed, but super fine in the role.
Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook Jr? Do I really have to tell you what these two magnificently seasoned actors are capable of?

The Cast Destroys that of the remake. PERIOD. There is no equivalent of James Mason today - zip, nada, nil.

Speaking of the remake. I've not heard, but rather, I've read on IMDB a few comments from people who said something to the fact that "gee, this movie sure is dated, the newer version is waaaay better." or some such drivel. I guess "dated" is a signifier of "quality" to some people. Well, people are entitled to their opinions, but that doesn't mean they have the slightest clue as to what "contextual" analysis entails. I was not a fan of the re-make, but at the same time, it was innocuous enough. My friend and fellow blogger in Britain., Taliesin rated the remake higher than the original, and I think he was smokin' some very good shit while writing that review, but I have nothing but respect for my Comrade in the U.K. and I disagree with him on minor points all the time. The simple fact of the remake is that Donald Sutherland chews the scenery up as if it were a giant Ham Hock - providing the protein for his TREMENDOUSLY HAMMY interpretation of Straker. And Rutger Hauer? Sadly, a light scare as Barlow, a dull frisson at best. Potent enough to maybe scare a three year old. I have great respect for both actors but find them miscast. The remake also takes tremendous liberties with the character of Father Callahan. Fair enough to start the film with a scene that King himself had noted would be the proper way to begin a sequel BUT, they then proceed to turn him into a sort of "Pied Piper" of local Vampires and extend his role into that of partial master villain of the story. Horseshit - doesn't work. And for that matter, neither does the remake. The major theme of King's novel, in fact, he claims it as the total raison d'etre for it, is the idea of a town slowly drying up and vanishing. How could someone pull this off convincingly? In a novel, there's room for this negotiation, in a movie - very little. So, while I feel Tobe Hooper's vitae made him the ideal candidate for this made for TV miniseries, Mikael Salomon's matteur en scene background as a cinematographer, and director of Television programming commodifies the final product in a much more concrete fashion. Yet, Hooper's narrative film background injects his visualization with a more cinematic aura - it feels more like a film. After all, this is Tobe Hooper. The remake fumbles with drab, morbid, dingy set pieces as a substitute for real scares. And, chalk one up for the geriatric crowd, the CGI haunted houses and gimmicks do not work as effectively as Hooper's "old-school" opticals, tricks, and make-up. I could go on and on here - but, what's the point. Tastes are tastes. And, this post is not about comparing an original to a remake (though I have a point or two left to make), it's about me going to bed to this Goddamn film 250 times.

Hooper's Barlow (Reggie Nalder, in a more lurid and ghastly Count Orlock disguise) may have been a far cry from the way King originally wrote him, but really, do we need another slick, lithe, urbane European? It can, at least, be said of the original Barlow - that the image resonates in the mind far longer than the Rutger Hauer version, faithful to the as written character or not. As for the 1979 version being dated? Well, uhm, sure, duh. Most documents reflect the period in which they were created. Every now and then we have a timeless "object" - (whatever that means) but how is that determined? By its aesthetic? By its theme? By its content? By all of these things? By an aggregate opinion? By what? If in fact, it is a combination of these criteria, then I would like to state that there is NOTHING DATED about Salem's Lot. Nothing - save for one thing and I'll get to that soon. Funny that the Gen Y generation of whatever you call late teens early twenties folk these days refer to this film as "dated" when I see them emulating trends from the 70s in regard to speech, style of dress and fashion, HAIR STYLES (big time with the hair, 45 minutes to make it look like you just got out of bed), etc etc.

As for what I think is dated about Salem's Lot? Well, Fred Willard's character, Larry Crockett wears progressively more appalling suits as the film wears on. It's like he raided Herb Tarlek's closet - we start off bad and things get worse with every wardrobe change, culminating in his and boom boom Bonnie's matching cherry satin undies (purchased in Boston no less). As a fate for wearing this heinous collection of 70s haute couture (remember, I'm a big fan of contextual analysis, but I was alive and well in 79' and his clothes were offensive by standards even then!) he is (just after donning the cherry satin undies) KILLED! Now honestly, this is the only thing I think that has NOT dated well about this film. All the people who think the original is some sort of campy or kitschy TV movie - You're DEAD FUCKING WRONG. Salems Lot has aged gracefully and kicked major ass when it came out. ASK anybody who watched it when it aired.

My biggest pet peeve with Salem's Lot is famously known in a great many circles as my: NED TEBBITS SYNDROME. You see, in the novel Salem's Lot, there is a character named FLOYD TIBBITS, in fact he and Ben Mears were quasi-friends as kids. Well, in the infinite wisdom of someone, or some people, or some committee, the name Floyd Tibbits was apparantly not suitable. I do not know why, but there you have it. The geniuses in charge of this monumental decision felt that Floyd Tibbits name must be changed to something that apparantly was more suitable. After all, we can't have a Horst Shmalzenbachergildenfenst - too complicated: Horst Shmalzenbachergildenfenst becomes: Harry Smith. That I can deal with.



changed to:


I just don't get it. I mean, for me, that rates up there with "What's the meaning of life?" or "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Why oh why is there this logic defying name change???

It's almost as if something like this happened:

WEALTHY VENTURE CAPITALIST: I'm willing to pitch in X amount of dollars to finance your film.
TOBE HOOPER: Great! Fantastic!
TOBE HOOPER: Okay, what's that?
WEALTHY VENTURE CAPITALIST: This character... (checks teleplay) uhm... yes, here it is. This character - FLOYD TIBBITS?
WEALTHY VENTURE CAPITALIST: Yes, that simply won't do. We'll have to change it.
TOBE HOOPER: Sure Man, what'd ya have in mind?
WEALTHY VENTURE CAPITALIST: Floyd Tibbits is a ridiculous name.
TOBE HOOPER: Whatever you say man.
WEALTHY VENTURE CAPITALIST: Yes, a ridiculous name. Hence forth - Floyd Tibbits shall be known as...NED TEBBETS!!
TOBE HOOPER: Uhm, You're serious?
TOBE HOOPER: Uhm Okay, ya know, that's not really that different a name man, in fact they're kind of identical ya know?
WEALTHY VENTURE CAPITALIST: Well, Mr. Hooper we can withdraw our offer, I'm sure that another network will-
TOBE HOOPER: Nope! Ned Tebbets is a damn fine substitution. (grabs check)

At least this is the scenario I envision to somehow rationalize this incredibly imbecilic name substitution which is surely the worst ever committed in recorded history.

Apart from this maddening issue, Salem's Lot, rates for me as PERFECT HORROR, and an important marker in my life. I've written before how ironic it is that films that scared the holy bajeezus outta me as a kid serve as sort of calming anti-depressants before bed. Don't know why really. Or maybe I know exactly why. In fact I think I do. I'll save that for another Gone To Bed entry. Salem's Lot is perfect y'all.

Approx. 200-250 times


Lara said...

I will have to say Salem's Lot is a truly amazing movie. I was so excited whenever they would re-run it on TV, usually around Halloween. Also, I enjoyed the book too. I remember watching the first part on TV but for some reason didn't see part two until reruns. One of my first papers I wrote on film was for a 10th grade English class comparing and contrasting the movie and book (I think I got an A).

This one was scary even when I re-watched it in the late 80s and early 90s. I might need to revisit this soon.

Chick Young said...

Thanks for your comment Miss L. I agree - truly amazing. I've read that novel twenty plus times and still think that Hooper's mini-series is a fabulous adaptation in many regards. It's rare to have the "perfect" adaptation.

JMR said...

Once again, you've hit the nail squarely on the head with this one. i am a huge fan of the original 'salem's lot. i saw it again a few years ago and it still holds up. some of the clothes are dated, but if you consider this a period piece, you can ignore it and just revel in the horror of the story.

as far as the remake goes, it is just puzzling to me. a few observations:

* the cast that they assembled is excellent. rob lowe, rutger hauer and james cromwell are rock solid performers...the problem is that they aren't given anything to work with. when i read the book a few years back, i actually heard all of these actors speak the dialogue in my head (i should explain that, ever since i started reading novels when i was a child, there was always a movie going on inside my might say the perfect movie because budget isn't a limitation...this is a subject that i'll explore over in my blog).

* james cromwell is the perfect father least he should be. the way in which they screwed with that character arc in the remake is criminal.

* what they did with straker is just sad. donald sutherland has always been one of my favourite actors, which makes this even more sad. the absolute brilliance of james mason's performance in the original is the fact that he is seductive. you WANT to be on his side...this is very true to the novel. the way in which donald sutherland plays him, on the other hand, is just plain loopy. i mean, honestly, if you were barlowe, would you want someone like sutherland's straker to be your human emissary? yes, what a grand idea, let's attract all sorts of the WRONG attention...let's not attempt to blend in at all. wretch.

* the remake just isn't scary. it doesn't hold up to the expectations of its genre.

finally, the original mini-series stands shoulder to shoulder with the best feature horror films. the scene where the glick boy scratches at mark petrie's window is a seminal moment in horror films. tobe hooper was firing on all cylinders (sadly, i still have not seen the original texas chainsaw's just one of those films that i haven't gotten to yet...fret not, it's on the must see list).

(incidentally, have you seen hooper's "lifeforce"? great campy b-movie fun, with some cool set pieces thrown in for good measure.)

Chick Young said...

I concur sir. On all accounts. The original is a superlative effort and the remake is a let-down (at least to you and me). Salem's Lot is super important in my personal lexicon of cinema (even though it's channel of distribution was television - yet look what he got away with!)

Yes, I have LIFEFORCE and I love it. That chick is tooooo hot.

Thanks for your input buddy boy.

JMR said...

i think it is very telling that the original was released theatrically overseas. it is VERY cinematic. this is a trend that has continued to this day. before firefly, i never considered cinematography to be important in the television medium. now, we have shows like lost and battlestar galactica. these shows hold up and in most cases surpass most of what is released in theaters these days.

by the way, the novel 'salem's lot is directly connected to the dark tower series (as are most of stephen king's novels).

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Chick - I deny the allegation of any chemical aid to writing reviews lol. ;)

I realise that my stance was controversial and the original film scared the hee-bee-gee-bees out of me when I was a kid - as did the book.

Perhaps it was having read the book again not long before watching the remake (and I watched the two back to back) but it did strike me as, in some places, more book accurate. It also had some nice moments and starting the entire thing with Lisa Gerrard warbling will always put me in a positive frame of mind.

I actually loved Sutherland's performance - yes it was hammy but it was great, like a satanic santa. That helped.

Hauer was woefully under-used and the visual impact of Nalder was greater in the original... I think, more than anything, I bought into the characters that bit more... especially Ben and Susan. Their dynamics were more natural (than the book as well it has to be said)

All told, however, in my opinion both worthy parts of vamp cinema. Like you, I respect your opinion on this one.

Incidentally, if you can track it down try and have a listen to the BBC radio dramatisation of 'salem's Lot with Doug Bradley. Excellent stuff.

Gangrene Widescreen said...

Hands down, the scariest part of Salem's Lot is the child scratching at the window. The last time I watched it I figured out why it is so eerie -- the shot is shown in reverse, make the boy's movements look otherworldly.

That being said, the concept of eating artichoke hearts is far more terrifying to me than anything in Salems's Lot.

offtopic - Chick do you actually work for Synapse or are you just friends with those guys?

Chick Young said...


Sutherland's performance is inexcusable! As for more book accurate? That's debatable, and were we to actually get into a debate on the transliteration process, the one thing we would both agree upon for a "successful" adaptation is that the "essence" of a work is retained. The process requires abbreviation as we know and condensation of character, plot, expository passages, and so on. Both films are guilty of certain things - agreed. I am with you about Ben and Susan in the remake, but overall, it comes down to taste. And sir, I completely respect yours even though I am in near total disagreement. Do you really like it more than Hooper's????? My god man..

Gangrene - I don't work for Synapse, they are just good friends. And I try to offer suggestions for films, or perhaps might write some liner notes in the future - etc.

Mark said...

Salems Lot 1979 is still one of the greatest vampire stories of all time. Dated? maybe. But there are legendary scenes and wonderful performances that over shadow any thought that this movie is dated. I watch this at least 6 times a year and never tire of it.I remember being 11 years old when it premiered on t.v. Scared me then and still carries shock value now! Salems Lot forever!!!

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