Monday, August 15, 2011

THAS: Salem's Lot

I have no strong feelings about Salem's Lot, one way or the other. Too dry and shapeless, disperse and conventional to evoke much joy from me, too thematically watery and narratively plodding to evoke much admiration. The shapelessness of the material leaves much of Hooper's visual inspiration adrift instead of shaping towards thematic or tonal ends, and the tonal inspiration Hooper does create is nugatorily aided by the half-baked and riskless teleplay that simply refuses to dig into a single thematic undercurrent. But, as dull-minded and wanting in profundity I find the overall film, I nevertheless recognize it as one of Hooper's most cleanly virtuosic efforts - as it has Hooper working with conventionally dependable material, dependably respectable production values and production assists, and thus showing he's wholly capable of turning in a completely respectable, rather master-class horror film and horror narrative. And besides often being a truly effective, virtuoso chiller, with some stupendous horror imagery and assured suspense set-ups (the notorious jail-room scene, a gleeful jack-in-the-box of a scene and "Distillation of a Scare" worthy of The Funhouse; the terrorizing crate menacing its transporters; Mike Ryerson's fascination with the grave leading up to his hypnotized meeting with little Danny Glick; Susan's entrance into the Marsten House, the promise of point-of-no-return plot progression both vindicated and sublimated by the sudden implementation of baroque technique), it also exhibits, I thankfully believe, more than suitable a helping of Hooper's unique cinematic graces: his soft, communicative visual elegance, his non-extravagance and constant thoughtfulness of craft, the resulting formal substance and richness, his sensitivity uncommonly independent from sentimentality and kitsch, and the general artistic maturity he embodies, an uncommon resistance of entertainment's common shallowness.

To wit, as to what Salem's Lot is good for...

... take for instance its introducing female lead Susan (played wanly, with offbeat, mumbly presence, by Bonnie Bedelia) via a gentle, anchored tracking shot that seems to begin out of nowhere. The responding shot - a tracking shot that follows a starry-eyed David Soul - reveals this below shot a starry-eyed POV... though only after she appears to us first a floating sylvan apparition:

Or this sotto-voiced dramatic scene where Susan officially breaks it off with Ned Tebbets.

Following the busy shot of Ned jumping back in his van and driving off in a huff, we cut to the first still below, which places Ben respectful, just taking in from afar that everyday provincial sight of a strong and independent woman; then, as they continue the walk that Ned rudely interrupted with his presence, Hooper simply pans along with them. Any speaking they do is now out-of-earshot and our view is kept obfuscated by rosebushes - a recognition of the adulthood on display.

Or this shot that immediately follows the one above, juxtaposing two couples, the above sincere and plain, the below false and treated with mocking stylization (a romantic-like, circling shot of goodbye kisses) - mocking, but also provocatively disorienting to us, the audience, about what we should already know: that these two people are deceiving each other. (Momentarily touched on in the background is the uncomfortable presence of the very man she is fooling around with.)

Here Hooper and DP Jules Brenner accurately locate the Marsten House as literally part of author Ben Mears's writer-head-space:

These shots that also epitomize their respective characters:

An appropriately hard-hitting moment in a film that direly needed more hard-hitting moments:

Or this dynamic one-off shot during the crate transporting scene:

Or the following two striking scenes that I may like to give individual posts to in the future. In the first, while the men deliberate matters of importance, Hooper grants the camera's attention decisively to Susan, and has the scene play out with solely her senses and her experience in mind. In the second, which particularly deserves breakdown, we're intimately introduced to Mark Petrie's room, as well as to the thoughtful, sensitive Mark himself... as well as to the relative detachment existing between the boy and his parents, as well as to Hooper/the camera's marveling attitude towards the gifted youngster, the camera in this scene scrutinizing - literally angling in on - his aura of quiet pretension (the scene shows him rehearsing his lines for the school play which he is granted recognition for writing himself).

Susan Waits

Mark Rehearsing in His Room

Essential Review:
Ferdy on Film on SALEM'S LOT


Good Ash said...

Salem's Lot is one of my favourites. The scariest vampire flick and definitely the best Stephen King miniseries.

Yes, it's a made-for-television miniseries, but Hooper made cinema for television in this case. It's a perfect horror film... the sense of dread and despair; loads of atmosphere, suspense over gore, a Bernie Herrmann type score, blood thirsty (un-erotic) vampires, a haunted house, dark humor... it has pretty much everything you would want from a horror movie. It's quite mesmerizing, masterfully directed by Hopper, and featuring strong homages to Psycho and Nosferatu.

Tobe Hooper on Salem's Lot, "This film is very spooky - it suggests things and always has the overtone of the grave. It affects you differently than my other horror films... A television movie does not have blood or violence. It has atmosphere which creates something you cannot escape - the reminder that our time is limited and all the accoutrements that go with it, such as the visuals."

JR said...

Good Ash -

I certainly won't argue that it's not a supreme horror film. I just re-watched some bits and pieces of it right now - particularly from the climactic final half hour - and I'm struck by how technically, stylistically superb and really elegant it is, and how genuinely scary and unnerving it could be. I still think it lacks poetic bite and drive, but it's an impressive, striking work deserving of its acclaim.

Superb quote from Hooper, I thank you as I really love it and find it really valuable! The film's imagery is often stunning, and it's often really pointed death-imagery: that shot of Straker with the skull, the grave-digging scene with Mike Ryerson, Barlow's face melting to a skull at his demise.

Good Ash said...

As for Tobe Hooper's television work, have you seen the pilot episode ("No More Mr. Nice Guy") for the Freddy's Nightmares TV series? Hooper directed that one.

This was 1988. I find it funny that New Line got Tobe fricking Hooper to direct, not the fourth Nightmare on Elm Street movie, but an episode for a Freddy TV series, and instead hired some guy from Finland to make the fourth movie...

Poor Tobe.

JR said...

Yeah, I've seen No More Mr. Nice Guy. An odd project for him, I guess the origin story interested him. Still can't figure out why they're hiding Freddy's face when apparently that IS Robert Englund participating as Freddy.

Alternatively, I enjoyed Renny Harlin's Renny Harlining of the Nightmare series.

Anonymous said...

I happen to think Salem's Lot (1979 TV mini-series) is one of the best, if not the best, made-for-TV horror movies period. Dan Curtis made some classic TV movies in the 70's but nothing compares to Salem's Lot.

Yes, it's long, especially the first two hours but Hopper builds the tension & is able to develop the many characters. The old two hour version (available on the web) is badly cut up & doesn't make much sense b/c much of the story is cut altogether.

The novel is good but I find it hard to believe anyone could make a better TV movie. The old BBC 'Dracula' movie from 1977 is also very dramatic & scary but it's tied to the original Dracula novel. Hopper's Lot strays from Stephen King's novel but since it's made-for-TV one can't always adhere to the novel. After all, what works on the page may not work on the film.