As part of my series of Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie reviews, I'm also trying to work my way through the rest of Tobe Hooper's backcatalogue. As with last time, I finish this post up with a bonus review, so on top of reviews for "Salem's Lot" and "Poltergeist" I have also written a review for George Romero's "Creepshow".
If you missed the Texas Chainsaw Massacre reviews, I review the first film here (after the poll results) and I review the second and third films in that series here.
Salem's Lot (1979)
I’m generally missing out made-for-tv films in my selection, however rhoda_rants did this version of “Salem’s Lot” in one of the older marathons. Though, the actual review wasn’t so positive, one of the vampire icons she created at the end had me pretty intrigued. “Salem’s Lot” is about a house where mysterious things are happening. A writer who has returned to the town is planning to write about it, convinced that the building is an evil place that attracts evil forces towards it. This is a Stephen King adaptation which tries to tie the vampire mythology to an everyday modern setting.
For me, this film was separated into two parts though there were some clear points where there would normally be commercial break (and other points where the lack of commercial breaks made the film seem a little bit slow and repetitive). Before the first part starts we have what looks like a “previously on Salem’s Lot” set of clips, but in actual fact it’s more of a “later on Salem’s Lot”. It seems like an odd decision to show clips of the film before the show has even started, but this is television so I suppose they need to grip people quickly, particularly when things are going to slow down so much when the story begins.
This first part was trying to slowly set up an atmosphere, but in the end it felt far too slow paced and everything became rather too predictable. In fact one of the most tense moments in the first part was more of a minor circumstantial part of the plot, but Tobe Hooper seems build it up to something far more tense and scary seemingly for the fun of it. The creepy Englishman who has moved into ‘the house on the hill’ in Salem’s Lot has hired a man to deliver a special crate to the house, but instead of going himself, he employs two separate men to do the job without him while he goes on a private errand. The only reason for this really is so that it is harder for the Englishman to explain away when the two workmen are missing later on. But it means that we have a scene where their boss goes home to confront his wife and her lover. There’s a fantastically tense scene where he is aiming a shotgun at the man having an affair with his wife and taunting him with a big grin, sweat on his brow and a mad look in his eyes.
Meanwhile it seems that visiting people in the night is made very easy by the strange architectural decision to have large French windows in pretty much everyone’s bedroom. I suspect that most people reading this would find their vampire had to twist themselves into strange contorted shapes to fit through the gap. Still, I can’t deny the visual effectiveness of these scenes. Also, as slow moving as the plot is, it is a good little story all the same. I like how the Englishman is called out on his random decision to set up an antiques store in this small remote rural town.
The Englishman is played by James Mason who is deliciously charming yet suspicious all the way through the film (and comes across particularly creepy when he uses the exact same tone in the presence of a vampire). The other actor I recognised was the female love interest who was played by Bonnie Bedelia. It turns out that (about ten years later) she played John McClane’s (ex-)wife in the first two Die Hard movies. As such, it was annoying to see her being a bit wet in this film. I’ve seen less tough female love interests admittedly, but there are points where she really could have been more active and the script just didn’t allow for it. Of course, part of the reason why this is a concern is because she is so much more assertive in her “Die Hard” role, so the contrast feels jarring.
Anyway, the second half is where things really get moving and after how slow the first part had been, I was surprised when this part went as far as it did. For all my ranting about Bonnie Bedelia earlier, she does have a particularly awesome tense scene in part two where she speaks with a woman who is in the process of becoming a vampire. The woman is talking mostly normally, but she’s feeling worn down and lethargic, not yet realising what this means. There are some subtle nuances in her movements and she is already showing the vampiric stare and all the while Bedelia is trying to remain deadly calm and act like everything is normal.
Also, when the head vampire is finally revealed that’s another fantastic moment. I’m going to have to disagree with Rhoda_rants review on this one. Partly because I thought he looked extremely intimidating, but also because it was the icon she created featuring him that intrigued me about this film in the first place.
While there are some excellent individual touches, some wonderful effects and a pretty cool over-arching plot, the film is just SO slow-moving. A lot more happens in the second part, sure, but it doesn’t half have a lot of gaps. I know that this is partly because it’s setting things up for commercial breaks, but somehow the prospect of this film taking EVEN LONGER to get through doesn’t exactly thrill me either. While in my previous Tobe Hooper-related entry I gave this same score to “Leatherface”, I must admit that this has greater highs than that film achieved. The thing is that “Leatherface” was a great deal faster moving whereas for “Salem’s Lot” the slow pacing is it’s biggest weakness by far.
I’ve heard plenty of people saying that this film is basically a Spielberg film and that Tobe Hooper’s task was mainly pointing the camera occasionally. I don’t think that is fair at all. This was released in the same year as E.T. and I personally cannot stand E.T. I can see some similar touches in the way this film has been made, but I feel like much of it is due to Spielberg's role as editor (at which stage Hooper was not involved).
On the one hand you have the cheery Jerry Goldsmith soundtrack which gives the same feel as films like E.T. only to subtley run into much more creepy moments. Goldsmith's score worked in a similar way in Gremlins that was also Spielberg-produced. Goldsmith does a really good job of making sure that the music doesn't remove the ambiguity of the scenes, reflecting the seeming conflicting feelings of the adults in the film. There's one point where they are contacting the "ghost" of their daughter and the mother says she feels the ghost move through her. The whole scene is extremely uncomfortable and deeply creepy, but the mother onscreen is extremely happy to have felt this strange other-worldly presence since it is at least some kind of contact with her daughter. The music manages to stay ambiguous enough to allow to either reaction. In that scene you could be happy that she's made contact with her daughter's spiritual presence or you could (as I was) feel highly troubled by the whole scenario and the musical score works for either. Later on in the film the score is more explicitly creepy and is used to excellent effect.
Another element is the way the family looks. They seem very clean cut and everything is very tidy, but like in Gremlins, this serves as a contrast to the horror that lies behind it. It came as a surprise to me when the ghost effects went beyond objects moving around inexplicably, or even bizarre lights, but actually became physical in full-on Ghostbusters style. Ghostbusters clearly owes a great deal to Poltergeist and I'd be very surprised if some of the effects team from this movie didn't work on both films. The combination of light effects and very physical-looking "ghosts" is not really something I've seen anywhere else. When the family have to face up to man-eating trees, dead bodies and full-on monsters with massive sharp teeth I find it very hard to credit any of this to Spielberg. Sure, the sweet suburbs stuff looks like Spielberg's style, but plenty of other directors were emulating that at the time. I'm no more inclined to say Spielberg must have made "Poltergeist" than I would be to say that he must have made "The 'Burbs". There are plenty of elements that simply go beyond what I think Spielberg would be comfortable with.
Still, one more element that might seem Spielbergy is the paranormal "experts" who come in. The way they seem both approachable and yet sinister at the same time reminded me of the way the government agents always seem in Spielberg's films about aliens. There's a definite sense that they may not have the family's best interests at heart to begin with and a sense of trust then has to be built up from there. Still when a new and far more bizarre expert is brought in much later on, the concept might feel somewhat Spielbergian but the execution? This absolutely terrifying scene is very carefully built up from somewhat innocuous beginnings. It seems that this could easily have been a much more clear-cut, feelgood, silly film overall, but the execution in many scenes makes into something that really gets under your skin and makes you feel really unsure of your footing. While there are parts which are clearly intended to be funny, for the most part the film is generally pretty disturbing.
I definitely wouldn't recommend this to young children. As a child I had trouble with aliens pulling their skin off in Cocoon, so there is at least one scene in this where my childhood squeamishness would have been set off in a big way. Still, for those of us who are familiar with horror this is actually fairly tame. The mood is set up well, but I think it would be easy enough not to let it get to you if you don't allow yourself to be pulled in. The film hasn't aged fantastically well and the decision to have characters whispering for most of the movie meant that it was easiest to just put on subtitles rather than keep on pushing the volume down whenever an apparition turns up.
Poltergeist is pretty good and there are elements that really stick with you. Overall though, I think it was a bit uneven. I'm really glad I saw it and I'd certainly recommend it as a very good film, but it's not one that I'm inclined to herald as an enduring classic.
(By the way, turns out it's cheaper to use real skeletons than construct them... *urgh!*)
Okay, here's an unrelated extra. Salem's Lot was a Stephen King adaptation and Poltergeist had elements of comedy, so on a similat theme I present George Romero's "Creepshow". It's a combination of horror comedy stories, including one particularly awesome one actually featuring Stephen King in a central acting role. Turns out that he's really good too!
The first segment had me a bit puzzled. The backstory is told about a cruel father who, in old age, shouts at one of his daughters "I want my cake Bedelia! It's Father's Day!" Flash forward to the present and the father is dead. The daughter murdered him. However, every Father's Day she visits his grave. It's very odd the way the backstory is presented, but the bizarre and somewhat predictable turn of events afterwards is extremely silly and great fun if you can get into the right mindset.
If you still aren't quite getting it, hold on, because the second segment is the one starring Stephen King. His character discovers a meteor and makes the decision to sell it to academics. However, a substance comes out of the meteor with some rather strange effects. I won't reveal what happens, but believe me it is utterly crazy and involves some ultra-silly dark humour.
The next segment stars Leslie Nielsen! He's a very overbearing figure who seems to be obsessed with video equipment. He informs the protagonist (played by Ted Danson), who is his ex-wife's new boyfriend, that he has his ex-wife held captive and if Danson wants to see her alive he needs to come to Nielsen's private beach. I certainly didn't expect what came next, but it's both very twisted and very funny. Nielsen plays his megalomaniacal character with aplomb and it's definitely him at his comedic best. Danson also proves to have pretty good comic timing.
A mild-mannered professor at a university is terrorised by his uncouth and far more outgoing wife. He is played by Hal Holbrook who played the priest in "The Fog" but is perhaps better known for his role in "All The President's Men" and more recently in the tv series "The West Wing". He is eventually informed by a friend at the university about a mysterious crate which turns out to have some very surprising contents....
The final segment appears to have a science-fiction element where a rich Scrooge-esque businessman has an apartment that is supposed to be germ-proof. He discovers that the apartment has cockroaches and insists that exterminators come to his apartment as soon as possible to deal with the problem. This was rather less fun than the previous segments, but I was nonetheless very impressed with the way the cockroach infestation is shown visually. I felt the effects rather outdid the central performance.
The end of Creepshow is very satisfying and overall this film is absolutely great fun. Definitely another fantastic horror comedy to recommend.
(Cross-posted to Halloween Candy)