In short, the original Salem’s Lot still as chilling and atmospheric as it was when I watched it in 1979. The 2004 remake is slightly different in both good and bad ways, but not nearly as creepy. And the original “sequel” from 1987 is even funnier now and ridiculously watchable if you love that direct-to-video 1980s crap. So pretty much, my feelings haven’t changed for any of these movies. But I did notice some new and exciting things….
Salem’s Lot (1979)
You simply cannot beat the original as one of the classics of the vampire genre, even if it strays from Stephen King’s novel. The tension and build-up to the vampire reveal as we meet the characters of the town is classic horror. I am still terrified of the fricking kid floating outside the window in the mist with that creepy music playing. It is the reason that, to this day, every curtain, blind, or shade has to be drawn in my house at night. It’s why there are crucifixes readily available throughout my house. On top of that, the Nosferatu-esque main vampire is the best!
Plus you have David Soul, singer of the classic “Don’t Give Up On Us” (Yeah, I know. He was also on Starsky & Hutch) as the main character, Ben Mears. You have Diehard wife Bonnie Bedelia as love interest Susan. James Mason steals the show in a perfectly creepy role as antique dealer Straker. But most importantly, you have the chick who played Jewish in V: The Mini-Series and the Jew-hating Barbara Thorndyke on a very special episode of The Golden Girls, Fred Willard, who is a sex pervert (in the movie, I mean) and played a virgin on an episode of The Golden Girls, and the chick who played Blanche’s slutty sister Charlotte on The Golden Girls.
So yeah, the movie is great. But I also picked up on something very interesting about Salem’s Lot. Whether intentional or not, it is a metaphor for gay panic and the gay man as the evil outsider. Awesome. Let’s look at this. Ben Mears comes to town—single, a stranger, an author. One of the cops describes him as a “left-winger” and it’s clear that isn’t something locals want in their town. When Susan’s mother asks her what the book Ben is writing is about, Susan says it’s about two men, to which her mother worriedly asks, “Not one of those?” This “love that dare not speak its name” question plants a seed but is never answered.
A proper, polite, clean cut man named Straker comes to this small town to open an antique store with his “partner,” whom we never see. There are questions by locals as to why these two men think the town needs their kind of business. They have moved into a house with a past—a house in which a man lived who was suspected in the disappearance of numerous boys years before. Now boys are disappearing again. JUST boys. The first is abducted in the woods, wrapped in a plastic bag, and brought into a creepy dungeon by Straker as an offering to his partner. Locals suspect one of the new strange men in town could be behind the disappearances. In fact, until the very end of this mini-series, there’s only ONE female victim of the vampires—and this at the hands of her own son after he’s converted.
Then we have the elderly school teacher, a man who lives alone, quickly becomes close with Ben, and eventually invites a younger man he thinks is drunk or on drugs to come stay in his home. When the man dies there, Ben warns the teacher that he should not talk about it because people will think of him as someone they can’t trust to teach their children. There’s also a man who becomes jealous because Ben is becoming so close to Susan (who has a more worldly view because she went to live in New York for a while), beats him up, and gets tossed in prison, where he is jumped and converted. A priest trying to save a boy from the clutches of the vampire is told by Straker that to let the boy be free one more day, he must confront his partner, or, as he calls him, “The Master,” but warns that The Master will get the boy eventually.
And the concept of what’s considered “normal” runs rampant. During a nail-biting scene when two guys are delivering a crate (that happens to contain The Master) one dude senses that whatever is in the box “is not natural. It ain’t natural.” When one boy becomes “sick” and ends up in the hospital, his father tells the doctor, “He’s healthy, he’s a normal boy.” And there’s also an odd boy named Mark, who is obsessed with horror, to the point that his parents are worried about him and hope he’ll grow out of it. His dad even asks him why he is interested in monsters, to which Mark replies, “It’s just the way I am.”
Eventually, the evil that comes to town kills Mark’s parents, destroying his perfect nuclear family and giving him no option but to become one of the outsiders. And so he, um, drives off into the sunset with David Soul (I was so jealous of him in 1979)….
Salem’s Lot (2004)
Am I just over-thinking and trying to gay up Salem’s Lot? I don’t know. It’s been decades since I read the book, so I don’t remember if there were any subtle hints about any of the characters’ sexuality. But, with the remake, either there indeed were hints in the novel and it’s been brought out in the remake, the writer saw what I saw in the original film and decided to re-imagine it in a gay-positive way, or the makers were just trying to modernize the script, throwing the gay stuff in alongside references to the Internet.
The teacher character is a black man (Andre Braugher, who was also in the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s The Mist), and as Rob Lowe (who takes on the Ben Mears role) tells us in a voice over, the teacher lives an alternative life that the town tolerates as long as he doesn’t bring it into class. When the teacher invites the “drunk” man to stay in his house this time, they have a moment during which the man removes his shirt, revealing quite the six pack, and the teacher’s tongue almost hits the floor. When the man returns as a vampire, he taunts the teacher with the beauty of his body. However, there’s a huge autopsy scar running up his belly, and everyone knows gays don’t like gash, so the teacher revokes his invitation!
As for the new businessmen in town, when Ben Mears meets Susan, she hopes the new guys with the antique store are gay. No gay panic metaphors here. There are plenty of female victims this time around as well. And there’s no heavy focus on the boy Mark (played by the Cougar Town son) being different because he likes monsters.
The remake does some virtual carbon copies of some scenes from the original, and when it doesn’t, it’s usually a letdown. The scene with the coffin in the cemetery is fantastic in the original, with a great jump scare, but in the remake, they don’t even follow through with the whole scene.
The floating window bit simply can’t be beat, and in the remake, they first try to do something new by having the kid behind a privacy curtain in the hospital. They attempt to recreate the floating scene later, but it falls flat, because it appears that they use separately filmed footage placed into a window frame instead of an actual live appearance, special effects, and that creepy damn music! And the amazing crate delivery scene from the original lacks any of the fear and tension in the remake.
Other glaring differences include Donald Sutherland taking on the antique dealer role and having an almost non-existent part in the film! And rather than go for a ghoulish head vampire like the original, this film sticks more to the novel by making him a pretty regular dude. In fact, they make him Rutger Hauer. There’s much more focus on Ben’s past with the town, everyone knows he originally lived there, and we get the whole story (in flashbacks) as to what happened when he went into the creepy house as a kid, which is vaguely described by Ben in the original film.
Also, these vampires do the fast moving action most currently scene in True Blood, and they also crawl on the ceilings, which makes for one awesomely eerie scene on a bus. Other horror highlights include Ben being thrown in a prison cell after a fight, which leads to the guy he fought with “crawling” through the vent connecting their cells in a way I’ve never scene again, despite the number of horrific fricking vent scenes I’ve had to sit through in recent horror films. There’s also a freaky levitation scene when a corpse on a gurney rises from the dead, as well as a wicked killing of the boy Mark’s mother.
There are various annoyances in the remake, but what sux most is the ridiculous narration, particularly when Ben is recounting to Susan what happened when he sneaked into the house as a kid; his dialogue sounds like he’s reading a passage from a book. And the scenes that bookend the mini-series concerning the fate of Ben and Mark are totally different than in the original film. And look at the box art. YAWN.
A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987)
Speaking of box art, ignore the fact that the vampire from the first movie is featured on the box art for the sequel. He’s not in the movie. A Return To Salem’s Lot has the distinction of being one of those awesome, asinine 80s sequels to a very successful film. It’s right up there with all the sequels to The Howling, Children of the Corn, Ghoulies, Critters…you get the picture.
It really is a must watch. Michael Moriarity plays his usual bizarre self. This time, he’s an anthropologist with a delinquent son who dresses just like Crockett and Tubbs. His ex-wife is none other than Nancy’s mom from Elm Street. Sadly, she’s only in the movie for like 2 minutes. Michael takes his son with him to see the new house he inherited from his aunt in Salem’s Lot. As always, when night falls, a rowdy bunch of punk-rocking looking kids comes a calling—and the vamps come a killing.
Before long, Michael learns that those who walk during the day are just servants of a vampire colony living in the town. These vampires want Michael to write their story, their bible! His son wants to become a vampire because he’s falling for a little girl vampire played by—holy shit—Tara Reid!
Because of Michael’s “unique” acting style, it becomes hard to tell what his feelings are about all of this. He fucks a female vampire with nice tits, gets her pregnant, tries to run away with his son a few times, continues to renovate his inherited house, then hooks up with an eccentric old dude passing through town in search of Nazis. Together, they intend to purge the town of vampires once and for all.
This film is a horror satire…and a laugh riot. The vampires are patriotic, they only feed off cows, and they don’t slaughter them like humans, they just feed, let the cows recover, and feed again. They have a kind of conservative moral stance as well. They fear human blood because of all the drugs, booze, hepatitis, and HIV. Michael calls their teachings “anti-human propaganda.” And when the old man comes on the scene, he’s a fricking hoot. As they go around town coffin hunting, the campy humor just escalates until finally the head vampire is killed with, of all things, the staff of an American flag.
Sure, someday, Stephen King will be rolling over in his grave about this one, but he can just forget it ever existed, like most have, and enjoy the particular aspects from each of the 2 mini-series that most closely capture the essence of his amazing novel.