Friday, October 21, 2016

fangs for the memories

Salem’s Lot (1979 CBS miniseries; d: Tobe Hooper)

There once was a time when the word “vampire” conjured up something entirely different from its modern iteration.  A lot of younger readers won’t understand this, but yes, at one point in time vampires were actually quite horrific.

When vampires speak—if they speak—they ought not to have very good personalities.  What I mean to say, is, the function of speech should be perfunctory at most, and serve as a desperate means to an end to get blood, and nothing else, because that is what makes them terrifying.  And that is what has been lost for so long that people forget that vampires were once considered—for most, for many years, in fact—the ne plus ultra of the horror monster.  The alpha-evil.  They aren’t anymore, not even remotely.  That vein collapsed long ago.

You can blame this on any number of factors and influences, but it really all boils down to money.  When vampires became big business in the 80’s (with the popularity of Anne Rice’s books) and again with the more recent “Twilight” series, their popularity had a built-in watering down effect, as it were. There is no way either author would’ve enjoyed so much success without changing things up and appealing to a cross-over audience (that wouldn’t normally gravitate towards horror), and in that sense their popularity served to homogenize the entire subgenre, to make it all that much more palatable, and, in turn, unrecognizable.  And so they have ceased to be truly frightening for many years.  Prior to 1980, there were a good many blood-chilling takes on the vampire legend in movies, television, and books.  Beyond that point, I can recall very few (beyond the printed page), and even those are debatable. 

Okay, I'll give FRIGHT NIGHT (1985), and Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys), a pass.

And so I submit to you a new benchmark, so to speak—which also happens to be the old benchmark—SALEM’S LOT, the CBS miniseries directed by Tobe Hooper (director of the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE), based on the 1975 novel by Stephen King.  If horror fans are ever going to reclaim vampires, to resurrect them from a most ignominious fate, we should start by taking a good look at the last time somebody got it right.  And so let me take a moment and pay my regards to the true face of horror—the vampire.

It doesn’t take great intelligence or dazzling special effects (or blood-soaked gore) to emphatically scare people, but rather a simple, rigid set of principles and a keen understanding of horror itself.  Horror is all about the fear of the unknown.  When you get too chummy with your monsters, they cease to be frightening (something viewers of THE WALKING DEAD are all too aware of). 

SALEM’S LOT was no masterpiece, but it didn’t need to be to achieve its ends—to scare the heck out of its audience.  Stretched out over 184 minutes (that’s without the commercials) and spread out over two nights on network television in November, 1979, it faced innumerable hurdles and restrictions, network censors not being the least of which.  And with that lengthy running time, we also get a slow, deliberate pace and introductions to dozens of characters before it gets down to the real business at hand.  

Ralphie Glick (Ronnie Scribner) pays back older brother, Danny (Brad Savage), for all those atomic wedgies.

But get down, it does...

The story involves a small town in Maine, the recent arrival of a writer (David Soul) working on a book about the infamous Marsten house, which just so happens to coincide with another arrival—that of the house’s new owner, the inscrutable Mr. Straker (James Mason), who is opening an antique shop in town with an as-yet unseen partner, a Mr. Barlow.  I won't get too bogged down into typical plot summary territory on this one, because it is beside the point.  

Amid the newcomers, freshly delivered from Europe, is a vampire.  Now, this vampire—which we rarely see and never utters a word throughout—carries with it the absolute essence of evil.  It doesn’t harbor romantic notions or feelings of persecution—or any feelings, for that matter.  It simply must feed, and in the small town of Salem’s Lot it has found, for the time being, an ideal hideaway and hunting ground.

And one by one the townsfolk begin to succumb, vanishing or appearing to die outright, a scourge aided by the bafflement of the local doctor, who chalks up more than one of these mysterious deaths to pernicious anemia (and a couple of others to heart attack).  By the time anyone begins to suspect something foul or evil afoot, it’s all but too late.

Too late, because these people aren’t really dead; at least, not in any traditional sense.  And with nightfall and the uneasy sleep of the grief-stricken comes a gentle scratching or tap-tap-tapping at the window…across from your bedside.  

And what might at first appear to be your dearly departed loved one can, upon closer inspection, cause your skin to crawl and set your heart to racing.  

Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin), monster kid extraordinaire and one of the enlightened few in Salem's Lot
" the window."
SALEM’S LOT might well be old-fashioned—and these might in fact be the musings of an irrepressible fool lamenting a bygone era of horror moviesbut let no one call it anemic.