Death in a Small Town

Tobe Hooper’s television miniseries Salem’s Lot is an interesting example of the new horror of the seventies interacting with more traditional horror elements, which emphasized Gothic settings like haunted mansions, traditional monsters like vampires and scares built on suspense rather than brutality. Translated from Stephen King’s book about a tiny New England town slowly overrun by vampires, Hooper creates a canvas on which old and new forms of horror interact. Ben Mears (David Soul) returns to his boyhood home of Salem’s Lot to write a book about the Marsten House, a haunted mansion that sits up on the hill above the town and acts as a catalyst for the story.

While King’s novel is concerned with the communal immorality that lurks within small town America not just the fanged evil of Stryker and Barlow, Hooper largely jettisons these ideas and settles down to creating tension as vampirism slowly spread through the town. What we do get in place of the intrigue of the town is an invasion by a horror of another time. Richard Straker played by James Mason is the envoy for Barlow, the lead vampire. Choosing Mason, a respected english character actor adds to the feeling that a very old evil has come to Salem’s Lot, one with roots in old Hollywood. Besides giving some good one liners, Mason is largely the grimacing face of malice, a gargoyle that represents a respectable kind of menace.

As Mason is the envoy for Barlow, it’s only right that his master should be of an ancient kind of evil. Looking like Max Schreck from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, the blue skinned Barlow is more animalistic view of what a monster might be. This differs from King’s version of Barlow, who is more sophisticated, an old world devil whose words are almost as sinister as his deeds. Here, Hooper offers an interesting mixture of very old school horror and the new more visceral kind of monster that aligns more with Leatherface than Bela Lugosi. The movie vacillates between a haunted mansion, the shrouded moon and more viscerals scares of a child being murdered, his body being unwrapped by Mason, the figure of Mike Ryerson (Geoffrey Lewis) rocking back and forth, silver eyes shining.

Being ignorant of Hooper’s past films, one would never know this was the man who created The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, one of the most brutal horror movies in history. We only get fleeting glimpses of the director who enthusiastically used power tools to inflict terror on generations of horror fans. In the brutal game of Culley Sawyer’s (George Dzundza), a cuckolded husband confronts Bonnie (Julie Cobb), his wife, and her lover, Larry Crockett (Fred Willard), by placing a shotgun to the Crockett’s face, drawing back the hammers and pulling the trigger on an empty chamber. The tension is reminiscent of the gleeful violence the Sawyer family perpetrates in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. That the husband doesn’t kill his wife’s lover is not a saving grace. The glee of frightening someone to death is apparent in his drunken leering grin and the brutal aftermath where he abuses his unfaithful wife. This moment in the film refers to the gritty violence of Hooper’s past, but it’s only a passing reference and the rest of the film is stoked in the kind of classic monster movie tropes. Ben Mears and Mike Petrie (Lance Kerwin) are the intrepid vampire hunters, Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia) is the damsel-y heroine, but it all falls to the vague conventions of horror, the Hammer style of thrills that King’s novel reinvigorates with the small town element.

Part of horror movies or any movie for that matter is the time in which it frames for the audience and Salem’s Lot gives us an indicator of a very specific time. The mini-series format which appears to have vanished recently, offers an opportunity for a particularly long and complex novel to stretch its legs in a way feature length films don’t. The movie does not get to the heart of the material, but has it’s own strengths, mainly in the way it creates tension and drama within the longer form narrative.

Hooper puts the miniseries form to good use as well, creating pockets of tension and exploding them in scene stopping moments coinciding with commercial breaks. These moments give the movie a plateau of tension that rises in one arresting instant and fades as the space offers the viewer a tableau, a frozen picture. Hooper did not invent this technique, tableau has been used for painting and drama, but his use of this technique to elicit horror owe a debt to Edgar Allan Poe, who often stopped his stories in these moment of tableau, freezing the fright of the reader in one captured fixed scene. These moments signifie violence, whether it’s the languid blue claw of Barlow paused in the frame or the screaming face of a victim who sees what only the viewer can imagine.

There’s a trend in horror today for many mainstream horror directors, an oxymoron if there ever was one, to use jump scares without creating any real tension. James Wan, director of the Haunting series is the foremost purveyor of this technique. Whatever tension is created is dispelled with quick jump scares. These moments don’t create terror, but rather assemble it without inciting any real investment in the viewer. Likely the viewer isn’t saying, “Don’t go in there,” but, “They’re going in there.” The difference is notable, one sentiment is an investment in the action as if the character represents the audience and the other a type of distance, a passive viewing.

In contrast, Hooper creates a tension that mimics the thrall of the vampire. Throughout the film we’re shown signifiers of terror, the glowing holy water, the Marsten house, and the mist wreathed fullmoon. Hooper uses these as conduits of tension, creating an overbearing atmosphere that draws us into the bubble of this small town. While Hooper does not invest as King does in the day to day, sordid things in Salem’s Lot, he does give us the tiny circuit of small town life and how the invader, the outsiders, the other, can infect this fragile ecosystem and destroy from within. Much like the vampire’s gaze King uses to good effect in the novel, Hooper allows us to swim in these dark waters, creating symbols that conjure an overbearing tension.

Perhaps the element that hues closest to King’s novel is the sense of loss. Most films create stakes in order for the audience to invest in characters. Perhaps one of the most damning elements of the superhero genre is its relatively low stakes. Maybe a side character peripheral to the story will die, but the expectation is that these deaths are superficial and will last only to the end of the movie, when the hero will be resurrected in the next installment. This idea is not that different from the slasher antagonist who will rise over and over again, regardless of what and how many times a murderous act is visited upon him. Following King’s novel, Hooper invests high stakes in Salem’s Lot. Children are killed, mothers and fathers laid to waste and eventually even Ben Mears must kill his lover, a sacrifice that similar to the novel is jarring and painful. The death of the town is not a painless spook house jump scare fest, but a moral ordeal that asks the viewer to see the characters they’ve invested time and empathy in die. By the end of Salem’s Lot we understand Ben Mears’s quest to find closure to childhood traumas and instead deepened them. There’s no happy ending here. The vampires are still out there, searching for him.

The fate seems unjustified and this difference from King’s novel is the real semblance of what’s been lost. Barlow has survived many decades, an immortal killer, but Mears has to live a very mortal life, one that involves spending the rest of it fighting death. For a hero it seems a rather tragic fate and yet we recognize this as the cost of living. Like Ben Mears we are fighting death despite our losses, keeping the darkness at bay for another day, hoping  that  dark spectre will not transform us into predators. Hooper scares us because we’re all under the pall of death and like the small town of Salem’s Lot, death is always just next door.               


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