Thursday, October 18, 2018

Halloween Faves: Salem's Lot (1979)

1979 flick "Salem's Lot" seems to have been a watershed moment in many a horror fan's experience. Stephen King's name was already turning into a trademark, and the reputation of horror as a genre in marketable media was beginning to grow. That year in films alone gave us such unforgettable properties as "Halloween" and "Dawn of the Dead" (both 1978 films received their widest theatrical exposure in 1979), major studios put out "ALIEN", "Prophecy", and "The Amityville Horror", and director John Badham followed up his smash hit "Saturday Night Fever" with a big budget remake of "Dracula".

That theatrical release was, along with the simultaneous "Nosferatu the Vampyre" remake by Werner Herzog, one of the biggest reasons why "Salem's Lot" was eventually relegated to a TV movie. Originally George Romero was on board to direct, but the task eventually fell to Tobe Hooper, who apparently wasn't as intimidated by the restrictions of network television as Romero.

The fact that it was a TV movie was actually great news for me, since there weren't any adults in my life who were likely to take me to a theatrical horror film, especially if it was rated R. Since TV movies were always watered down and edited for language and violence, I don't think anybody was prepared for how scary the movie actually is. Most horror movies can gather a decent reputation as long as there's at least one memorably scary sequence. Put in two really scary parts, and that's a movie people will be talking about. But "Salem's Lot" has so many scary moments you can begin to lose count, and these high points are fairly well paced throughout the film's 3 hour runtime. There are a couple of early scares that are rather vague, some of them ending with a TV movie freeze-frame before any frightening characters are revealed. Hooper saves most of his fireworks for the final third of the movie, at which point they begin booming left and right. Nobody could forget the appearance of the vampire children in this movie, floating in the air outside bedroom windows, scratching at the glass to be let in. There's a frightening resurrection scene, where a gentle, small town everywoman comes back from the dead as a snarling, hissing witch while two of our formerly disbelieving heroes look on. The first full reveal of the main vampire, Barlow, is a pants-pissing moment where suddenly this demonic face is thrust into the camera with a guttural roar, and the reaction of the on-screen victim is the same as ours.

I must also say that this movie has the best representation of vampires that I can think of. One of the staples of vampire cinema is usually to have vampires that can 'pass' for normal when they have to, and often they'll suddenly morph into a hideous monster whenever the script needs a good scare. Not so in "Salem's Lot", where none of the vampires could ever pass as normal, and they are forced to lurk in the shadows and wait for the right moment, manifesting whenever their would-be victims are alone and vulnerable.

The only thing that takes the wind out of the sails a little is the overly abrupt and far too pat conclusion, which also makes the mistake of moving the fate of a major character to a completely original denouement. This final scene was clearly added to give the producers of "Salem's Lot" the opportunity to spin it off into a series, and we can only image what might have been if this had become a reality. We'd most definitely have one of those rare series that vanished after a handful of episodes, never to be seen again (like the brief TV series follow-up to 1973 flick "Paper Moon"), but what a treasure that would be.

In addition to being just plain scary, "Salem's Lot" has got all your Halloween needs: a spooky "haunted" mansion full of cobwebs, more mist than a London fog bank, evil monster children, and that monstrously frightening blue-skinned vampire.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Halloween Faves: Beyond The Door (1974)

Halloween season favorites are on a lot of people minds right now, and one of my personal go-to Halloween movies is 1974's "Beyond The Door".  It was created by Italian filmmaker Ovidio Assonitis, a man known for producing thinly disguised copies of hit movies ("Tentacles", "Piranha II", "The Visitor"), and this one leaves almost no stone unturned when it comes to "The Exorcist", not to mention more than a few pebbles of "Rosemary's Baby".

Jessica (Juliet Mills, acting exactly like Juliet Mills) is a housewife married to a skeezy-looking music producer. They have a fabulous apartment in San Francisco, a fabulous car, and two darling little kids that anybody else would want to throttle. The daughter is about ten and is a foul mouthed bookworm, but the only book she reads is "Love Story". Many, many copies of "Love Story". The little boy is about 5 or 6 and drinks Campbell's Soup through a straw right out of the can. 

First words he ever said were "Soup is good food."

One day Jessica discovers she's pregnant, and not only is she pregnant, she's suddenly three months pregnant. Then shortly after that, she's like, four months pregnant. She starts behaving badly, like the time she decides to throw a glass ashtray right into her husband's gigantic fish tank that sits right in their living room. The husband doesn't even care when she tells him on the phone, but she keeps repeating "It wasn't an accident! I wanted to break it!" The reason for all this is, of course, she's possessed. Richard Johnson plays a suspicious character named Dimitri who suddenly shows up, glimpsed mostly in mirrors, until he's needed when things really start getting weird. It turns out he has a connection to Jessica's past, and seems to have been time-warped into this moment by the demonic entity that is now possessing her. There is a purpose, but the story is so underdeveloped that it appears to be little more than a rough draft that made it to the big screen.

But that's one of the ballsiest things about "Beyond The Door": it doesn't care that it doesn't have an involving story, it just goes full speed ahead and gives us re-enacted scenes from "The Exorcist" with just enough tweak to try and skate by any accusations of plagiarism (it didn't work, Warner Bros sued the production company and ultimately was granted a settlement in court in 1979). William Girdler's "Abby" was another possession flick from late 1974, and Warner Bros sued that production as well, despite the fact that it didn't really have many things in common with "The Exorcist". By contrast, it's easy to see why Warners won their case against "Beyond The Door". We get Juliet Mills levitating, an entire room going nuts with all kinds of stuff floating around on its own, her eyes turning weird colors, lots of demonic puking, diabolic voices, and best of all, her head turns all the way around backwards.

I love "Beyond The Door" for all of these crass regurgitated bites of exorcist pie, but mainly because it really does manage to be a scary movie. If nothing else, it works on a visual level, with lots of atmospheric lighting and strange sets. The sound design is another great aspect, as it shamelessly lays on the spooky sound effects, distorted voices, and hi-decibel audio violence. The film played theaters with a gimmick identified as "Possess-O-Sound", and I'm not sure what this was, other than the volume on the sound system being cranked a few notches. Turn up the volume on your home system as loud as it will go, and greet your trick-or-treaters with the scary groaning demon voices from "Beyond The Door", and your house will be the hit of Halloween this year for sure.