A Return To Salem's Lot (1987)

JANUARY 2, 2013


I can't believe it's been over three years since I watched It's Alive 3, which was the last Larry Cohen movie I reviewed for the site. It's also been about as long since I watched Salem's Lot, which I was mainly watching specifically to prepare myself for A Return To Salem's Lot, Cohen's more or less in-name only sequel that he made back to back with the aforementioned It's Alive entry. You'd think that since I'm watching these things every day that it wouldn't take nearly four years to get around to something I wanted to watch, but that's how it goes. I still haven't seen the first movie on the recommendation thread, either, and that's over FIVE years old!

That said, I actually caught some of this one when I was about 8 or 9. My memory is (shocker!) hazy, but if it's right, then my mom and I were killing time waiting for my dad to come home from work so we could drive up to Maine (we went to a family campground there on weekends during the summer), and she wanted to watch because she was a fan of the original (which I hadn't seen). And being me, I fell asleep a lot, and would wake up and get updates what was going on. Thus, obviously I didn't remember much of it, but I distinctly remembered the bit where two vampire kids (and I mean kids, they're like 10) get married, and had a general idea that it was about a kid who turned into a vampire and his dad was trying to save him.

Anyway, as with It's Alive 3, the movie isn't great but coasts rather easily on the presence of Michael Moriarty, once again playing a guy who seems to have stepped in from another movie entirely. Most of the acting here is pretty bad (the kid playing his son in particular is a grating, atrocious presence), but Moriarty is so damn fun to watch I only really noticed that and the movie's other flaws during those moments where he wasn't on-screen. Much like Kurt Russell's enhanced awesomeness when he's in a John Carpenter movie, there's something about him that just clicks when he's working on a Cohen film, and I was pretty bummed to discover that this is the last of their features together (he appeared in Cohen's Masters of Horror episode, which I still haven't seen - now I think I should savor it like a scotch). Maybe it's just bad luck on my part, but the other films I've seen him in, he never seems to be as wonderfully off-kilter and hilarious as he is with Cohen.

And that's a big benefit to the films, because a lot of them are sloppy, and this is no exception. If ADR was never invented then this film would be completely incoherent, as roughly half of the exposition seems to have been put in later, "spoken" by characters who aren't on-screen (or if they are, their lips aren't moving - some sort of telepathy?). There are some truly clunky action beats too - early on, a car full of punks drive through the town, and the vamps descend upon and kill three of them while a cop tells the fourth how to get away. Then there's a weird cut and suddenly she's being held in a different area by a few people, including the cop that just tried to help her! There's also a shootout near the end (in a vampire movie?) that seems to have been assembled from the parts of the footage the editor intended to throw away.

The pacing is also funky; it's difficult to grasp on how much time has gone by since Moriarty and his son arrived in town, another source of confusion. There's a scene where Moriarty asks his son if he got laid the previous night (their relationship is more like estranged brothers), and it comes after a scene where that seemed to have been the case - but the information in between suggests those moments were at least weeks apart, since the kid is now in school and they've made some good progress fixing up their dump of a home. Most of the movie takes place during the day (it's one of those movies where the vampires aren't privy to many of the rules, which I suspect is just a way to work around having to shoot everything at night), so there aren't a lot of real scare moments either - most of it revolves around Moriarty chatting with the vampires, his son, or the girl he loved as a boy, who thanks to vampire magic is the same age but still sleeps with him. That, and the son being torn between being a human with his dad who he hates or being a vampire where his girlfriend is Tara Reid - if he could only see 20 years into the future, his choice would be easy.

Oh, and don't go looking for connection to the original; he inherited the house from his aunt Clara, and at first I assumed she was a character in the original (again, it's been years, I can barely remember the hero's name!), but then she showed up, not dead but a vampire, so I looked it up and discovered there was no "Clara" in either the book or movie. Nor was his girlfriend a returning character - apart from the name of the town (which looks completely different, of course) there's no connection at all. King gets a "based on" credit, and both films are from Warner Bros, so I'm not sure why they opted not to make even a few minor connections for the fans' sake - it's not like a movie with RETURN in the title is aiming for a new audience.

But there's some stuff here I like, particularly the idea that they brought Moriarty there because he was a documentary filmmaker who specialized in unusual cultures (the movie opens with him filming a tribe that practices human sacrifice) and thus wouldn't judge their ways, which are mostly peaceful. They raise cattle and such to feed on, saving human kills for special occasions, and have no desire to take over the world or any of that - they're all pretty chill living in their town. Moriarty is tasked with writing a Bible for them, and they don't even want it published in his lifetime - they suggest 200 years later!

And for once Moriarty has an equally colorful co-star: Samuel Fuller (yes, the White Dog/Shock Corridor director) as an old Jewish guy who fancied himself a Nazi hunter. He doesn't enter the story properly until it's more than half over, but he adds immensely to the proceedings, and has great chemistry with Moriarty - it's a shame the terrible kid playing the son has to break it up. I also couldn't help but wonder if Guillermo Del Toro and/or Chuck Hogan had seen the movie, as he's funnier but otherwise very similar to their character Setrakian from "The Strain".

Overall, however, there's not much here to recommend to anyone that isn't already a Cohen fan (apologist?), as it's one of his lesser efforts and is dragging down a known property to boot. It manages to be better than most of the other King sequels (i.e. the Children of the Corn and Mangler followups), but that's saying absolutely nothing. Maybe TNT can remake this one someday too, get it right.

What say you?


  1. I love the Cohen/Moriarty team-ups (The Stuff is by far my favorite). I haven't seen their MOH episode since it aired, but I remember it being a hell of a good time.

  2. I think Cohen apologist is right on the money. Around Halloween, I re-watched The Stuff, this and some damn thing called Special Effects (mainly for Eric Bogosian.) I've also seen the uberweird God Told Me To.

    Around the same time, I also took in the Cohen-written/Lustpig-helmed Maniac Cop series. You can probably guess which I found highly entertaining(of course, MC 3 was total ass save for Jack Earle Haley's belated RoboCop audition as the main bad guy.)

    That's right, Cohen made a lot of disposable cheese in his day. The only problem is the shit expired a long time ago. Moldy outdated cheese. Now I'm not saying I still won't search out Q: The Winged Serpent because that just sounds like too damn much fun. But from what I've seen Cohen is much more of a doltish hack than distinctive guys like Lustpig or Hennenlotter.

    I thought a lot of the action was shot jarringly bad in this one too. And you want to talk bad creature effects? The blatantly rubber master vampire's facial expressions while he's maiming the punks looked like those of a brain damaged baby.

    At least Nazi Hunter Van Mear ruled and the finale was decent but it took forever to get there.


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