“A Return to Salem’s Lot” (1987)

by A.J. Hakari

"A Return to Salem's Lot" poster

 

Proper Stephen King adaptations are few and far between in movies, so just think of how far up Merde Creek the rare sequels are. Okay, I’ll admit that a follow-up to Salem’s Lot at least makes more sense than extending Sometimes They Come Back into a goddamned trilogy (seriously, how did that become a series?). But when you bear witness to as goofball of a treatment as the one writer/director Larry Cohen gave A Return to Salem’s Lot, you realize fast how much of a good thing got ruined. It’s a dark satire with some neat ideas that simply has no business being a Salem’s Lot successor — at least not in its current, cartoonish, horribly-composed state.

Joe Weber (Michael Moriarty) has chronicled the most exotic tribes and civilizations scattered across the globe. Unfortunately, his travels haven’t taught him how to be a better dad, as he’s at a total loss when left to look after his disturbed son Jeremy (Ricky Addison Reed) for a while. Thinking some country air will do the boy good, Joe takes him to his old aunt’s hometown of Salem’s Lot, which seems to have undergone quite the terrifying makeover. Vampires have long since assumed control of this quaint village, but in exchange for his life and Jeremy’s, the ghouls have made Joe a bargain: write a “bible” of their kind’s history, to eventually share with humanity. Reluctantly, Joe agrees, only to find out quick that no amount of cheery pretense can mask an evil as ancient as the one surrounding him.

If its predecessor weren’t the one Tobe Hooper movie I actually like, maybe A Return to Salem’s Lot wouldn’t grind my gears as much as it does. This is so dramatically different in tone and irrevocably out-of-whack with continuity, I have a hard time believing this wasn’t a completely unrelated script in the beginning. It’s more of a soapbox upon which Cohen can broadcast the sort of social commentary he’s famous for smuggling within schlocky horror shows, and in all honesty, he has a clever hook going for him. Presenting the populace of Salem’s Lot as a horde of grotesque demons hiding beneath the impossibly squeaky-clean veneer of small-town America is a subversive master stroke. But Cohen promptly undoes all that good will by substituting sitcommy gag lines (a vampire whose husband won’t let her consume human blood: “He says I have a drinking problem!”) for exploring themes that are ripe for the dissecting (a mention of Salem’s Lot adapting to avoid the AIDS epidemic is immediately glossed over).

But A Return to Salem’s Lot‘s most persistently nagging crime is the staunch middle finger it gives to continuing the original movie’s plot. Remember how Salem’s Lot was an average town that gradually got overtaken by a vampiric scourge? Well, according to Cohen, not only has it always been infested with bloodsuckers from the start, vampires have been embedded in American society for centuries and even came over on an undead equivalent of the Mayflower. It certainly ruins the mystery of wondering what hellhole birthed Kurt Barlow, who has been supplanted here by a blueberry-hued Douche-ula in one of the most hilariously weak monster make-ups I’ve ever seen. Between the trite father/son drama, anemic gore effects, and bargain bin production value, it’s impossible to take A Return to Salem’s Lot seriously for even the faintest moment. Our one saving grace is the truly badass presence of filmmaker Sam Fuller, who excels in a sizable acting role as a crotchety Nazi hunter who joins the war against the fanged ones.

A Return to Salem’s Lot is a crummy ordeal that really could’ve killed. It already had a premise that set itself apart from and expanded on the Hooper film, but it blew it by shelling out more lame parody than atmospheric horror. A Return to Salem’s Lot is an utter joke, both as a vampire flick and as something bearing the already-sullied name of Stephen King.

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