The Friday Night Horror Movie: A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987)

a return to salmes lot poster

‘Salem’s Lot was one of the first Stephen King novels I ever read. It remains one of my favorites. Tobe Hooper made a pretty good TV mini-series out of it in 1979. Apparently, Larry Cohen had originally been slotted to adapt the book, but the executives hated his screenplay and gave Hooper the job instead.

Years later Warner Brothers approached Cohen to direct a low-budget horror film for them and he pitched the idea of a sequel. Interestingly, the sequel was intended as a theatrical film and in fact, debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and saw a limited American release. But the reviews were terrible and the box office a dud and so it pretty quickly went straight to the VHS shelves.

Outside of a few gorey effects, a couple of naked breasts, and a lot of children swearing, the film feels very much like a made-for-TV movie. The budget was clearly small, the acting amateurish, and it is edited within an inch of its life.

It follows Joe Webber (Michael Moriarty), an anthropologist who is called away from studying a native tribe in the South American jungle to take care of his young, troubled son Jeremy (Ricky Addison). He takes him to a run-down house he’s inherited in the small New England town of Jerusalem’s Lot (or Salem’s Lot as it is sometimes called).

Pretty quickly he realizes the town’s inhabitants are either vampires or their human slaves. Actually, they pretty much straight-up tell them who they are because they want him to write a book about them. To convince him to do this they kidnap the boy and get a young vampire girl to sweet-talk him into becoming a vampire as well.

Joe figures this is a good time to hook up with his childhood sweetheart and do a little remodeling of his old homestead. Seriously, the film makes some really odd choices.

Soon enough a Van Helsing-like vampire hunter shows up (played by director Samuel Fuller in a rare acting role) and eventually our heroes get to some actual vampire slaying.

A Return to Salem’s Lot feels like it should have been a mini-series. There are a lot of ideas floating around in it, but few of them get explored. A lot of scenes feel like they were cut short, as if maybe a lot of footage was shot but due to time constraints they had to be cut. Or maybe they just didn’t have the budget to shoot everything in the script.

As it is it feels very disjointed, and unrealized. There are some interesting ideas. The original story is basically ‘what if Dracula showed up in a small American town’ and this one takes that concept and has the vampires take over the entire town. Yet here they are also a persecuted minority. They fled Europe with the Pilgrims for the safety of the new world. They are good Americans. They don’t even kill humans (well, most of the time) but breed cows for their blood needs – and it is quite a scene watching some elderly actors pretend to suck the blood out of cows lying in a pasture.

All of this creates some light satire of American consumer culture, but again it is pretty disjointed and cut to shreds.

Despite all of this I still rather enjoyed it. Cohen knows his way around a low-budget picture and he gives it enough oomph to make it not terrible. Fuller is having a blast playing the crotchety old hunter.

Not a great movie by any means, but a fun one to watch.

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