Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Halloween Havoc: A RETURN TO SALEM'S LOT (1987)

You can accuse veteran genre filmmaker Larry Cohen of a lot of things, but following the herd ain't one of them. Cohen was unique even in the liberated '70s when you could sell your parent's Buick, get together some co-workers and make a movie that would actually get a theatrical run. Cohen's first film BONE (1972) pretty much set the tone for his career by subtly satirizing the hostage-drama archetype that would later become an entire genre of yuppie terror / home invasion films. Even though his next two films, BLACK CAESAR (1973) and HELL UP IN HARLEM (1973), catapulted the career of Superbowl I winning defensive back Fred "The Hammer" Williamson and stylized the black action genre following SUPERFLY (1972), they would probably the closest things he made that could be called mainstream.

Flash forward 15 years into Cohen's career after making deeply emotional films about killer mutant babies, an Aztec serpent god and err, J. Edgar Hoover, it would seem like an odd choice for Warner Brothers to hand him a late-in-the-game direct-to-video sequel of a highly successful 1979 CBS mini-series based on the Stephen King novel. Directed by the terminally under-appreciated Tobe Hooper with (at the time) big names such as David Soul, James Mason, Elisha Cook Jr., Geoffrey Lewis and Fred Willard. Yes, I'm sure there was Willard demographic that overlapped into the Stephen King demographic. CBS has a Venn diagram for that somewhere, I know it.

After signing on with Warner, Cohen made his second sequel to IT'S ALIVE (1974) and RETURN TO SALEM'S LOT, two of the films that even Cohen's fans generally feel a little less excited about. Back in the day when this hit video, as an example of said fan, I didn't think much of it. Eight years after what is quite possibly the best miniseries in the history of American television, we now have a low-budget sequel that actually rehashes the original poster art, simply replacing a silhouette of a country mansion with a small town landscape. Was the Warner Brother's art department on strike that day?

A two fisted, lady-killer anthropologist, Joe (Michael Moriarty... let that one sink in), gets a call from his ex-wife (Ronee Blakley) who wants to dump their delinquent kid in his lap. Now saddled with foul-mouthed pre-teen Jeremy (Ricky Addison Reed), Joe decides to go live in a house that he inherited from his aunt in Salem's Lot. Quickly Joe discovers that the town is nothing but a nest of wealthy vampires who have human "drones" that do all of the labor and look after the town in the daylight hours. The drones manage the farms that provide animal blood and the appearance of normality so that the vampires can live the life of the idle rich.

The problem is that the town's vampire patriarch, Judge Axel (Andrew Duggan), has taken Jeremy mentally hostage through the allure of a cute vampire girl his age (pre-surgical Tara Reid) and uses this as leverage against Joe, who he needs to write the history of vampires. Sounds good, except for the fact that Axel doesn't plan on releasing the book in maybe 200 years from now. There better be a hell of an advance on that, because Joe isn't going to see a penny of those royalties. If you can get past the shameless cash-in mentality, you have something that is not in any way a sequel to, or based on, the Stephen King story, but a political vampires-as-one-percenters allegory with a lot of cool, little touches.

The most interesting thing that eluded me back in '87 was that political subtext, which seems so obvious now. The vampires are wealthy elitists who prey on the lower classes. Of the two scenes in which we see the vampires kill outsiders, the victims are a group of "punk" kids and two homeless men; the natural enemies of arch conservatives in the wild. In a later scene they attempt to seduce an old man, Van Meer (Sam Fuller), with empty promises, telling him what they think he wants to hear to get him to join their ranks. I'm pretty sure if you looking the dictionary, that is the definition of "Fox News," Van Meer as it turns out is a nazi hunter and believes that Judge Axel is a nazi in hiding, not realizing that he is something just as bad, if not worse.

The scene with the homeless men is actually more creepy and sleazy than funny, which I'm pretty sure it was intended to be. The homeless man are sitting around taking swigs off the ol' hooch bottle when some pre-pubescent kids show up enticing the men into thinking they could take advantage of them, thereby justifying their deaths. I'm guessing that Cohen must have felt the need to follow mainstream fashion and make the victims complicit in, or at least deserving of, their gruesome fates. This somewhat undermines his theme, but makes for an interesting film as there really isn't a single likable character to be found.

Like most anthropologists, Joe is an irresponsible, cocky womanizer. His ex-wife is a complete bitch in furs who just wants to unload the baggage from their bad marriage, their son, who is so badly damaged by the neglect and hostility of his parents that he acts like an angry brat through most of the film until the grandfatherly figure, Van Meer, literally beats some sense into him. Someone was working out their inner demons here. Interestingly the villains have better family bonding than our protagonists, but they also prey on anyone who is not part of the family, enslaving them to tend their farms. Their farms serve as not so much a breeding ground for livestock, but a source of blood for their evil thirst. They may be soulless bloodsuckers who are abusing their power, but they aren't uncivilized.

I now realize that if  the film were made today, Judge Axel would probably be named "Judge Fox News", throwing out blatant, ham-handed political grandstanding, bludgeoning the audience with its message. This may be a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve, if you wipe away the blood, but it keeps its beliefs in the back ground for the most part. In the final scene (spoilers ahead) this theme is cemented when Judge Axel is staked through the heart with an American flag on a wooden pole. As he dies, he is shown briefly stroking the bloody flag. The scene seems to be making a statement about America's heritage being soaked in blood and the jingoist right wing irony of being killed by something that faux patriots pretend to believe in, but merely use as a status symbol and a way to excuse bad behavior.

For all of its faults (such as Moriarty's mesmerizing hairpiece), RETURN is surprisingly good in retrospect, and if you are still inclined to criticize the movie, go watch the Rob Lowe remake. I dare ya. Double dog dare ya.

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