Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Castle Rock Cash In - A Return to Salem's Lot

Read my review of the 1979 mini-series and 2004 mini-series first if you missed them.

King technically wrote his own follow up to Salem's Lot,a short story called "One for the Road" that can be read in Night Shift.  It's not so much a sequel as it is a glimpse into the state of the town and how the vampires were not as gone as Ben hoped they would be at the end of the novel.  It's a pretty quick read and I recommend it.

Hollywood did not pull from that story, or even anything in the original novel at all, when they made A Return to Salem's Lot.


 "This is one of those sequels that feels "in name only", like they either just ran off and did their own thing, or had an idea for their own film in mind and agreed to slap the franchise brand on it so as to get funding.(read more on Noel's blog)"

As of this date, this is the last sequel to a Stephen King film left to cover, and Noel has been released from having to watch and review these films.  Unless of course one of these new remakes they are planning is successful enough that they decide to start making sequels to those.  Or someone decides to make a 10th Children of the Corn film in order to hold on to the name. Let's all hope that doesn't happen.

Monday, November 25, 2013


There are a bunch of movies that I've watched before and either didn't like or flat out hated, yet other people love. I came to realize that a lot of them have one thing in common: Bill Murray. It's not that I hate Bill Murray. I grew up watching both Ghostbusters films over and over again. He's fantastic in Little Shop of Horrors, and I enjoyed his parts in Stripes and Caddyshack. Part of the problem is that he loves to work with Wes Anderson, and two of his films are on the list of ones I hated. But The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou turned me around on how I felt about Anderson as a filmmaker, and I've been wanting to revisit his earlier films ever since. So instead of just re-watching a few key films, I thought it might be fun to go through all of Murray's films in order. That way, at least, I know I'm going to enjoy some of them. This will not be a marathon, but rather just an ongoing project I'll get to when I have the chance.

This project will only include feature films, as covering all of Murray's appearances on television, particularly when he was a castmember of SNL and SCTV, would be a project in and of themselves. So I'm starting with Meatballs. IMDB mentions another film Next Stop, Greenwich Village before this one, but my understanding is that it's a "blink and you miss it" type cameo. He's not even credited in the film. So we'll move on to the film where he plays a starring role.

I had never seen this film before starting this project. My main knowledge of the film was a reference in The Baby-sitters Club Summer Vacation book, where the recurring joke was the girls watched this film and therefore thought being camp counselors would be a fun idea. I also remember my young mind frequently confusing it with Spaceballs, solely because of the title similarity. So I wasn't sure what to expect from this one.

Having now watched it, I'm not sure how someone could see it and think they'd want to be a camp counselor. I suppose there are moments where it looks moderately fun, but considering that most of the teens are a bunch of goofs, I can't really imagine relating to them. Murray's role isn't particularly relatable either. I now can't help but think that perhaps Ann M. Martin saw the film and thought "How horribly unrealistic. Let me write something closer to how it actually goes." Of course I can't really say how accurate either version is, as I've never been to summer camp in my life.

What I can say is that this film has not aged well over the years. The music is a sampling of the worst styles of music that existed in the lates 70s, with bland disco numbers and bland soulful songs meant to be touching but just end up rather boring. And on top of that, a rather annoying kids choir sings the theme song. Most of it sounds to be created just for the film, and none of it particularly inspired or worth listening to outside of that context. They were apparently quite proud of it though, as the ending credits start with the music rather than the cast.

As far as the cast, there aren't too many standouts here past Murray. Chris Makepeace, who plays shy kid Rudy, is certainly noticable with his bright blue eyes and girly eyelashes, but in terms of acting he's just okay. The same can be said for the rest of the cast, who portray the group of gawky and horny teenagers well enough. Judging by the film's poster and setting, you might expect this to be a raunchy comedy like Porky's or Animal House, but in fact most of the sexual matters are all talk. There's certainly no nudity to be found here. While some situations make this a little too mature for young children, a lot of it is mild enough to be PG.

Speaking of those situations, there is one scene that made me flat out uncomfortable. Early on we see Murray's character Tripper flirting with another camp counselor Roxanne, and she doesn't look too interested. When the two of them are alone in a cabin, he grabs her and starts wrestling with her. She's clearly uncomfortable, shouting at him to get off of her, and he refuses. He even gropes her. The scene goes on for what feels far too long for comfort. Toward the end he wrestles until she's on top of him, and when the camp director comes in, he acts like she attacked him. The director doesn't believe him, but he also doesn't reprimand him and Roxanne doesn't speak up at all. Worse yet, this is the beginning of their "romance" for the rest of the film, where we're supposed to just let this go because apparently she really does like him, and the two of them end up together in the end.

This type of character is one Murray is known for, probably best shortened to "loveable scamp." He breaks the rules, can be rude to people, doesn't take no for an answer, but it turns out okay because he has a big heart. We see it as he helps Rudy gain confidence in himself, and again throughout the film as he encourages Camp North Star in their rivalry with nearby Camp Mohawk. His cries of "It just doesn't matter!" rally them to victory in the Olympiad competition, and he even gets Rudy to be the star hero for them all. The problem is that the balance between scoundrel and nice guy for Murray are just too far out of whack in this film. The scene with Roxanne in particular really ruins it for me.

Even beyond that, I have a hard time enjoying this film. The plot is really loose, with the idea of the rivalry with Camp Mohawk not really kicking into high gear until the latter half. It feels a lot more like a series of comedy sketches set at a summer camp, and most of the sketches aren't particularly funny. This is a film that thinks pulling a guy's pants down is the ultimate joke. With the mix of young kids and teenagers here, it seems like they couldn't decide what kind of film they wanted - feel good inspiration for the little ones or sexy teen romp for the older set. As such both styles clash poorly and feel stilted.

Later sequels would take the raunchy comedy angle and run with it. Since neither Murray nor director Ivan Reitman had anything to do with them, I won't be taking a look at them. It's not my kind of film anyway.

Another interesting thing for me is that Murray was 27 years old when this movie was filmed. The combination of his widow's peak and near permanent five o' clock shadow make him look much older than that. He seems to be the kind of guy who was born old.

Beyond revisiting films I want to give another chance, another thing about this project is it allows me to watch some obscure films I've never heard of before. Next up is Mr. Mike's Mondo Video.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Castle Rock Companion - Salem's Lot (2004)

In 2004 TNT produced another mini-series version of Salem's Lot, and this time they did make a lot of changes.  While it does help the pacing of the story, I'm a bit bothered by the changes they made.  I can't have my cake and eat it too, it seems.

First off, instead of having it where Ben and Mark are down in Central America as our wraparound story, we instead get Ben attacking Father Callahan, and then telling the whole story to a hospital orderly via narration.  The main problem I have with this narration is that Ben shouldn't really know all the details about these small townspeople's lives because he wasn't there in Salem's Lot long enough to learn it.  But I guess we're supposed to just ignore that and go with it.

Characters are once again condensed to save time, but this time their choice to do so smears the name of an otherwise good character.  Jim Cody is one of the few good people in the town, a doctor just trying to help his patients.  But here he's a guy who helps a woman cheat on her husband, and we eventually find out all that was lies in an attempt for the couple to make some money off him.  While this does ramp up the drama in the beginning of the series, it adds this goofy plot thread of Cody continually asking to borrow money from people for the rest of it, and it's just kind of silly.  Though it does mean the baby gets to be saved rather than being turned into a vampire, so I guess there's that.

This version of Matt Burke is African American and gay, and on the surface I want to cheer about them at least attempting to make a more diverse cast, but the events and how they play out make me pause.  I feel like the only reason they made Matt gay is to have an uncomfortable scene when Mike Ryerson returns as a vampire, and it's not really necessary.  Can't a man just be a teacher who cares about his former students without the answer being that he did so because he was attracted to him?

But the largest change is all related to Ben Mears.  Because this is 2004, he can't be a fictional writer anymore.  No, he's a guy who got famous by writing a tell-all book about the naughty things the soldiers who saved him in Afghanistan were doing.  So now he's come to Salem's Lot to write about the nasty things that exist in a small town.  But then later he tells Susan that he is in fact there for the reason given in the novel, to excise the demons that have been plaguing him since he went into the Marsten house at a young age. So why was that change even necessary?  Especially since they also changed what happened to him in the house.

In the book Ben enters the house after it has long since been deserted, and he sees the former owner's ghost.  Here, he goes in to see the day the owner actually murdered his wife and a young boy before killing himself.  Ben finds the bodies and then is frozen in horror, unable to leave.  It's all great imagery and works as a good horrifying moment, but would kids in a neighborhood really dare you to break into a house where people were still living?  That seems unlikely to me.

In this version Barlow remains closer to Count Dracula and is played by the wonderful Rutger Hauer.  I think he manages to make Barlow charismatic without also being a straight Dracula rip-off, and he deserves praise for that.  But I can't say I feel the same about the rest of the vampires here.  Their attempts to make them scary come off as far too cliché for the time period.  Bending in strange ways, climbing on ceilings, these are all devices we've seen time and time again and look far more silly than scary at this point.

This mini-series is definitely better than the 1979 version, and if you're going to watch one version this is definitely your choice.  While I don't like some of the choices they made with the characters, if you haven't read the book you would never know the difference and you would probably enjoy this one a lot.  My problem is that not only have I read the book, I've also read the Dark Tower series, and so for me, I cannot watch this mini-series without being enraged.

I first read Salem's Lot back in my teens, and I read through the Dark Tower series in my 20s. So this time around I was surprised at how small a role Father Callahan plays in the novel.  He's a fully formed character and his conflict of faith is an interesting one, but then he exits the story rather abruptly.  It makes me wonder if King intended to add him to that series from the start or if he simply had a strong desire to return to the character later on.

Father Callahan makes his return in book 5 of the Dark Tower series, Wolves of the Calla.  I don't want to spoil those of you who have never read it, but he is one of the good guys and he plays a part that made me really fond of him.  In the 1979 mini-series, his role is pretty minor, and we basically just assume he dies after encountering Barlow.  But in the 2004 mini-series, he essentially takes Straker's place, and continues to lead the group of vampires even after Barlow is killed.  Wolves of the Calla was published November 2003, and this mini-series premiered in June 2004.  I realize that probably means this was already in production when the book came out, and was very likely too late for them to change anything if they had wanted to.  But that doesn't mean I have to like how they treat him here.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Castle Rock Companion - Salem's Lot (1979)

From now on, Castle Rock Companion will be most commonly appearing in written form. I explained the reasons for the change over on my personal blog. My apologies to all of you who enjoyed the videos.

Salem's Lot is King's attempt to write Dracula, but it's not really Bram Stoker's version of Dracula.  This is closer to the Dracula we see in the Hammer films, a brooding older man with a charming presence despite his ghoulish appearance.  He's affected by all the modern myths that have surrounded vampires since Nosferatu, like the inability to come out in the daytime.  The cast of characters is also updated to King's standard of the residents of a small town.  The town of Salem's Lot is authentic King, with the feeling that you could put these characters up against Cujo, Christine or Carrie and they'd be just the same.  It's mostly when he's directly emulating the Dracula story that it comes off a little less authentic.

The 1979 adaptation exists in two forms - its original television mini-series format and an edited down movie format that was released years later.  For the purpose of this review I'm looking at the mini-series version.  This adaptation is once again very close to the novel in a lot of ways.  It was toned down a bit for content and a lot of the minor characters are merged together to save time.  There's really only one large difference between the two, and I'll get to that in a minute.

I feel that keeping the pacing so close to the novel was a mistake.  We saw this in the 1997 version of The Shining and again in Firestarter.  These kind of straight up adaptations can come off really bland, like a cover song so close to the original that you'd rather just listen to the original instead.  It makes sense for a book to take its time and build slowly, and between narration and knowing what the characters are thinking, it can really build a sense of tension.  But in a TV series you need to raise the drama or action in order to keep people's attention, and this mini-series doesn't do that at all in my opinion.  It does make some really strange choices though.

When the deliverymen drop off the crate containing Barlow at the Marsten House, they tell us over and over again that they are cold, and that the crate seems to be emanating cold from it.  Now I know that vampires are cold, but I think this is the first time I've ever heard of them making everything around them cold too.  Or maybe he's being delivered packed in ice so you can't smell the stink of death?  Regardless it's just a silly detail and is unneeded.  This kind of repetition of lines happens a few times throughout the mini-series.  Another strange choice that confused me was changing some of the character's names.  Floyd is called Ned and Matt is called Jason.  It did remind me of the way that characters often get flipped around in Dracula adaptations though, so I guess they succeeded in that.

The most obvious change they make in this version is making Barlow more like Count Orlok than Count Dracula in appearance. He speaks only in hisses and wails.  This was the decision of producer Richard Kobritz, who felt like Dracula had been done to death and would only come off as silly.  Ironically, this blue faced hissing creature is the one that comes off silly to me.  He looks like the bat boy from Weekly World News.  Of course most of the vampires come off silly, with their glowing yellow eyes and their strange attempts at appearing menacing.  Though there is one moment towards the end that genuinely creeped me out, where the vampires are slowing creeping up on our heroes, the fact that they are out of focus while doing so speaks volumes.

Making Barlow silent means that the film's villainy must be carried by his assistant Straker, so it's fortunate that they cast James Mason in the role.  While it's a little strange that he just appears out of nowhere all the time when they need him in a scene, it does tie into the idea that being Barlow's companion gives him extra-human abilities.  His death scene is way too over the top though.  The other thing about Barlow being silent is that it takes away the angle from the book where he is using his charms to seduce the people of the town.  Here Straker captures Ralphie Glick for Barlow, and from then on it seems like all the people are turned by their fellow townspeople.  I like this idea, because it seems logical that you might miss your recently deceased loved one so much that you would allow them into your home and fall prey to them.

The other main difference here is the climax being moved around, where Barlow's death happens within the Marsten house, and Sue's death is saved until the end.  Both of these are excellent story choices that fit the pacing a little better.  It's just a shame they couldn't have also tried to change things up early on too.

There was a sequel to this mini-series made, and Noel will be covering it in two weeks.  Before that, I'll be talking about the 2004 mini-series.
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