A Return to Salem’s Lot (Larry Cohen, 1987)
“I’m not a Nazi hunter. I’m a Nazi killer!”
—Van Meer, played by none other than aging, wild haired, cigar-chomping maverick Hollywood filmmaker Samuel Fuller
Ethically challenged anthropologist Joe Weber (Michael Moriarty) begrudgingly steps away from his research recording live tribal rituals in the South American jungle to deal with his troubled teenage son (Ricky Addison Reed) back in civilization, a boy he hasn’t seen in three years, then decides a nostalgic trip back to his ol’ New England hometown of Salem’s Lot might be just the therapeutic vacation they need… only to discover the town overtaken by a community of secret blood-suckers and their semi-human slaves, with head vamp Judge Axel (Andrew Duggan) immediately recognizing Weber as the perfect author to observe and transcribe the long hidden history of the vampire race…
Sam Fuller as the Van Helsing vampire killer
I declare it another entry in the Stephen King cinematic files, even if the author had nothing to do with it, with “Return” being a sequel (and one not much concerned with continuity) to Tobe Hooper’s first rate television event (over two nights!) adaption of King’s vampire-invasion-on-a-modern-New-England-town Salem’s Lot … and turning King’s simple yet grippingly told tale of good vs evil in a sleepy New England town into a portrait of a Mormon-style community (of vampires) having invaded and annihilated the original community (of humans) before it, with its leaders now looking to put down on paper their own (victorious) history (amusingly revealing the self-aggrandizing nature of victors, with the vamps eventually dispensing altogether of the initial referring to Weber’s developing tome as a history book to finally calling it what they really envision it as – their very own holy ‘bible’), with classrooms teaching vampire children of their own form of species nationalism (‘anti-human propaganda’, as Weber, growing more emotionally involved as the story progresses, disdainfully calls it) as well as of their innate superiority (helping validate the use of slaves in their society, naturally) and constantly endorsing their murderous behaviours through equivalence notions that ‘they could be worse’, ultimately creating a society that doesn’t look so different from… well… our own, is just the charmingly subversive take you’d expect from wonderfully eccentric indie filmmaker Larry Cohen.
Cohen is a central genre figure, worthy of a position as a master of horror with the modern greats like Cronenberg, Carpenter, Craven and Romero, if perhaps on just a slightly lower step; because even within his greatest and most inspired cinematic efforts, there’s still a lot of awkwardly executed filmmaking. I’d argue that Cohen aligns in sensibility closest with the great (alas, like Cohen, late) George Romero, who managed to muster up a rich, iconoclastic style through low budget limitations (though with Romero’s vision consistently much more honed and focused, with greater singular signature, than was Monsieur Cohen’s, who always seems in a race against the budget clock in even his best entries). The two share a radical satirical bent (with Cohen perhaps able to go even a bit colorfully further, overtly weaving in visions of evil conglomerates developing the “Stuff”, and insidious drug companies creating killer mutant babies) and a quirky sense of humor, with Cohen showing much less interest in Romero’s wonderfully irreverent EC style grizzly gags that the big bear of a director became famous for, certainly with his zombie films. Ultimately, however, while Cohen did create a few memorable monstrous creations along the way (the iconic “It’s Alive” trilogy babies, naturally… and even the Stuff), Romero singlehandedly re-defined an entire subgenre (do I even need to name which one?)
Unlike the great fun of his more cinematically inspired films like It’s Alive, or the startlingly audacious storytelling of God Told Me Too, Cohen’s Return, while always interesting, is a bit flat as far as far as cinematic execution. It never tries to be scary, or even particularly exciting; it’s filled with clever ideas, mind you, yet even there they don’t always congeal probably (for instance, the use of the American flag as the final ‘stake’ with the head baddy is a fun image… but doesn’t really comment in any coherent fashion on the narrative conceits). And of course… it’s got Samuel Fuller running about as the Professor Van Helsing-like Nazi Hunter Van Meer, who happily takes on some vamp stalking. It’s a pleasure watching him grunting in that Old Hollywood style, giving his physical all to the part (made especially enjoyable as myself and my small viewing cabal have been partaking in intermittent Fuller screenings over the last few years in my projection den).
The vampire attack and gore sequences have their moments (the two lecherous hobos overtaken by a swarm of undead children being a highlight, as well as the melting vampire faces when hit with holy water) but overall rarely feel particularly inspired, with the ‘vampire group’ attack sequences often feeling perfunctory… and while that hokey ‘head’ vampire get-up, which doesn’t look much beyond a limited-movement mask and rubber monster gloves, has a hokey charm, you still wonder if just a tad more effort could have been spent on it to at least pretend that someone was concerned (or hell, just don’t show it).
The Moriarty character’s arc of growing a conscience, and a newly acquired moral decision-making to involve himself in what’s going on around him is a nice idea I guess, and gave room to play for the actor… but after wildly colorful performances in three previous Cohen joints (with his quintessential turn as the small time crook Jimmy Quinn in Q being one that raises that entire film into a minor classic), the actor plays strangely subdued in Return, coming across as nowhere near as engaged or as excited by the material as previously… which perhaps might explain why the two never worked again after this one. Their relationship might have just run its course.
The moment of the vampires enticing Weber to help with their ‘bible’ but allowing him a chance at a roll in the hay with one of their vamp girls (one who happens to be a crush from Weber’s past who still looks… gulp… 16!) leads to a nicely naughty and hot sex scene (if one no producer of today would dare go with!).
Return, as usual, is peppered with familiar faces from Cohen’s acting troupe, including the distinguished Andrew Duggan as the head vamp Judge Axel, and then there’s the seemingly omni-present James Dixon, a gritty-looking street actor I’m not sure would have even had a career without Cohen continuing to hire him (and one who I’m not even sure possesses particularly good thesp acumen, beyond his somehow immediate likability when he appears on camera, which always leads me to be happy to see him when he inevitably shows up).
I admit, Return isn’t a particularly gripping experience; yet, with a setup that allows for lots of satirical commentary, it certainly comes from straight out of the Cohen camp… and, on top of it, it’s got cigar-chomping Sam Fuller. It’s only fair that, with all those other masters having gotten their chance at King, Cohen got his too… and the apropos net result? A charmingly oddball, off-the-beaten-path addition to the cinematic King canon.