The Cohen Case Files: A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987)

Executive Produced, Written (Also Story By), and Directed by Larry Cohen

Any discussion of A Return to Salem’s Lot has to begin and end with Sam Fuller (yes, I am aware he is credited in most of his films as Samuel Fuller, but it seems wrong not to refer to him as Sam). A journalist, decorated World War II veteran, indie writer/director, and all-around force of nature in his eventful life, Fuller is dropped into the film just when the plot needs a jolt and he provides one with his natural energy, stealing every scene he’s in and providing a needed moral center.

Before I can get into a plot setup and proper review of the film, I have to lay out a miniature flowchart of its literary and television connections. This film is a sequel-in-title-only to the 1979 TV miniseries Salem’s Lot. Directed by Tobe Hooper, the miniseries was based directly on the novel of the same name by Stephen King. Due to this literary lineage, A Return to Salem’s Lot sports a “based on characters created by Stephen King” credit, but all the film shares in common with either the novel or the miniseries is the titular New England town. All the characters are new and there is no mention of the earlier events, meaning viewers can jump straight into this film without having any knowledge of the previous projects.

Joe (Michael Moriarty) is a cold-blooded anthropologist who is introduced filming a remote tribe as one of their members is sacrificed. Not horrified in the least by this display, all Joe can think of is what his footage will do for his career. He is understandably annoyed when he receives word that his son has been in an accident and he races home only to discover his ex-wife (Ronee Blakley in a blink and you’ll miss her cameo) and her new husband have lied to force his return so they can dump young Jeremy (Ricky Addison Reed) on him.

It seems that at only eleven-years-old, Jeremy has already blossomed into a troublesome teenager. Angered by what he sees as being abandoned by Joe (who hasn’t seen him in three years) he has started pulling stunts like taking his stepfather’s new Mercedes out for a joyride. Reed expresses the inner turmoil of a boy trying to understand his relationship with his distant father by spitting out his tough talking dialogue in a stilted manner that threatens to sabotage the movie before it gets started.

Joe, unexpectedly saddled with the responsibilities of being a parent to a fairly awful little boy, remembers the small house left to him by his Aunt Clara. Of course, the house is in Salem’s Lot, but since Joe is not aware he’s in a horror movie, he takes Jeremy to the small town with the plan of fixing up the house as a way to bond with his son. That’s when they discover the town is populated almost exclusively by vampires.

Led by Judge Axel (Andrew Duggan), the vampires have been hiding in plain sight, protected by the public’s belief that vampires don’t exist. They mostly feed on cattle they raise specifically for blood, maintain appearances of being a regular small town by having a few humans (called “drones”) around that they breed and raise for this purpose, and wait for the day when the rest of the world will accept them for who and what they are.

Judge Axel wants Joe to write the vampire Bible, explaining their history and how they have evolved into their current society. While Joe is torn between keeping Jeremy safe by leaving town and the promise of achieving fame through what is arguably the greatest anthropological discovery in history, the vampires do their best to subtly manipulate him.

First, they work to create a divide between Joe and his son by trying to seduce Jeremy into the vampire fold through a lovely young vampire named Amanda (a very young Tara Reid). Next, they provide Joe with Cathy (Katja Crosby), a beautiful vampire he had a crush on when he was a child visiting his aunt. Finally, they use threats of violence, killing a group of humans who wander into town to send the message that they may feed on cattle to avoid problems with humans, but they still have the power and the desire to kill.

This is a ton of plot setup and the movie meanders a lot during the first act. I’m not sure if Cohen was trying to make the vampire’s actions just as mysterious to the audience as they are to Joe, but I was certainly questioning the lack of cohesiveness. We first see the vampires kill and drain four teenagers who get pulled over by Rains (James Dixon!), the town’s drone constable. One of these victims is killed right in front of Joe, even as Judge Axel tries to convince him of his plan to write a Bible. At the same time that Cohen seems to be making the case that the vampires should be treated like any other indigenous tribe and allowed to live their lives, he portrays them as evil killers trying to turn Joe’s son against him.

It’s a confusing and morally muddy place that Cohen takes the characters and the film. At times, this ambiguity is interesting. But for most of the first act, the film is just frustrating as Cohen seems unable to decide what he wants the film to be. Is it a satire of traditional vampire films where the undead characters are treated as just another tribe in the world? Or is it a straight horror film where Joe will eventually try to rescue his son and fight back against the bloodsuckers? At this crossroads, arrives Sam Fuller.

Fuller plays Van Meer, an elderly gentleman who shows up in town looking for someone he claims is an old friend. He’s eventually revealed to be a vengeance-driven man seeking out Nazi war criminals that escaped punishment. When he is told what is happening in the town, as a man who has seen the worst of what humans can do to each other, he accepts the truth without blinking an eye. When questioned later about how the outside world would accept such a fantastic premise, Van Meer’s response is simple but telling: “In 500 years, who’ll believe there were Nazis?”

By linking a group responsible for the worst human atrocities in semi-recent history with a group of the most frequently used supernatural villains of horror fiction, Cohen makes his choice for the direction taken by the rest of the film. While the moral issues the film wrestled with in the first act setup are interesting, it isn’t until Van Meer arrives and puts the issue in simple terms of good and evil that the film takes off and becomes a lot of fun.

But would the film have been as much fun if Cohen had cast someone other than Fuller as Van Meer? I suppose it’s possible that he could have found another elderly actor with as much playful, hard-charging, enthusiastic personality as Fuller, but I doubt it.

Fuller’s acting career before this film had consisted of cameos in his own films and the work of other directors who admired him. Never before (or, for that matter, after) this film had he been given such a large, pivotal role. I have no idea what led Cohen to think of Fuller for the role. Perhaps it was the similarity the two share in their respective careers—like Fuller, Cohen chafed under studio restrictions and carved out his own niche creating pulpy genre films with underlying social messages. After seeing the film, it’s hard not to think of Fuller as perfectly cast. Chomping on a cigar, waving a gun around at the slightest provocation, delivering his dialogue in a rapid rhythm that would warm David Mamet’s heart, his performance is so much fun to watch, he steals the movie with gusto.

In fact, much of the entertainment value of the film comes from the casting. Moriarty is always a blast when he works with Cohen and while he’s in more of a leading man mode in this film, he still gets plenty of oddball scenery to chew as a man suddenly facing a crisis of conscience. Much of the rest of the cast is made up of Cohen regulars (Dixon, Duggan, Brad Rijn, Jill Gatsby) who give eccentric performances in roles large and small. Duggan, in particular, is impressively sinister as the villainous Judge Axel.

The film has one of the largest budgets Cohen ever worked with and the money is evident on the screen. Shot by veteran genre cinematographer Daniel Pearl, the town is given an alien look during the daytime scenes that are made all the more disturbing by its deserted appearance. Needing fewer extras and with an entire town at his disposal, Cohen also does away with some of his more guerilla techniques of stealing shots in public places. This control of the entire environment gives the film more of a classic filmmaking feel, as though it were a studio project from the ’40s or ‘50s shot on a backlot.

Surprisingly, the film doesn’t have much of a reputation, even among Cohen fans. It definitely is more lightweight in terms of subtext than many of his directorial efforts and sports a terrible piece of child acting from Reed. But it also has a loopy sense of humor that makes up for those shortcomings. While most of the laughs come from Fuller’s hardboiled one-liners, there are plenty of sublime sight gags along with some goofy attempts by Joe to talk frankly with his son to spread the comedy evenly around.

I had a lot of fun with A Return to Salem’s Lot. Even though the philosophical questions of whether instinctual or tribal traditions excuse the taking of another life failed to fully engage me, as a piece of genre entertainment, it’s elevated by its anything goes tone and Fuller’s dynamic turn.

James Dixon Sighting: Not only does he have the small role of Rains, he also co-wrote the script.

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