Saturday, 21 October 2017

October Nightmares III #21: Stephen King Special (Part 1) - Salem's Lot (1979) & The Langoliers (1995) - A Clash of King(s)

I've given Stephen King a lot of stick through this blog's history. But it's not my fault. He makes me do it: like a battered spouse with a talking back problem. King's the world's foremost horror author and, as a horror reviewer, I'm obliged to tackle his works at some point. It's in the horror constitution: the one etched into the flesh of dead teenagers who were killed whilst they were shagging in a haunted house.

And yet King fills his novels with depraved excess, boring details, and odd creative choices which ultimately harm his inventive ideas. There is no medium more enamoured with the works of King than the TV miniseries, however. Apparently there's nothing creatively better than cramming a dense thousand page novel into a three hour miniseries, like Meatloaf stuffing his handkerchiefs into his sleeves.

There are well over a hundred King adaptations across TV and cinema, so it'd be remiss of me not to include a few of them in this series. I'm going to start with the best adaptation, and the worst one. Because I hate myself.

Salem's Lot

"Open the window. Open the window, Mark."

'Salem's Lot is, perhaps, Stephen King's most straightforward novel. A healthy sized novel, around 430 pages, about a creepy New England town (✔ - do I have to break out the cliché detector again?) invaded by monstrous vampires. That's it. No Cosmic Turtle, allegories for female puberty, kids with telepathy, or metaphors for the loss of childhood innocence. It's King's tribute to the likes of Dracula, given a rural America twist. Which evidently involves more than giving a Renfield a homemade banjo.

Tobe Hooper's adaptation, Salem's Lot, takes this moderately sized book and adapts it into a three hour, two part miniseries. This is the same length as the IT miniseries, which is ludicrous since that had the two timelines to juggle. Underneath the vampire and haunted house tropes, Salem's Lot is more your standard King story of a past which can never be reclaimed and a decaying present filled with broken dreams and denial. Everyone's downbeat, miserable, and broken. The whole 'I coulda been a contender if it wasn't for my bum knee' mentality hangs over the place.

Writer Ben Mears (David Soul) returns to his hometown of Jerusalem's Lot intending to write a book a creepy old hillside property which is supposedly haunted. Of course he fucking does. Along the way he shacks up with teacher, reconnects with his old teacher played by Lew Ayres (not the same teacher he nails), and discovers an ancient vampire Kurt Barlow (Raggie Nalder) who is slowly taking over the town. They say write what you know, so I guess King's not going to be writing about Peruvian pan-flute players anytime soon. But the ruggedly American writer-protagonist leading the fight against the forces of darkness, while getting to shag Bonnie Bedelia, feels rather self-gratifying.

Given that Salem's Lot is almost 40 years old and a TV miniseries, it shouldn't come as too much of a surprise that it's aged as gracefully as a plastic-surgery obsessed celebrity. But Salem's Lots limitations are why it's probably the best Stephen King adaptation going. It heavily relies on atmosphere. Hooper's your go to man when it comes to crafting a story that's all atmosphere, low action. I can't be the only who finds The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to be highly atmospheric, and yet, actually rather boring. Hate mail to please.

Salem's Lost is equal parts dream-like, ethereal (see the vampire-kid Ralphie floating through the window surrounded by shadow and smoke), and antediluvian (with its European mysticism, primal undead, and creaky ancient houses). The vampires are genuinely ghoulish, there's none of that pretty boy tortured soul crap here. Hooper depicts King's vampires as blue-skinned, slightly demonic, distinctly non-human, possessing European manservants, and vulnerable to holy water and crucifixes. It's an undeniably Seventies take on the classic vampire story, and I'm not just talking about the gaudy big-collared and surfer hair. But there's this campy Hammer Horror underneath the bleak atmosphere. And boy does it get bleak - the ending especially when it transpires that Ben and co failed save Salem's Lot and they're now being hunted down by the undead hordes.

The unfolding decay of the town slowly becomes entwined with the vampiric invasion, becoming less and less welcoming the more these undead figures increase their influence. It's a metaphor you see. Back in my uni days we'd have said something like "the vampires have blue skin because it resembles their sadness at being a tool for the dark forces." Nowadays I'd say that they're bluer than the members of The Blue Man Group after they tried out David Carradine's wanking game.

The Langoliers

"What the hell is making that weird crunching noise over the horizon?!"

When I think of Tom Holland's adaptation of King's novella, 'The Langoliers' (from anthology Four Past Midnight), I'm always reminded of that week in the summer of '03 when I was bedridden with a stomach bug and whiled away the long days watching crap movies on the Sci Fi Channel (it'll never be SyFy to me). That I'm perpetually reminded of a torrent of vomit and diarrhoea whenever I think of this miniseries, should tell you all you need to know about The Langoliers; the miniseries which killed of the King TV boom of the Nineties.

Conceptually, The Langoliers is akin to that Twilight Zone episode stretched to its absolute limit. The flimsy-thin concept behind the story is that a group of passengers on a cross-country redeye flight wake up to find everyone else has vanished. Unfortunately, this includes their pilots - forcing the survivors to pull-off a Chesley Sullenberger and perform an emergency landing. In Bangor, Maine. Fucking Christ. The survivors find themselves in a abandoned, eerie place: where physics and electronics do not obey their normal laws, and the arrival of strange beings is heralded on the horizon. Just like any airport at night.

The premise is intriguing, marrying pseudo-science themes such as quantum physics, spacial distortion, time travel, with emotional abuse, existentialism, and worthlessness. I even liked the idea of The Langoliers themselves as they're essentially Eldritch versions of Van Damme's character in Timecop - serving to correct the time line. But the ropy special effects mean that they resemble a cross between a Ferrero Rocher and that girl's vagina from Teeth.

But as I mentioned above, this flimsy plot which works in short novella form doesn't work so well in a three hour miniseries. There's stretched out, then there's a Cenobite from Hellraiser dragging your skin over the surface of a trampoline level of stretched out. Which wouldn't have been so bad if the acting wasn't so utterly atrocious. But no one wants to be involved, it's like Operation Yewtree. The most perfunctory actors are the Langoliers themselves, and fucking look at them!

Dean Stockwell does his best ironic ham, but he's only there to one-up his role as Al in Quantum Leap as the one who spouts all the bullshit techno-babble (on the level of 'reversing the polarity'). Bronson Pinchot carries the 'weighty' abuse themes, so it probably doesn't help that his every line is elongated as though the script writer got drunk and held his finger down on the vowel keys on his keyboard.

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