Reviews of old movies: ‘Wolfen” (1981) and “Salem’s Lot” (1979)

Harmony Mills No. 3 in August 2011

19th century bling atop Harmony Mills No. 3, built in late 1800s. (Note statue of Robert Johnston over front door: see LOC image at http://1.usa.gov/w0MNCD .)

Happy Hallowe’en!

This movie by Michael Wadleigh as well as an excellent made-for-TV movie by Tobe Hooper don’t make it onto the Top 10 horror movie lists nowadays – people are still too busy transitioning between the 19th century Victorian age and that of 20th century which seemed to be taking shape around the time these two movies were made, to get nostalgic over them.

They’ll become more popular over time, I suspect. After all, what’s there for the horrific to break down, if not a status quo of smug and comfortable hipness?

I’m going to watch them both again, later on.  For now, please note that there will be spoilers throughout; I’m assuming you’ve watched them, and if you haven’t, maybe these spoilers will clue you in on why you should.

Wolfen

This movie was good at the time it came out but you couldn’t quite say why back then.   Today, post 9/11 it’s clear why it’s a good movie, as the first few moments of this trailer show,  up to the revelation of the old church behind the demolished building.

Believe me, that theme of emergency in the city and fire in the sky is also the culmination of the movie, when Albert Finney’s character saves himself and the girl. Only back in the 1970s, it was okay for the wolves to end up running the streets freely. And it was only architectural models the cop destroyed. It’s not as if he flew planes into downtown skyscrapers or something.

I still have difficulty coming to grips with that whole part of Wolfen.

The rest of that trailer is pretty much not at all what the movie is about. They hit every button they thought a 70s audience would care about and ignored all the interesting stuff in the movie. This includes excellent work by Gregory Hines and Edward James Olmos, the buildup of suspense to an unbearable point, a fascination with daily morgue routine that prefigures the CSI phenomenon, and the whole doughnut thing.

I never hear a joke about police and doughnuts without thinking of this; it’s one of the parts of rather dark humor in Wolfen that let you relax and allow yourself to get lost in the suspense.

The movie tale is told well by having not one but two red herring subplots, one involving Indians and the other, believe it or not, terrorism.

There’s also plenty of kitsch. I really don’t know if it was intentional, but suspect not: this is by the man who made the movie about Woodstock, after all.

Oh, and the killers? They are absolutely beautiful. They really are. In the trailer above, you do get to briefly look deeply into the eyes of one, towards the end, just like the cop does. Perhaps the most horrifying part of the movie is just how beautiful that experience really is.

Not only do some people like to watch buildings burn – we all are fascinated by the view through a wild wolf’s eyes as it tracks its prey.

Unanswered questions about Wolfen:

How did they get Finney and Olmos to go up on the bridge, and how did they film that? Awesome sequence in every respect.

Why do only some versions (namely, the one I taped off TV back some time in the ’90s) have Tom Waits performing a song in the bar? It’s very bizarre, and yet it enhances the whole “fish out of water” experience the cop is having at that moment perfectly?

Why does the biologist have a thing about making prank phone calls? (Granted: I haven’t read the book.)

Salem’s Lot

This one is much better known than Wolfen. Its trailer here does hit most of the high points, if only appropriately briefly, but it can’t explain why all 183 minutes of the DVD version storytelling is so enjoyable.

That’s about 70 minutes longer than the official version, and the time is spent mostly in deepening various scenes. It’s a very satisfying addition now, but here’s a confession: I watched it on TV back when it first came out and thought it was “okay,” but didn’t do justice to King’s novel.

While this is true in a broad sense, they did get quite a bit right: the claustrophobic yet beautiful sense of ordinary life in an old New England rural village (I grew up in one that was far from the coast and, fortunately, not infected with vampires, but it did have a house on a hill, and lots of dirty stories); the horrible feeling as all your nightmares slowly come real. Those are two things off the top of my head that come to mind as matches with the details of the novel. (As mentioned, I’m going to watch it again later today.)

Tobe Hopper also manged to bring a hint, albeit a tepid one, of the fetid, brutal “reality” of vampirism that King conveys so strongly throughout his book and then turns into a house, the Marsten House.

It takes words to do something that awesome, but visuals count for a lot, too, and I do mean the three vampire Glicks, James Mason, pretty much all of Geoffrey Lewis’s screen time as Vampire Mike Ryerson, the casual contempt Mike and Ned show as they drive out of town knowing Cully is going to try to murder his wife and her lover that night and then their terror on the return drive, Jason Burke’s walk up those stairs and down that long hall to the door of a room in his own house, the scene where Mike jumps into the grave…well, you probably have your own favorite scenes to add here.

Similarities and differences

The ladies are the biggest similarity. It was a different time back then, and neither film maker could go the traditional route of voluptuous curves and revealing and scanty clothing: “today’s woman” back then was professional but stereotypical, strong in some ways but somehow always needing to be rescued.

Diane Venora got the short end of the stick there. Her character in Wolfen is a cartoon, basically. Bonnie Bedelia, of course, did a wonderful job in Salem’s Lot, and that movie also featured the likes of Marie Windsor (Eva Miller) and Emmy-award-winner Barbara Babcock (Susan’s mother).

All the actresses in Salem’s Lot had good, well-developed roles to work with, and could be scary on their own. Yes – Marjorie Glick, but also that little scene between Eva Miller and Susan, the last day in Salem’s Lot. If Eva hadn’t been partly alive at that point, and thus weak, Susan likely wouldn’t have made it living up to the Marsten House.

Maybe I’m looking at it more closely than one should, but this exploration of the female roles in Salem’s Lot was a bow to current political awareness. Something similar, but with a different focus, is there in Wolfen, too, with references to terrorism, urban decay and the natural predators that spring up to eliminate weakness: I think that has more of a meaning to us today than Salem’s Lot could possibly have.

The main difference I can see between the two movies is that Tobe Hooper directed Salem’s Lot. There is more visual stuff in it. The director of Woodstock made his excellent horror film Wolfen more with an aim for the gut level; it’s more surrealistic and yet moves right along, whereas Salem’s Lot catches us in mid-motion and forces us to slow down and check out life’s little horrors off the interstate of our lives.

Both are excellent movies for Hallowe’en and I’m looking forward to watching them both.



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