Archive for James Mason

Me and Lil’ Stevie: SALEM’S LOT

Posted in 2012, 70s Horror, Me and Lil' Stevie, Peter Dudar Reviews, Stephen King Movies, TV-Movies, Vampires with tags , , , , , , , on February 21, 2012 by knifefighter

Me and Lil’ Stevie
Raise The Stakes In
SALEM’S LOT (1979)
By Peter Dudar

Exterior: Night

(Establishing shot of a lone Victorian house on a hillside. The moon is climbing just overhead, illuminating a sign on the side of the road that reads “Salem’s Lot.” The wind picks up, blowing tree limbs about, making the landscape seem almost alive. Camera pans slowly around the house to a set of bulkhead doors that lead down into the basement. The doors fly open, and the camera travels downstairs into the basement, where rats scamper across the floor. A figure steps out of the shadows. It is a man holding a ventriloquist dummy of the Master of Horror, Stephen King.)

Peter: Greetings, and welcome to another edition of ME AND LIL’ STEVIE.

Lil’ Stevie: Wassup, Constant Viewers? Welcome to my hizzle!

Peter: Um, we don’t live here. This is actually the Marsten House, the uncredited star of Tobe Hooper’s 1979 television miniseries masterpiece SALEM’S LOT, based on Stephen King’s 1975 novel. King’s novel was written on the supposition of what Dracula might have done if he’d survived his onslaught in London and fled to the United States. The result was the corruption and death of an entire New England town, fallen to bloodthirsty vampires.

Lil’ Stevie: And THAT came after my short story, “Jerusalem’s Lot,” which sets the stage for a Colonial era township that will eventually become Salem’s Lot. In that story, the town has already fallen once into…

Peter: Save it, Knot Head! We’re here to discuss movies. And our movie centers around Ben Mears (David Soul, television’s Kenneth “Hutch” Hutchinson of STARSKY AND HUTCH, 1975-79), a novelist who returns to his childhood home to write about the Marsten House. Mears has always known of the bad history of the house, and is somewhat disappointed to discover that the house has already been purchased by Kurt Barlow (Reggie Nalder, MARK OF THE DEVIL, 1970) and his business associate Richard Straker (James Mason, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, 1959), who have apparently come to Salem’s Lot to open an antiques shop. It seems that Barlow is never actually around in the Lot, so Straker has to be the mouthpiece for the two.

Lil’ Stevie: Straker is more like Barlow’s keeper, making all the “mortal” preparations so that the vampire can arrive safely and undetected. And did you notice how much Straker sounds a lot like Stoker? I did that on purpose. I’m so cool!

Peter: The REAL Stephen King did a fabulous job plotting out all the necessary details to maintain Barlow’s anonymity. But there are a few major discrepancies between the novel and Hooper’s film, which we will discuss later. For now, let’s focus on the rest of the citizens of Salem’s Lot. There are a lot of characters and conflicts to uncover, which help drive the story and establish the proper chain of events. Foremost, with Mears returning to the Lot, he begins retracing his own past by visiting the local high school and getting in touch with his former English teacher, Jason Burke (Lew Ayres, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, 1930), who is putting together the annual town pageant with some of his students.

Lil’ Stevie: Particularly Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin, OUTBREAK, 1995), and his pals Danny and Ralph Glick (Brad Savage and Ronnie Scribner).

Peter: Mears also meets Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia, DIE HARD, 1988), who happens to be a fan of his writing. The two have a romantic spark, only Susan’s bull-headed ex-boyfriend Ned Tibbets (Barney McFadden, INTERSECTION, 1994) still isn’t over her.

Lil’ Stevie: We also meet the real-estate agent Larry Crocket (Fred Willard…c’mon, EVERYBODY knows Fred Willard), and his lovely secretary, Boom-Boom Bonnie Sawyer (Julie Cobb, DEFENDING YOUR LIFE, 1991). Larry and Bonnie are having an adulterous affair, of which her husband Cully (George Dzundza, BASIC INSTINCT, 1992) is becoming privy to.

Peter: Larry also works for Straker, and upon instruction, Larry recruits Cully to drive to Portland to pick up a furniture crate and bring it back to the Marsten House. Only Cully has other plans, and will be busy catching Bonnie and Larry in the act of infidelity. Cully passes the job on down to Ned Tibbets and Mike Ryerson (Geoffrey Lewis, THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, 2005), who runs the local cemetery. The two drive to Portland and pick up the crate, and return it to the Marsten House, but the two get spooked off because, a) the crate is cold as ice, b) the crate seems to move around in the bed of the trailer, and c) the Marsten House seems to radiate evil.

Lil’ Stevie: Freakin’ pansies!

Peter: You’d have done the same thing, Big Mouth!

Lil’ Stevie: Would Not!

Peter: Shhhh…did you just hear that?

Lil’ Stevie:  (Nervously) Hear what?

Peter: BOO!

Lil’ Stevie: Ayiiiiii! (Starts to cry and tremble).

Peter: Aw…I’m sorry, I was just kidding.

Lil’ Stevie: You really are a jerk!

Peter: Anyway, where were we? Ah, yes…We have Mark Petrie and the Glick brothers. Mark appears to be a caricature perhaps of Stephen King as a boy. Mark delights in horror films and masks and models and dioramas…all the stuff that the rest of us horror geeks grew up with but have never seemed to outgrow. Because of this, Mark seems a very likely combatant against the coming evil facing Salem’s Lot. The Glick Brothers aren’t as fortunate. After spending the evening rehearsing for the pageant, the Glick boys race home, only to be accosted by an unseen figure as they pass through the woods. Danny, the older, makes it home safe. Ralphie is abducted (by Straker, which we will learn a few scenes later when Straker arrives back at the Marsten House and finds the crate that Ned and Mike have delivered…which has been smashed apart).

Lil’ Stevie: And here’s where the real scares begin!

Peter: After Ralph’s disappearance, he comes back to see his brother. Only, his brother’s bedroom window is on the second floor of the house. In a moment of vividly constructed gothic fright, the vampire-Ralph floats up to the window, immersed in moonlight, and begins scratching on the glass. In a daze of almost hypnotic confusion, Danny walks over to the window and opens it, and invites his brother in, who promptly delivers a bloodthirsty bite to his neck. The scene is done spectacularly, with hair-raising music and lighting, and the terrible glow of Ralph’s vampire eyes makes TWILIGHT’s Edward look like a candy-assed fairy princess.

Lil’ Stevie: (Sighing) Vampires were scary once!

Peter: Danny grows sick because of the vampire bite, and Susan’s father, Dr. Bill Norton (Ed Flanders, THE EXORCIST III, 1989), is called in to help. Danny is hospitalized, where he gets a second visit from Ralphie before finally succumbing. Danny dies, and has his funeral up in the cemetery.

Lil’ Stevie: Only, Mike Ryerson never gets the body interred properly. After the service, he starts to cover the body, only to hear scratching sounds coming from inside the coffin. He opens the coffin, and Vampire-Danny sits bolt-upright and bites him.

Peter: And thus begins the transformation of the town. Salem’s Lot slowly becomes pandemic, forcing many folks to leave outright, while the rest struggle to understand what’s going on. Only Ben Mears and Mark Petrie know for sure, and their job is to make everybody else understand what’s going on without sounding as if they’re both crazy.

Lil’ Stevie: You can see how my story mimics the original Dracula; with Jason Burke filling the role of Van Helsing, Bill Norton filling the role of Dr. Seward, and Mears filling the role of Jonathan Harker. And the Marsten House is obviously my version of Carfax Abbey. And did you notice how I deftly maneuver the tropes of vampirism with infectious disease, or how I juxtapose the concept of “the bad place” between the Marsten House (on a smaller scale) with Salem’s Lot as a whole on a bigger scale?

Peter: You’re very clever for stump!

Lil’ Stevie: Grrrrr!

Peter: The rest of the movie is watching how the chain of events plays out as Ben tries to solve the vampire mystery and confront Kurt Barlow and destroy him. But as I’ve mentioned earlier, there are discrepancies. Foremost is that in the movie, Barlow has been cast as a clone of Count Orlok in F.W. Murnau’s NOSFERATU (1922). In Hooper’s film, Barlow has no speaking parts, nor shows any real ability to think or plot or do much of anything other than show up on screen and look scary. But don’t get me wrong, this actually works out very well for the miniseries. When Barlow is finally introduced, in the scene where Ned Tibbets finally gets his comeuppance, the vampire looks absolutely terrifying with his pointed ears and rat-like facial features. And since he has Straker to do all his speaking and planning for him, it really adds that element of old-school gothic charm. The film looks very much like a throwback to the old Hammer movies, and with Mason’s British accent, it sells.

Kurt Barlow, the very scary vampire in SALEM'S LOT was inspired by the silent film NOSFERATU.

Lil’ Stevie: I planned it that way!

Peter: You did, huh?

Lil’ Stevie: Ayuh!

Peter: I think props really should go to screenplay writer Paul Monash, and to Tobe Hooper, himself. This picture was post-TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, and it really shows that Hooper improved in a lot of his storytelling sensibilities. Most importantly, I think, is his deliberate withholding of gore and violence. His less-is-more approach seems more focused on delivering shocks to the imagination rather than pleasing some ratings or censors board. Vampire attacks always seem to freeze on screen, with heightened musical orchestrations filling in the blanks, and it never ceases to send a chill down my spine. It is effective, as is his use of tone and atmosphere as part of his storytelling.

Lil’ Stevie: Don’t hold back…tell us how you really feel!

Peter: SALEM’S LOT really is classic King. It’s a frightening, fast-paced story, filled with great characters and scenery. And it delivers the scares. I put this one in my top-five King favorites of all time. And that says a lot, especially after three decades. In the past thirty years, how many vampire films have actually left you frightened and made you feel uncomfortable?

Lil’ Stevie: TWILIGHT made me feel very uncomfortable!

Peter: (Laughing) You know what I meant.

Lil’ Stevie: I do. And it’s a bummer, because SALEM’S LOT was remade in 2004, with Rob Lowe and Rutger Hauer. And with all the money and special effects they threw into it, they never matched for a second the thrill-ride that Tobe Hooper presented.

Peter: Agreed…Hey, what was that sound?

Lil’ Stevie: Yeah, like I’m going to fall for THAT one again…

Peter: No, really, I heard something…

(Without warning, the vampire Barlow lunges out of the shadows. There is fresh blood dripping off his fangs, and his talon-like claws are raised out, meaning to grab our heroes.)

Peter: Well, Lil’ Stevie, this is one time I think you can actually make yourself useful!

(Peter turns Lil’ Stevie so that his head is pointing right at the vampire’s heart. He lunges forward at the vampire and impales the monster with Lil’ Stevie’s wooden head. The vampire staggers backward and howls out in pain as Lil’ Stevie’s legs and arms flail comically. There is one final burst of blinding light, and then the vampire turns to ashes. Lil’ Stevie drops to the floor, cursing and swearing. Peter walks over and picks the dummy up.)

Lil’ Stevie: That was just…disgusting!

Peter: It’s a good thing you’ve got such a pointy head!

Thanks for joining us, everyone! See you again next month!


© Copyright 2012 by Peter N. Dudar



Posted in 1970s Movies, 2011, Jack the Ripper, Michael Arruda Reviews, Mystery, Psycho killer, Psychological Horror, Screaming Streaming, Sherlock Holmes with tags , , , , , , on August 19, 2011 by knifefighter

Movie Review: MURDER BY DECREE (1979)
By Michael Arruda


Today on SCREAMING STREAMING! it’s MURDER BY DECREE (1979), an atmospheric mystery/thriller that pits Sherlock Holmes against Jack the Ripper, and it’s now available on streaming video.

I remember liking MURDER BY DECREE when I first saw it back in 1979 . I was especially intrigued by the Sherlock Holmes/Jack the Ripper storyline . Unfortunately, I have seen a lot of Jack the Ripper movies since then, and so the plot points and revelations made here in MURDER BY DECREE regarding the identity of Jack the Ripper don’t possess the power they once did.

And if you’ve seen any movies or read any books about Jack the Ripper (and who hasn’t?), the plot of MURDER BY DECREE offers nothing new . Yes, prostitutes are being viciously murdered in Whitechapel by Jack the Ripper, and the world’s greatest detective Sherlock Holmes (Christopher Plummer) is called in to investigate, along with his partner Dr. Watson (James Mason).

A psychic named Robert Lees (Donald Sutherland) informs Holmes that he believes the Ripper murders are the result of a government conspiracy, and the clues that Holmes and Watson uncover during their investigation seem to back up this premise . Holmes is led to Mary Kelly (Susan Clark), who confides in him that she is protecting her friend Annie Crook (Genevieve Bujold) and her child from threats which she intimates are from the highest positions in the British government, including the crown itself . Holmes finds Crook in an insane asylum, and what he learns from her confirms his theory regarding the identity of Jack the Ripper . He and Watson then set out to catch the Ripper and expose the conspiracy.

If you’re looking for an atmospheric period piece, you can’t go wrong with MURDER BY DECREE . The film looks terrific, as it depicts 19th century London at its foggy best . It has the look of the Hammer Films period pieces from the 1950s and 1960s .

And if you’re looking for good acting by veterans of the field, MURDER BY DECREE satisfies here as well . The film enjoys strong acting performances, especially from its two leads: Christopher Plummer, as Sherlock Holmes and James Mason, as Dr. Watson. They share an amiable chemistry, and when they are onscreen together, they are fun to watch . The rest of the cast is also excellent.

The film even gets off to a good start with some creepy murders in the London fog .

But then it slows down halfway through and never really picks up again . Towards the end, when the story should be picking up steam, it falters, and its conclusion, whereby Holmes explains all that he has learned and proved, is interesting, but it’s nothing new nor all that dramatic.

Even though there are some eerie murder scenes, MURDER BY DECREE is rated PG, so don’t expect much blood and gore . FROM HELL (2001), this ain’t! Further complicating matters is that some of the key murder and action scenes are shot in slow motion, and this doesn’t work at all, as it only results in slowing down the suspense.

The two main reasons to see MURDER BY DECREE, then, are the strong acting performances from its veteran cast, and the atmospheric photography of this period piece thriller.

Christopher Plummer is very good as Sherlock Holmes, and he plays the world’s greatest detective as a more compassionate and human man than he’s usually portrayed in the movies . Plummer’s Holmes is also very emotional, especially when the investigation brings him closer to the lives—and deaths— of the women he’s investigating .

James Mason, one of my all-time favorite actors, makes a very likeable Dr. Watson . Mason was an accomplished actor who starred in all types of films, and he enjoyed some memorable roles in genre movies, from the heroic Sir Oliver Lindenbrook in JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH (1959), to the conniving Dr. Polidori in FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY (1973), to the evil Straker in Stephen King’s SALEM’S LOT (1979), to name just a few . Here, he makes a very distinguished Watson, applying some understated humor to the role.

The rest of the cast is full of veterans of the field . David Hemmings, a popular actor from the 1960s, who I remember most from movie roles in the 1970s, plays Inspector Foxborough, a Scotland Yard inspector with ulterior motives . Hemmings made a ton of movies, and one of his last was THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN (2003) with Sean Connery, before his death later that year at age 62.

Frank Finlay plays Inspector Letrade, and he’s another actor I’ve always enjoyed, from his performances in Richard Lester’s THREE MUSKETEERS movies in the 1970s to Tobe Hooper’s LIFEFORCE (1985), that bizarre space/vampire movie that should be on everyone’s “must see at least once” list . Finlay was also in THE PIANIST (2002), the film in which Adrien Brody won the Best Actor Oscar, but my all-time favorite Finlay role was his portrayal of Professor van Helsing in the 1977 Great Performances production of COUNT DRACULA, a neat and faithful retelling of Bram Stoker’s tale . Alas, as good as Finlay is, he doesn’t do much here in MURDER BY DECREE.

Donald Sutherland fares better as psychic Robert Lees, and his performance serves as a solid reminder as to why he was such a popular actor in the 1970s . Genevieve Bujold makes the most of her one scene as Annie Crook, so much so that she delivers probably the best performance in the film, other than Plummer and Mason . She’s really good . Susan Clark is also very good as the tragically doomed Mary Kelly.

MURDER BY DECREE was directed by Bob Clark, the man most famous for directing the Christmas classic A CHRISTMAS STORY (1983) . Of course, Clark is also known for a less family-oriented Christmas movie, the 1974 Christmas horror movie BLACK CHRISTMAS, starring Margot Kidder . Clark also directed PORKY’S (1982) . Quite the varied resume!

MURDER BY DECREE doesn’t showcase Clark’s best work . The film lacks effective pacing, and the murder scenes don’t really pack the punch that they should, hindered by the annoying slow-motion photography .

John Hopkins wrote the screenplay . Hopkins is one of the writers who worked on the Sean Connery Bond film THUNDERBALL (1965) . In MURDER BY DECREE, there’s entertaining dialogue between Holmes and Watson, but there’s not much else that makes this one special in terms of writing .

Neither the direction nor the writing does much in the way of building suspense in this movie.

I remember liking MURDER BY DECREE when I first saw it back in 1979, but watching it now, all these years later, it doesn’t hold up all that well . It’s a beautifully photographed movie, it enjoys solid acting, and the first third of its story is rather compelling, but then it slows down and it remains slow all the way to its dramatic revelations, which, if you know the Jack the Ripper conspiracy theories, really aren’t that dramatic or surprising.

MURDER BY DECREE is one of those movies that, if you catch it in the right frame of mind, you might like it, but the fact is, there are better Sherlock Holmes movies, and there are better Jack the Ripper movies .

Watching MURDER BY DECREE is like looking at a mediocre painting . It catches your eye, and as you stay to look at it, you like what you see, but before long you tire of the experience and move on, and since it didn’t knock your socks off, you see no need to look at it again.


© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda