Revisiting the film of Stephen King’s A Return To Salem’s Lot

A Return To Salem's Lot isn't much of a Salem's Lot follow-up, but that doesn't mean we didn't get anything out of it...

This article contains spoilers for A Return To Salem’s Lot

The film: Anthropologist Joe Weber (Michael Moriarty) is given custody of his wayward son, Jeremy (Ricky Addison Reed) and decides to take him back to the town in Maine where he lived as a boy, Salem’s Lot. His memories of a happy childhood are soon swept aside by the alarming discovery that the town has been taken over by vampires. They want Joe’s professional help to write their bible, the story of their society, and Joe has to choose between his professional curiosity or getting the hell out of Vampire Dodge. Apparently, this is a more difficult decision for an anthropologist than it would be for you or I. Following on from the classic miniseries, A Return To Salem’s Lot was always going to have quite the hill to climb. 1987 also saw the release of cult favourites Near Dark and The Lost Boys so the King-based sequel had to deal with some stiff genre competition too. On paper, it could stand alongside them, but in practice? Not so much. There is a really interesting premise at the heart of A Return To Salem’s Lot, in which we see a vampire community trying to legitimise themselves and write their history. Salem’s Lot could be any new American town trying to assert its own identity, but, you know, with fangs. There’s also the fact that it is attempting to do a classic Stephen King tale without the man himself involved. His sole credit is ‘Based on characters by…’ but his influence is all over, even if the usual quality isn’t. The plot itself is typical King; a troubled family unit trying to make their lives anew in a Maine location. Joe is a professional observer, here an anthropologist instead of the traditional writer, there’s that small town succumbing to evil thing, and a tussle between doing the right thing or succumbing to a darker temptation. Which is why it is a real shame that A Return To Salem’s Lot is kind of terrible, but not without a certain charm. 

When first introduced to regular Larry Cohen collaborator Michael Moriarty, one assumes his rather odd delivery is part his character’s professionalism and a clinical attitude. “You’re a cold-blooded son of a bitch,” his cameraman handily informs us, in case we didn’t glean this from the scene moments before in which Joe filmed a human sacrifice without blinking an eye. Alas no, his startled way of saying things appears to be his approach to the character, rendering Joe into someone slightly manic, but weirdly expressionless. Then there’s Ricky Addison Reed as Joe’s son, Annoying Jeremy, barrelling into the film like a budget Corey Haim and shouting his way through every scene. This is possibly as a reaction to Moriarty’s constant tone of surprise. It’s not entirely Reed’s fault; Annoying Jeremy is written very much as a caricature of teenage rebellion, replete with dodgy haircut and terrible fashion sense. As a pairing, the Webers are not the stuff of which sympathetic characters are made. The performances elsewhere embrace that schlockier end of the spectrum, though there’s no one quite as moustache-twirlingly brilliant as James Mason. June Havoc gives it a good go as Joe’s Aunt Clara and watch out for a young Tara Reid as Annoying Jeremy’s cherubic, long-toothed temptation. Samuel Fuller turns up about halfway through playing a Nazi hunter called Van Meer. It’s not entirely clear why he’s hunting Nazis, but he’s a cross between Miracle Max and a gun-toting Van Helsing, instantly making him the coolest thing in the film. 

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The arrival of Van Meer is one of the many random tonal shifts that occur over the course of the plot and this seems to derive from a screenplay that never quite decides whether it wants to be funny or scary. Some of the attempts at black humour work better than others. Aunt Clara wryly observes that her taste for human blood is a drinking problem and the tone of a little old lady saying something so macabre gets an earned chuckle. There’s one great sight gag too when Joe and Annoying Jeremy visit the school; a blink-and-miss-it poster reveals that the school are putting on a production of Dracula. However, much of the humour is of that glorious, unintentional variety, the kind where a giggle erupts from you with a mixture of glee and disbelief. The first big inadvertent guffaw arrived for me at the appearance of the master vampire, whose prosthetics make him look like the love-child of Nosferatu and a bucketload of steroids. Another classic is during Joe’s tour at the hands of the vampiric residents, taking him through their town’s farming operations where they use livestock for blood instead of humans. Moriarty’s performance suggests Joe’s a bit bored by the vagaries of vampire food supplies, but then he bellows out a truly classic line: “I’ve seen enough cows! I want to see my son!” 

A Return To Salem’s Lot pales in comparison to its predecessor and the choppy editing, bizarrely static direction from Cohen, and unexpected tonal shifts should make this a torturous experience. Yet, I can’t help but be beguiled by its charming naffness. It’s an entertaining watch for all the reasons it shouldn’t be and though it’s thoroughly unsuccessful in its attempt to recreate King without the key ingredient, I have to admire the effort. Scariest moment: There’s a really good jump scare when Annoying Jeremy is exploring the school during daylight and a beardy man appears on the stairs to ask him what he’s doing there. Other than the prosthetics, that’s about as disturbing as it gets. Musicality: Michael Minard’s score can get a little soapy in the quieter moments, but when it gets going, there’s a great Carpenter-style theme in there. A King thing: This week, this section will be devoted to how not to do a Stephen King hero. Joe Weber leaves a really bad first impression as a character, something which even King’s antiheroes, like book Jack Torrance, manage to avoid. He’s unsympathetic and Moriarty imbues him with all the personality of that piece of wood he saws halfway through the film.

Join me next time, Constant Reader, as we follow The Running Man.