From the Depths: 'A Return To Salem's Lot'
Updated: Oct 18, 2021
Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot is a horror movie of deceptive power; its tastefully slow cultivation of atmosphere, the extended sequences of domestic Americana made bone-chilling by the infrequent injection of horror, and the haunting epilogue, punctuated by one final, tragic act of violence. A minor masterpiece (minor only by Hooper’s standards), Salem’s Lot is a three-hour tapestry of decaying small-town America. Its ending is cruel, decisive, and inevitable. Who would dare to make a sequel? Only someone shameless. Only a century defining maniac. Only Larry Cohen, the man to whom “taste” is the dirtiest word of all.
If you wanted to, you could watch Salem’s Lot before seeing A Return to Salem’s Lot, like I did. In my idiocy, I thought they might somehow be related. They aren’t. In fact, the only connection is the name of the town where the vampire shenanigans go down: Salem’s Lot. To claim that the two movies even take place in the same universe would take more than a little bit of Reddit conspiracy theory nonsense. Even spiritually, this duology feels wildly disparate. A Return to Salem’s Lot may have some comparable (if deranged) statement about the Andy Griffith culture of yesteryear, but Cohen has other preoccupations, too, like sex, violence, and, I kid you not, child weddings. To put it another way, it's my bread and butter.
This maniacal sibling to Salem’s Lot came about as most movies by trash maestro Larry Cohen did: Warner Bros wanted some low-budget schlock and Cohen could deliver. The result is a one-of-a-kind, brain-melting, psychotronic extravaganza. (If you want to complain about my use of ‘psychotronic,’ my Twitter handle is @chance_rev.)
Opening on a ritual sacrifice by an unspecified South American tribe, the camera moves to our stoic protagonist, asshole anthropologist Joe Weber (a practically extraterrestrial Michael Moriarty), who looks on as a man’s heart is removed.
This scene has no bearing on the plot. Most of them don’t. One thing leads to another and Joe finds himself back in New York City, saddled with his delinquent twelve-year-old son (Ricky Addison Reed) who dresses like a member of Duran Duran and curses as if it were as natural as breathing. Thanks to some dialogue added in post (conveniently placed over a few wide shots), the audience is informed that the destination of the father-son duo is a house left to Weber in his divorce; a house in Salem’s Lot.
Cohen’s rendition of the haunted Maine settlement is a community of blood-sucking, Reagan-loving pseudo-Luddites. According to the town patriarch, Judge Axel (Andrew Duggan), the vampires no longer hunt people, as their blood is tainted by drugs and AIDS. Instead, they get their sustenance from cows. Yet, the creatures of the night are out and about killing innocents from the moment they're introduced for no reason other than that they seem to enjoy it. Their victims are young punks and stock New York City bums, the enemies of Andy Griffith’s America. A Return to Salem’s Lot only gets more insane and nonsensically entertaining as it goes along; with every new absurdity that gets dropped into Cohen’s stew of pop iconography, his tabloid level commentary on contemporary America becomes simultaneously clearer and all the more confounding. Though he lacks the same brutal clarity (his cultural criticism is slipshod at best) and, frankly, it would be sacrilege to put their images side-by-side, Cohen’s vulgar approach to his ideas recalls the great termite artist Samuel Fuller, who also happens to be the best part of this movie.
Towards the end of his directing career, Fuller began to take work as an actor, appearing in the films of everyone from Jean-Luc Godard to Wim Wenders to Aki Kaurismäki. Rarely, however, was the old master given a major role. It was the size of his part in A Return to Salem’s that led me to watch it in the first place. At seventy-four years old, the newspaperman turned soldier turned legendary writer-director drives his banged-up jalopy into the movie right around the halfway point and comes as close to crystalizing Cohen’s point as anybody could. Stealing the back half of the movie from Michael Moriarity is Fuller’s Van Meer, an ornery Nazi killer (he makes the distinction clear: he doesn’t hunt Nazis, he kills them). Why exactly this murderous eccentric’s search would drop him in Salem’s Lot is never explained, but I like to think that Old Sam just had the nose of an anti-fascist bloodhound. Everything about the character is ridiculous, from his incessant cigar-chomping to his laissez-faire attitude toward violence (at one point, Van Meer takes the time to roll down the window so he can shoot a vampire off the hood of his car without blowing a hole in the windshield). Aside from just being fun to watch, Van Meer deepens the one real thematic idea Cohen seems to have.
Late in the movie, Weber’s son has nearly been indoctrinated by the Reaganite-coded vampires and Van Meer, a Holocaust survivor, treats the boy’s affliction with eerie familiarity, as if the kid were under the thrall of Nazism. A scene in which Van Meer forces the child to watch a massacre reminded me of the climax of Fuller’s own Verboten!, where a young Nazi witnesses the Nuremberg Trials intercut with footage of the Holocaust. Perhaps out of fear of being misunderstood (which I doubt is the case), the Fuller character’s inclusion clears up any confusion that may remain in the link between vampirism and the manufactured nostalgia for Andy Griffith culture. Reagan’s America is not just vampiric, Cohen seems to say through Van Meer, but teetering on the brink of fascism. Yet, this “Reaganism equates to fascism which equates to vampirism” concept can barely explain half the insanity that goes down in this movie’s runtime.
Parsing out what exactly A Return to Salem’s Lot is saying is a futile task. Rather, A Return to Salem’s Lot is best enjoyed as an attack; images and ideas ripped from the zeitgeist of America’s 1980s, loaded into a cannon and fired at an unsuspecting and unappreciative audience. As evidenced by its average rating of 4.3 on IMDb, that audience wouldn’t and won’t accept the charming incompetence of the writer-director. The filmmaking is awful, but it’s a Larry Cohen movie. The story is nonsense, but it’s a Larry Cohen movie. The dialogue is ripped straight from the short stories I wrote in fifth grade, but it’s a Larry Cohen movie. Most of the thematic eccentricities can be waved away in the same fashion, but I’m not sure that will ever satisfy me. The fact that I can see this beast eating away at my mind for years to come is why I would call it a masterpiece, in its own disastrous, ramshackle way. Few endings in the history of cinema have the same latent, unassuming power: as the sun rises over Salem’s Lot to burn the vampiric townsfolk alive, I can’t help but hear the voice of Hal Riney say softly, “It’s morning again in America.”
“From the Depths” is a recurring column where the central conceit is that I bumble ignorantly into the vast realm of widely unseen movies, scraping the bottom of the barrel in search of hidden gems or, at the very least, interesting disasters.
A Return To Salem's Lot is available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory and for rent or purchase in standard definition through Amazon Video.