A Return to Salem’s Lot. 1987. Directed by Larry Cohen. Screenplay by Cohen & James Dixon.
Starring Michael Moriarty, Ricky Addison Reed, Samuel Fuller, Andrew Duggan, Evelyn Keyes, Jill Gatsby, June Havoc, Ronee Blakley, James Dixon, & Tara Reid.
Rated R. 101 minutes.
In all Father Gore’s love for Larry Cohen he’s got to admit: A Return to Salem’s Lot can’t hold a candle anywhere near Tobe Hooper’s 1979 Salem’s Lot miniseries. Not even a conversation worth having, because the original’s by far the scariest, as well as the best all around. That being said – and forgetting all its major flaws – Cohen’s 1987 sequel has its own atmosphere and things to say. Even if it’s not a stellar bit of horror there’s much to enjoy.
Cohen’s work is usually infused with social commentary, even if many see him dismissively as ‘just a genre filmmaker.’ Horror in general’s often disrespected in the same way— look at responses to excellent modern horror movies dubbed with foolish descriptors like ‘elevated horror’ and other clickbait buzzwords. Make no mistake, Larry’s as socially conscious as the next writer-director, no matter if his movies are low budget, sometimes featuring questionable performances, and occasionally messy. All this comes from a huge Cohen lover.
A Return to Salem’s Lot uses the vampire movie as a way to explore the infestation of the USA by decidedly un-American entities. When Samuel Fuller turns up hunting Nazis – “I‘m not a Nazi hunter— I‘m a Nazi killer!” – the link between vampires and the un-American presence in small town America becomes clearer. In a day and age when neo-Nazis/white nationalists are less and less uncommon in the public eye, Cohen’s sequel is eerily prescient.
What’s interesting is the use of Joe Weber (Michael Moriarty) and his occupation as an anthropologist/documentarian. As a facet of media, he faces ethical conundrums on a daily basis. In a Deodato-inspired opening homage to Cannibal Holocaust, Joe’s amorality is on display when he refuses to interfere with a human sacrifice. He sees any intrusion as cultural violation on his part. At least that’s what he’d say.
After Joe and his son Jeremy (Ricky Addison Reed) arrive in Salem’s Lot, they quickly discover it’s infested with vampires. The vamps eventually ask Joe to write their Bible, in hopes of preserving their culture and heritage. This is where modern relevance enters the picture, if we continue viewing vampires as symbolic of neo-Nazis/white nationalists (Father Gore will get back to that in detail shortly).
In the past few years, North American media haven’t treated serious racist groups with as much open criticism as necessary, neither have many of them opposed POTUS Trump’s blatant racism as much as they ought to have done. It’s more common for the media to treat people of colour with a unfair, racially critical eye than to see white mass shooters called terrorists— just one small example of a much larger problem endemic to the media. Here, Joe Weber faces a personal situation – seeing his son be lured in by the vampires – before understanding the error of his ways. Not unlike real life journalists who’ve downplayed a rise in white nationalism since Trump’s come into office enabling further white idiocy have to eat their words each time another racist murders people.
Like the vampires, neo-Nazis/white nationalists of various sorts require the media to help legitimise their culture and image. Today we’ve got vampires like Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, and Steven Bannon having their images rehabilitated by mindless journalists looking for exposure, feigning concern about ‘hearing both sides’ of the political spectrum. Moriarty’s Weber is put in the position of having to decide what’s more important: fame, or morality?
There’s no doubt about Cohen paralleling his vampires in Salem’s Lot with white nationalists, particularly considering this movie came out in the late ’80s when neo-Nazism was on the upswing. Holocaust denial became a bigger thing in the ’70s, as so-called authors began writing about it enshrining theory in an actual biographical canon for the first time. Skinhead subculture in Britain was subverted in the same era, forever binding it with neo-Nazis, which wasn’t the case originally, and this popular look further cemented white nationalists in the public image. So, when Cohen made A Return to Salem’s Lot, fears of America being overrun by white hate groups was very real. The evidence is right in the screenplay. All the white nationalist coding is present.
The vampires talk of being the “oldest race in humanity … protected by a scepticism that says they don‘t exist.” This speech is akin to the Aryan rhetoric of the poor, forgotten white man. Later, it’s compounded by a concern with purity. The vampires find human blood no longer “good and pure” like back in the day because of “this AIDS virus going around,” bringing to mind the white nationalist focus on blood purity and not mixing the races, their disdain for homosexuals, and so on. The most darkly comical moment concerning the vampire-Nazi parallel is when they try convincing Joe he’d be wealthy if he joins their ranks: “vampire life and financial security go together.” What’s funny is how Judge Axel (Andrew Duggan) chimes in: “And not a penny from the government.” You could easily replace Axel and his wife (Evelyn Keyes) in this scene with two old neo-Nazis complaining about immigrants and the plot wouldn’t miss a beat!
In one scene, a classroom of vampire kids recount their supposed true history involving a ship named the Speedwell, which, in 1620, sailed with the Mayflower to take pilgrims to the New World. The Speedwell historically sank during the voyage. The vampires insist it didn’t, and that’s how they came to what would become America. Same as white nationalist nostalgia for a fabled time before our multicultural modern day— a time that never truly existed, only in the racist mind. Joe calls it “anti–human propaganda,” which is pretty well what racist rhetoric and false history is in its aim to deny other cultures their place in history by putting the white race on a pedestal. Cohen and co-writer James Dixon knew actually what they were doing when they wrote this screenplay.
No better image could accompany the climactic fight than when Judge Axel is impaled not with a stake, but an American flag— its pole playing the role of the traditional steak instead. Here, Cohen refutes the white nationalist and vampire all at once, in one clean stab. This comes at the end, though it serves as a thesis for the entire movie.
A Return to Salem’s Lot is nowhere near as good or effectively scary as Salem’s Lot, nor does it aim to supersede the original. Cohen has things to say, and it was never a case of trying to expand upon Stephen King’s mythology or even to offer a direct sequel to Hooper’s miniseries. He crafted his own story, along with commentary appropriate for the time when it was made.
More than that, this sequel, in hindsight, becomes more prescient than expected. If the movie were better it might’ve been a lasting piece of horror cinema people would rightfully observe today as having things to say about our social/political situation in North America. If you dig deep, the commentary’s there. In this light, Cohen’s work lifts out of being relegated to a dismissive categorisation as ‘just genre’ to strike at something more pressing, more intellectual. Where is he when we need him today most? Sure, it’s only a vampire flick to many. To Father Gore, it’s so much more. Hopefully others might notice it, too.