Despite being a made-for-TV miniseries, Salem’s Lot is one of the pinnacles of the vampire genre. It’s iconic. Often hailed as one of the best Stephen King adaptations, as well as one of the best from director Tobe Hooper. It’s also one of the only television miniseries to be granted a theatrical sequel. And that sequel is decidedly less beloved.
Of course, there have been several sequels to Stephen King adaptations that the author had nothing to do with. We’ve seen Pet Sematary 2, Carrie 2, Firestarter 2 and even The Mangler 2. And, of course, there are nine Children of the Corn features to date. Some of these sequels are good, some of them are very, very bad. And King, good sport that he is, just seems to take them all in stride.
But A Return to Salem’s Lot manages to outdo most King sequels simply by being outright bonkers. It has virtually nothing to do with Salem’s Lot, either the book or the miniseries. Sure, it mentions that it’s set in the same town and it’s become a town where there are many more vampires than people, but there’s no real connective tissue. These vampires could not be more different. There just couldn’t be a starker contrast in tone and style.
That’s because, while this has nothing to do with the world of Stephen King, it is completely catered to fit the world of Larry Cohen. It’s a Cohen film down to its core, without a doubt. Ultimately, that’s what makes it endearing, even when it really shouldn’t be.
In typical Cohen fashion, our lead hero is played by Michael Moriarty. And even more so than in Cohen productions past, he’s playing a completely unlikable character. We basically open up the movie by dropping the audience into the middle of Cannibal Holocaust, with Moriarty’s character filming horrific tribal practices in the jungle with absolute indifference. Our first introduction to our lead hero is to watch him witness a person’s heart get torn from their chest and threaten to kill his assistant for trying to remove him from the situation.
Joe is reunited with his emotionally troubled, spoiled son Jeremy, who he has not seen in years. The two of them absolutely hate each other, but nonetheless decide to move into the house Joe has just inherited in Maine in the sleepy town of Salem’s Lot. Now, this is where we immediately realize that we’re in for something completely different. As soon as we’re introduced to the vampires, they’re the polar opposites of the undead we saw in the original Salem’s Lot, which might very well be the scariest vampires ever put on film.
Here, the vampires are much more human, or at least they try to pass themselves off that way. They’re trying to adapt to modern times, only breeding cattle to eat instead of humans. Although they do breed humans solely for the purpose of slave labor, so that’s probably something for them to work on.
They have vampire get-togethers, the children attend vampire school, and they even make the occasional vampire puns. When one of them notes that she has a hard time giving up human blood, she claims her husband says she has a drinking problem. And we hold for laughter.
The movie starts out insane. And it only gets more insane as it goes. We’ve got Jeremy falling in love with a young vampire Tara Reid. Joe is hired by the vampires to write their bible, the account of their whole history from their perspective. That’s the only thing in Return to Salem’s Lot that really constitutes a plot point.
Instead of Van Helsing, there’s a rogue Nazi hunter who doesn’t really question anything once he turns out to be surrounded by vampires and starts killing them just as happily as he would Nazis. Joe had a crush on a sixteen year old girl when he lived in town as a kid, and in the movie’s creepiest segment, he finds her still just as young and waiting for him. And that’s the moment when we add “vampire pregnancy” to the list of things happening in this film.
I completely understand that, for Stephen King fans, it’s hard to like. It’s not by any means the return to Salem’s Lot that it promises to be. It’s barely a sequel. If they were going to do an actual sequel to Salem’s Lot, they would have been much better off adapting King’s own sequel short story “One for the Road.” But we didn’t get that and some fans are still bitter. I understand it deeply, as Salem’s Lot is my personal favorite of King’s novels.
But if you just go into A Return to Salem’s Lot with the mindset that it’s a Larry Cohen film, it’s kind of hard not to have fun with. As long as you like that director’s very specific style. I can’t believe a studio produced something this insane and that’s a large reason why I’ve always had a soft spot for it.
It’s absolutely bonkers. You never know what’s going to happen from one scene to the next. Even the laughable makeup effects in the climactic showdown with the head vampire don’t feel so terrible in the context of the feature as a whole. Return to Salem’s Lot relishes in its own insanity. And there’s no reason it shouldn’t. This is Cohen at his most unhinged—and there’s no better reason to recommend it than that.