Aug 28, 2012

Salem's Lot

Speaking of Lance Kerwin, he offers a strong same-sex romance in Salem’s Lot (1979), based on the Stephen King novel.  When failed writer Ben Mears (former Starsky and Hutch hunk David Soul) returns to his home town of Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine to exorcise his demons, he demonstrates that he is heterosexual by dating a glamorous art teacher (Bonnie Bedelia), but mostly he bonds with middle-aged men, the town doctor and his former English teacher.  Meanwhile, local teenager Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin) finds that his love of theater, art, and his best friend Danny makes him an outcast in his small town. Go figure.

Ben immediately notices Mark and asks who he is, but he never gets the nerve to speak to him.  They stare wide-eyed at each other, but each looks away when the other turns.  Later, at an antique shop, they meet each other’s gaze, and each pauses as if waiting for the other to speak.  Ben smiles shyly: he is determined to wait for Mark to make the first move.  But the teenager quickly rushes on.

Soon the boys and young men of Salem’s Lot start disappearing, or dying of pernicious anemia, and returning with glowing eyes and fangs.  Even though the hard-bodied handiman Mike (Geoffrey Lewis) grows fangs after the English teacher invites him home for the night, most of the suspicion falls upon the elderly owner of the antique shop, and upon Ben himself, who was a child during a previous run of boy-murders.  However, the real culprit turns out to be Mr. Barlow, a blue-faced Nosferatu who likes to bite boys.

The heavy-handed association of vampirism and pedophilia, absent in the original novel, adds a cringe-factor to Ben and Mark’s erotic intensity.  One wonders why director Tobe Hopper didn’t cut the endless longing gazes and have Ben take a big-brotherly interest in Mark.  Surely in 181 minutes there's enough time for scenes with the two of them throwing a football around or going to a monster movie.

Or else cast Mark with someone much younger.  In the novel he is 11,  one of Stephen King’s stable of wounded outsider boys seeking replacements for fathers who are distant, dead, or psychotic killers.  But Lance Kerwin is 19, obviously an adult, not a child, and obviously in the market for a boyfriend, not a big brother.

And the wounded Ben, desperately seeking approval from father figures of his own, is pitiably unfit to be a big brother.  His mute, inept attempts at connecting with Mark suggest that he is fighting an attraction that he himself finds deeply distressing.

The climactic scene nicely combines staking vampires with staving off same-sex desire.  Ben goes to a standard crumbing, evil mansion outside of town to confront Barlow, and Mark, who was captured and tied up earlier, now escapes and literally bumps into him on the front porch.  They grab at each other: after three hours of staring, they are finally touching!

Horrified (but not shrinking away), Ben shouts “Run as fast as you can, and keep running!”  Ostensibly he wants to protect the boy from vampires, but Mark has just demonstrated that he can take care of himself.  Ben’s urgency seems precipitated more by the touch: perhaps it brought his hidden passion dangerously close to the surface.    

After Ben goes into the house, Mark waits on the porch for a moment, but he cannot run away: taking the initiative in their relationship, he confronts Ben in the crumbling drawing room.  “I told you to go!” Ben shouts.  “No!” Mark shouts back. He is not going anywhere.

Seething with rage and passion, they stand face to face, inches apart.  They must either fight or kiss.  Are they still thinking about vampires?

But then they are distracted by the gruesome death of the town doctor, the last of Ben’s old mentors.  It is time for Ben to grow up. The rest of the scene involves only a few words of dialogue, mostly “Mark!” and “Ben!”, as they stake Barlow, set the town on fire to “cleanse it” of the other vampires (the human residents have all fled), and head south in Ben’s land rover.

Two years later, they are living together in Guatemala (the surviving vampires are out for revenge, so they have to keep moving).  Both blond, tanned, and grungy, they could be brothers, but their unselfconscious touching of hands denote lovers.

One night the glamorous art teacher re-appears, a vampire with glowing eyes and fangs, and Ben stakes her.
We might conclude that Ben has finally exorcised the last of his heterosexual demons, that homoerotic love wins – except that the dread with which he first approached Mark has not subsided.  They have never relaxed and gotten to know each other.  In the novel, Ben wakes from an nightmare calling Mark’s name, and when he asks “Do you love me?”, Mark responds with a hug .  But here the two are still strangers, together out of necessity rather than love.

Salem’s Lot fails because Mark and Ben cannot express a coherent relationship. They are of the wrong ages to be substitute parent and child, they never establish a homosocial friendship, and their wide-eyed stares of unstated attraction never give way to tenderness or intimacy.  Both of the actors were comfortable with the possibility of same-sex desire. But the director linked same-sex desire too inextricably linked to pedophilia, vampirism, and dark sinister secrets to allow the love between Mark and Ben to ever break out into the light of day.