Doctor Sleep hits theaters soon. Get your tickets now!
Doctor Sleep is a rare bird on the horror scene: A sequel to a Stephen King film that actually has precedence in King’s own work. Usually, such films are made with no source material or involvement from the author, as witness the endless string of Children of the Corn knockoffs. One of the more interesting of these is also the very first one: 1987’s A Return to Salem’s Lot. (In the King-follow-up canon, it was preceded only by Creepshow 2, which was based on his stories.)
Also the only theatrical sequel to a made-for-TV production that I can think of (though it played only a handful of venues in Des Moines, IA and Providence, RI before going to video), A Return to Salem’s Lot isn’t your typical mercenary imitation. It sprang from the offbeat mind of the late maverick writer/director Larry Cohen, who shot it back to back with It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive, the third in his killer-baby trilogy. Rather than pick up any of King’s characters, he uses the basic premise of a town inhabited by bloodsuckers to spin an odd, satirical take on how the creatures of the night might live in then-contemporary society. Cohen regular Michael Moriarty stars as an anthropologist who takes a trip to Salem’s Lot with his rebellious teenage son (Ricky Addison Reed), and ends up joining forces with a Nazi hunter turned vampire slayer (played by none other than the great Samuel Fuller) to take out the ghouls.
The movie was shot not far from King’s Maine stamping grounds, in and around Newbury, Vermont—but not quite all of it. On a cold November night in 1986, I was a production assistant on a pickup shoot that took place in the wilds of New York City’s Central Park. That fall, as a New York University film school student, I was working as an intern for producers Barry Shils and Barbara Zitwer, assisting them on, among other things, preproduction of their horror/comedy Vampire’s Kiss. (Fun fact: Before Nicolas Cage became attached, Dennis Quaid was the top contender for the lead role—and based on the script I read at the time, I believed he would have been more appropriate for it.) They had also worked with Cohen on several previous features including The Stuff, and when Barry asked me if I was interested in PA-ing on Return for the night, I jumped at the chance.
After helping unload the production van of the grip equipment and nearly a dozen coffins, one of my jobs was to perform lockup duty. That’s the official term for standing a distance away from the filming location and diverting foot traffic in another direction. In my case, I took a post a ways up the road starting at around 8 p.m.—and mind you, this was the mid-’80s, when New York crime was at its worst and Central Park was known as a place you didn’t want to be after dark (though the infamous jogger assault was two and a half years in the future). And I became convinced that joggers were either the bravest or most foolish people in the city; who else would be out alone on the park’s isolated roads as late as 10:30 at night? That’s how long I stayed out and stalled them whenever Barry let me know by walkie-talkie that cameras were about to roll. One guy came by on skis with wheels, complete with ski poles; another, when I asked him to stop for a moment, simply said “No!” and kept going. Fortunately, filming wasn’t going on at the time.
Once it was determined that no more late-night runners would potentially disrupt the shoot, I was sent out to pick up some of the actors with another PA (who bore a strong physical resemblance to Moriarty, and wound up doubling for him in a couple of shots that night). Among them was Ron Millkie, who played the cop who gives the counselors a hard time in the original Friday the 13th. On the way to the set, he told me that everyone involved with Friday was offered a percentage of the profits in lieu of a salary. “Nobody took it, but we all should have,” he said. “Sean [Cunningham] is a millionaire now.” Once we arrived back in the park, I had the chance to get my hands gory, helping makeup effects artist Carl Sorensen whip up a batch of faux blood. As it turned out, this was prelude to becoming more directly involved in the biggest sequence shot that night.
The setpiece involved a group of punk youths (one played by Jill Gatsby, Cohen’s daughter) who get pulled over by the local sheriff, played by Return co-scripter James Dixon. A couple more of the undead, one played by Ron, show up to attack one boy and send two of the other kids running into the woods, where they’re attacked and killed by a grotesque vampire monster. All this was directed by Larry, true to his off-the-cuff nature, from a script written in longhand on a yellow pad. And as the crew set up for the shots of the creature mauling the fleeing punks, I spotted Barry carrying a glove-like rubber “monster hand” (a prop created by prosthetics artist Steve Neill) and asked what was up. He replied that he was “looking for someone with thin arms”…and I knew this was the time to act fast.
I volunteered one of my own arms for the task, and thus I and another PA named Claudia stood in for the vampire beast’s hands, reaching in from either side of the camera to grab the actors by their heads. After the first shot was accomplished, Carl stepped in and liberally applied the fake blood (and tissue paper soaked with the stuff) all over their faces. Claudia and I placed our hands back on them, Larry called for action, and we pressed down with the gnarly gloves, squeezing the tissue and sending even more blood running over the poor, screaming actors. After that shot was done, we filmed a bunch more footage with a Neill-crafted, cable-controlled monster head and the hands, getting shots of the creature lurking in the woods, peering around trees, pulling down branches, etc. A little while later, I passed by that pair of actors, still trying to get the blood off their faces.
It was a great experience taking part in a late-night horror shoot, watching the inimitable Cohen at work and getting to play a monster—or part of one, at least. It was only fitting that the coming of dawn should put an end to the filming of a vampire flick, and just before 7 a.m., we finished up the last shot—and the first joggers began to come through! Postscript: Several months later, I was able to attend a cast-and-crew screening of A Return to Salem’s Lot in Manhattan. Beyond the excitement of seeing the movie at what would prove to be one of its few in-theater showings, and witnessing the scene I took part in, the biggest thrill was getting to meet Moriarty, who was friendly and funny and graciously signed an autograph for me. He then suggested that a young actress who had played a vampire girl in the film, and was standing with us, should sign one for me too. And that’s how I came to possess what I believe is the first autograph ever written by then 11-year-old Tara Reid.