Tobe Hooper, 1979
Starring: David Soul, James Mason, Lance Kerwin, Bonnie Bedelia, Lew Ayres
A writer, Ben Mears, returns to his hometown of Salem’s Lot, Maine to investigate a legendary haunted house for his next novel. The Marsten House has unfortunately been sold to a new, mysterious owner and Mears is relegated to spying from a distance. Richard Straker, the new owner, has also purchased a building which he is turning into an antique shop. He awaits the arrival of his partner, Kurt Barlow. Mears, meanwhile, has begun dating a local woman, Susan, and slowly begins to get to know the reserved, suspicious locals who are plagued with their own domestic and personal issues. But soon Straker has a number of crates delivered to town and bodies begin to turn up, including two of the local children. It seems that Straker’s partner is really a monstrous vampire and has arrived to turn Salem’s Lot into his own personal feeding ground. Can Mears discover the truth and stop him before it is too late?
This TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s lengthy vampire novel of the same name was surprisingly directed by Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre). I know a lot of people who love this film/miniseries (it was also released in a cut, film version) and have fond memories of it scaring the pants off them as children. I, however, never got around to watching it growing up and during my teenage years I avoided it because of my passionate hatred for most things Stephen King. Watching three straight hours of Salem’s Lot was pretty agonizing, though there are some noteworthy moments.
The first major issue is that Salem’s Lot is very, very dated. It seems like the kind of film you had to see growing up and I’ve heard the same thing about Monster Squad and Fright Night from friends a generation ahead of me. Aside from a few moments, Salem’s Lot came across as boring and cheesy. One of the key scenes I’ve heard people talk about is when a child vampire arrives through thick mist and floats at his brother’s door, beckoning him to open. It may have been scary to a bunch of 12 year olds, but it just looks ridiculous now. There are honestly scarier scenes in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Really, the biggest problem with Salem’s Lot is that it is a close retelling of Dracula, but mixed in with all of Stephen King’s beloved tropes. It’s set in a small town in New England, the two central characters are respectively a horror novelist and a teenage horror nerd, and there are subplots of infidelity, abuse, and marital strife. Though the overall story is about supernatural evil, there are references to child murder and an all too human evil. As with The Shining, the house is believed to be a fundamentally evil, corrupting influence. In other words, absolutely nothing about this is new. In the hands of another, less formulaic writer, I think Dracula set in Lovecraft’s New England could be compelling, but with Salem’s Lot, alas.
There are some changes from the novel to the screenplay, though I have not read the former. Apparently characters and subplots are combined or removed completely and Barlow is dramatically different. It’s also important to keep in mind which version you are watching. The theatrical cut is only 112 minutes, removing several side plots and scenes, making the film blessedly shorter, but things seem choppier and more confusing. The complete, uncut version – which I sadly endured – is 184 minutes, which was totally unnecessary, as much of this concerns conversation between townsfolk. Zzzzz.
Barlow’s vampire in the miniseries is wildly different from the book, where he appears to be human. His portrayal in the film as a near-glowing, Nosferatu-like creature is perhaps the worst thing about Salem Lot’s. He looks absurd. I appreciate the way the other townsfolk turned vampires are largely ravenous, monstrous hunters; there is nothing romantic or remotely human about them, but Barlow’s appearance is just taking it too far. He looks like an ‘80s action figure version of Nosferatu – similar to the original, but inexplicably radioactive and glowing.
In addition to the wince- and possibly nausea-inducing villain, the pacing is glacial. There are really only three key moments worth watching: at the hour mark, when the first round of deaths occur, at the two hour mark, when more action happens, and the last twenty minutes during the conclusion. My favorite thing about the film is the climax at the Marsten House. Tobe Hooper has an eye for interiors (Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Fun House are two other great examples) and the house looks incredible. It seems as if it was once richly decorated, but has fallen into disarray. Debris and animal corpses litter the grounds and there are skulls and antlers on display. One of the most effective scenes is when Dr. Norton is killed by being pushed up onto a strange wall hung with antlers. Truly creepy.
James Mason is undoubtedly the best thing about the film. He has a couple of good scenes, including one where he sasses a priest and another where he snidely mocks the police chief, which is quite funny. He is the actual villain of the piece, since Barlow is either absent or absurd-looking. As the protagonist, David Soul (Starsky & Hutch) honestly creeps me out – maybe it’s the hair? – but I guess he’s a decent lead. It’s almost impossible to compete with James Mason, who steals the film every time he’s on screen despite the fact that he seems to be phoning it in. In a way this reminds me of actors’ complaints about the set of the Frank Langella adaptation of Dracula from the same year; it was impossible to compete with Donald Pleasance.
Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard, Needful Things) is frustrating as Susan, partly because there is no reason for her character to appear in the film outside of her role in the conclusion. Bedelia is also hardly an ideal choice for leading lady, though I suppose she fits a small-town ideal of the pretty, yet homely young school teacher.There are a number of genre actors peppered throughout the miniseries who all given fairly strong performances, including Kenneth McMillan (Dune), Reggie Nalder (The Bird with the Crystal Plumage), Lance Kerwin (Outbreak), Geoffrey Lewis (Night of the Comet), Ed Flanders (The Exorcist III, The Ninth Configuration), Marie Windsor (Chamber of Horrors), and Elisha Cook, Jr. (Rosemary’s Baby, Messiah of Evil).
I really can’t recommend Salem’s Lot unless you’re a nine year old, in which case you should heed the disclaimer that this blog is for adults only. It is available on DVD if you decide you must watch it, but you’re never going to get that three hours back. Salem’s Lot was followed by a sequel, A Return to Salem's Lot, surprisingly directed by Larry Cohen. I couldn’t bring myself to watch that or the 2005 remake.