Thursday, April 14, 2011

Salem's Lot (1979)

Anyone who grew up in the 70’s remembers this epic made for television movie event. At the time I had no idea who Stephen King was but would never forget the name after seeing one of the scariest film adaptations of King’s work.

Ben Mears (David Soul) returns to his hometown of Salem’s Lot after a long absence to work on a book that he is writing. His first stop on arrival is the old Marsten house situated up on a hill at the edge of town. This house is the heart and soul of the book he is writing and the home of a childhood trauma that Ben still deals with in his adult life. The Marsten house is your typical “haunted house” that every small town has had at some point in its existence. It is also home to a Mr. Straker, a British antiques dealer played masterfully by James Mason. Ben soon finds a room to rent and quickly makes the acquaintance of Susan (Bonnie Bedelia), the two become romantically involved of course. After a large crate is delivered to the Marsten house, several townsfolk disappear or become severely ill and die mysteriously. It is soon discovered that the crate contained a vampire. This vampire is actually Straker’s business partner, Mr. Barlow.

The vampire plague starts to spread throughout Salem’s Lot. Ben teams up with Susan’s father, Dr. Norton (Ed Flanders) and teenager Mark (Lance Kerwin) to infiltrate the old Marsten house, kill Straker and drive a stake through the heart of the ancient vampire, Barlow. They succeed in one wonderfully filmed finale that ends with the Marsten house and nest of vampires being set on fire. Ben and Mark escape the house but know that they will be pursued by any surviving vampires. Two years later we find them still on the run in Guatemala. Here they are confronted by Susan, Ben’s love interest. She has become a vampire herself and attempts to vampirize Ben. He stakes her and leaves the cottage that he and Mark were staying in to continue their flight from the vampires.

Directed by Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist), King’s book is fully brought to undead life. The first part of the film, being that this was originally presented as a two nighter on television, concentrates on developing the characters of the story. Not just the main characters but also some rather minor characters as well. Hooper carries out the task without becoming uninteresting. There are a couple of sub plots in the first part concerning Susan’s ex-boyfriend Ned Tebbets and an affair between realtor Larry Crockett and “Boom Boom” Bonnie Sawyer. There is not a dull moment in the little town of Salem’s Lot.

Hooper picks up the pace within the last 40 minutes of part one when a child goes missing. The little boy, Ralphie Glick, begins to visit his older brother Danny at night. His nocturnal callings are accompanied by a strange mist while Ralphie appears floating within and scratching at the window asking to be let in. This scene and another with the vampirized Danny were filmed by placing the actors on a boom crane and filming the sequence backwards, making it all the more eerie. If there is one scene in this movie that everyone remembers and still gets freaked out over, its always one of the of the window scenes! I personally never looked out the window at night the same way again. The vampire makeup looks very creepy as well. This would be my first memory of seeing a vampire on television that really looked scary. Large fangs and yellow, cat like, reflective contact lenses were worn and make the vampire completely believable and frightening. Hooper also pays homage to F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) in the design of the head vampire, Kurt Barlow. Barlow is bald, pointed eared and has rat like fangs. His complexion is blue, why I’m not so sure but it is truly one ugly and frightening blood sucker.

The second part of the movie really moves along at a great clip. Ben and former teacher Jason Burke have begun to put two and two together when local Mike Ryerson (Geoffrey Lewis nails his role in this one!) shows up feeling extremely drained of life. Two marks on the neck is all Burke needs to see to know what is going on. The scene where Burke confronts Mike after fully turning into a vampire is another memorable scene. Lewis plays the part of a taunting vampire to the hilt. He hisses and contorts his body to make himself look taller and extremely menacing is some brilliant acting on Lewis’ part. Another memorable scene has Ben confronted by the vampire visage of Mrs. Glick. As she lay dead on the morgue slab, she suddenly resuscitates into her new found “life”. Ben creating a crucifix out of tongue depressors  and medical tape, while trying to recite the 23rd Psalm is one of my favorite scenes from the movie but not my all time favorite which I will get to in just a moment.

Another aspect of the second part is Hooper’s use of silence. The movie becomes quiet and uneasiness settles in. This is used to great extent and suddenly things like a phone ringing become shockingly loud. Hey it was enough to make me jump several times and I’m pushing 40 years old!

The finale in the Marsten house is one of the great payoffs in television horror. The set is perfectly constructed. It really looks like no one has stepped foot inside in over 20 plus years. When Ben and Mark finally locate the root cellar hiding place of the vampire we also discover that the other vampirized locals reside there as well. While Ben is staking Barlow, Hooper continues to interject a shot of Mark beside the cellar door looking on in horror. In the background of this shot, we slowly see the other vampires crawling towards Mark, their eyes glowing and their hisses just audible enough to make you want to shout “hey kid turn around!”. Mark does turn around in time to shut the door and jam it with a screwdriver. Barlow’s death is filmed like a good old fashioned vampire movie should be in the late 70’s. Barlow slowly decomposes via the overlay of exposures reminiscent of the old Hammer films, a great way to lay the vampire to rest in my opinion.

If you have never seen the full 183 minutes of Salem’s Lot, I highly recommend doing so. I found my copy at my local Big Lots for three bucks. A theatrical cut was released entitled Salem’s Lot: The Movie, clocking in at 112 minutes but seems lacking in many aspects, especially in the beginning and ending sequences. This one needs to be seen in its full glory. The most frightening three hours you can spend in the dark!


  1. it's been so long since i've seen this that i had actually forgotten it was a vampire movie.

  2. i loved the book but don't think i ever actually saw this...perhaps i never went back to watch it after seeing so many of king's good novels being converted into terrible movies...

  3. For me, it's the only King television adaptation that was worth a dern. I loved the book too, it still creeps me out to this day. There are some differences in the film version. Barlow is nothing like the character in the book, some characters are combined, some completely gone etc. It still holds up to me and only the television adaptation of "The Shining" comes close to being as good.....just my opinion though.