In 1979 I was just 8 years old. I was a 2 year graduate of the Star Wars (1977) phenomenon and by now a full fledged monsterkid. When the T.V. commercials began to appear for a new mini series on CBS that involved vampires, my pointed monsterkid ears perked to attention! Salem's Lot is by far the end all be all horror mini series. It freaked me out as a kid and it still delivers the goods for me 37 years later.
There is also a new face in town. A face that ultimately comes to represent an unspeakable evil. An evil in the guise of an older British gentlemen by the name of Richard Straker (James Mason). Straker is a business partner to the yet unseen Kurt Barlow, they own an antiques company that has settled down in the town. What the residents don't know is that not only is Straker bringing in fine antiques, he is also bringing in and ultimately harboring the most evil and corrupt vessel of horror known to man.....a vampire.
And now the stage is set for director Tobe Hooper and screen writer Paul Monash to make it all come together in a two night, four hour historical television event.
Tobe Hooper is of course then and now best known for his seminal "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (1974) and Monash had already had success with Stephen King producing the film adaptation of "Carrie" (1976). This was certainly a "dream team" that came together at the right time and under the right circumstances. Monash combined and deleted characters from the original novel which is pretty understandable but still did a great job of conveying the story line and some sub plots. For me the stand out is of course Hooper's direction. The first part of the film (basically the first 2 hours) is spent introducing characters and building them up for the audience to either love or hate. Hooper also throws in a smattering of atmosphere and a few little jumps to keep you on your toes. I feel this is why the film works so well.
Hooper is able to keep you glued to the screen during the first half of the film. It really goes by at a very nice pace and you never get bored. There is just enough spookiness that you are kept in anticipation waiting for the truth to finally reveal itself. The first half ends on such a great note as well. The last half hour or so gives a peek at how the evil that has descended upon Salem's Lot is beginning to grow. The demise of the Glick brothers is a series of incredibly photographed sequences that are guaranteed to give you the shivers and keep you up night when you think you might have heard a slight tap at your bedroom window. The delivery of something cold and all out wrong in the guise of a headboard in a large crate is another extremely well filmed, albeit simple, sequence that is completely driven by actors Geoffrey Lewis (Mike Ryerson) and Barney McFadden (Ned Tibbets). This sequence alone shows how to convey horror and terror with not one single drop of stage blood nor a glimpse of what we all know has got to be in that crate.
At the end of the first night, the evil has wormed its way into the town and several of its townsfolk. The look of the undead is thrown right up in our faces as well. We all know what these vampires look like and they are scary as hell. The decision to go with glowing eyes through contact lenses was perfect. The eyes are more unsettling than the fangs in my opinion. And speaking of the fangs, these vampires are equipped with some wicked canines. They are discolored, which is a great look and really conveys the pestilence and disease that these creatures are carrying and dealing out.
Another brilliant confrontation is in the hospital morgue when Ben (Soul) is confronted by the Glick boys newly turned mother is expertly filmed and acted especially by David Soul. His stammering of Psalm 23 while the body of the mother begins to twitch and rise from the exam table is another goose pimply moment. He is able to fend her off with a cross made of tongue depressors and medical tape which really conveys the theory of faith being an important tool in fighting the undead vampire. The last hour of this second part of the film is very fast paced and finally brings us to the center of all the evil. The Marsten House confrontation is outstanding in set design alone. The emptiness of an abandoned house worn with age and neglect is perfectly captured. The house itself was a facade built on the hill for the film and cost a reportedly $100,000. I don't know if that included the inside set or not but wow did they nail it! Ben is accompanied by the local doctor Bill Norton (Ed Flanders) who is finally convinced of what is going on in Salem's Lot. He is also the father of Ben's love interest Susan (Bonnie Bedelia) who has also made it to the house after seeing a young boy, Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin) enter the house looking for revenge upon the vampire.
Let me take a moment to say something about the character of Mark Petrie. Mark represents the monsterkid in all of us. His room is adorned with movie posters for Frankenstein and Dracula. He has an incredible collection of the old Aurora model kits from the 70's and he already has a working knowledge of vampires and how to defend himself against them. There is even dialogue where he explains what a ghoul is to his friends the Glick brothers. While the whole movie clicked with me, this character clicked with me on a whole different level. While Mark is a teenager and I was only 8 when the mini series came out, I completely identified with the character. I had a working knowledge of monsters and vampires and I knew what a ghoul was. I so put myself in the shoes of Mark Petrie when he confronts the vampire and says "I'm gonna kill you!". I guess this is why this mini series works so well for me. Right place, right time.
If you haven't seen Salem's Lot do it and do it now. Find the mini series and completely bypass the condensed theatrical version that was released in Europe and VHS in the states as Salem's Lot: The Movie. While it's not a complete waste of time, it just doesn't have the bite that the mini series has......you see what I did there right?
Salem's Lot (1979) Trailer