Salem's Lot (1979)
By: Mr Intolerance on January 9, 2008  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Warner Home Video (Australia). Region 4, NTSC. 4:3. English DD 1.0. English, French Subtitles. 183 minutes
The Movie
Director: Tobe Hooper
Starring: David Soul, James Mason, Lance Kerwin, Bonnie Bedelia
Writer: Paul Monash
Country: USA
I first saw Salem's Lot as an 8 year old, when it was broadcast as a 2 part mini-series on Australian TV. And it scared the shit out of me. I have never before or since been so profoundly affected by a horror film. I had nightmares about Reggie Nalder's bald-headed, rat-fanged, Nosferatu-inspired vampire Barlow for months. Years later I watched a truncated – well, to be brutally frank, mercilessly butchered – feature film version on VHS, and to say I was disappointed would be the understatement of the century. Watching this version at just over 3 hours, it was kind of cool, but I guess that 27 years of horror films since that fat kid in his pyjamas hiding behind the sofa, peeking between his fingers has dulled the experience a little.

Salem's Lot is based on Stephen King's novel of the same name – in my opinion, the best vampire novel ever written. A lot of people scoff at King now, often because the film adaptations of his stories are so abysmally wretched, but not me. Too many good books prove these nay-sayers wrong: Carrie, The Shining, Night Shift, It, The Stand, to name but a few, and, of course, Salem's Lot. By King's own admission this is his riff on Bram Stoker's Dracula, but he imbues it with a grander scope, better (not to mention more believable) characterisation and a much more detailed milieu – on this last point: King's take on small-town America (and by extension small towns anywhere) is second to none. He makes Steinbeck look like a dreary hack by comparison.

So, does Tobe Hooper's Salem's Lot do Stephen King's novel justice? No. It's a failure in that regard, quite a bitter disappointment for the purist in fact, but it's a highly ambitious and noble failure, and still, on its own merits as a stand-alone text, worthy of a watch. Basically (and the recent remake proves this point), the source material is too big, too rich and too textured to fit comfortably into the feature film format. But, whether or not Hooper knew this, he still gives it the good ol' college try.

I'm probably painting too bleak a picture of this – it's not the Iliad filmed as Troy-sized disaster you're imagining – in fact, ignoring the gargantuan shadow of the book the film exists in, it's not a bad slice of late 70s horror. I mention the context in which the film was created quite specifically – David Soul's sports coat and jeans clad author-turned-vampire hunter Ben Mears has the kind of 70s haircut that would stun a room to silence. Real estate agent Larry Crockett has quite a neat line in plaid blazers, and Bill Norton (who is a composite of two characters from the novel) is rather a dubious figure as a vampire hunter in a beige cardigan. The fashion, the haircuts, little things I know, but enough to put a bit of distance between the average modern day viewer and the film.

Anyway, you're presumably reading this to find out what the film's about, right? Ben Mears (David Soul alternating between wooden and overly earnest) is an up and coming author who's returned to his boyhood hometown, the quiet, backwater Maine hamlet of Salem's Lot, population just over two thousand. Ben's been haunted by memories of the Marsten House, a brooding American Gothic mansion overlooking the town, where the late owner, Hubie Marsten, killed his wife and a servant, and is rumoured to have done dreadful things to small children, before hanging himself. Ben's convinced that when, as a kid, he went into the house on a dare, he actually saw Hubie's corpse swinging from the rafters. Cue: wrestling with inner demons. He's writing about the house and what went on there as a kind of self-diagnosed therapy.

Simultaneously, two antiquarians, Richard Straker (played with urbane evil by James Mason) and the elusive Kurt Barlow (Reggie Nalder under a ton of still unsettling prosthetics and make up), have just set up what Straker claims to locals is their retirement business – a quaint (if somewhat expensive) antique shop. And they've just taken residence in the Marsten House – join the dots, people!

Children, and then adults, start to go missing or are just found plain dead, and Ben and his old high school English teacher Jason Burke (Matt, in the novel – couldn't see the point of the name change myself) take an interest, and that's when the notion of vampirism rears its ugly fangs. Ben's not been idle since riding into town; he's already hooked up with aspiring artist Susan Norton (played rather hesitantly by Bonnie Bodelia, who was certainly quite the saucy minx in the 70s), whose father Bill (he of the beige cardy) is the local sawbones, and is quite sceptical of the idea that his town has been invaded by Count Comic-book (King's turn of phrase, not mine).

Then Hooper cranks things up a notch with the appearance of Barlow, and, well, no spoilers from me – watch it and find out for yourself. Like I said, as a stand-alone text it works (kind of), but there are characters left underdeveloped, plot strands left dangling, and a rather uneven framing narrative that seems a little too formulaic, too pat, although truth be told King's wasn't much better. The desperate "race to the finish line" approach King took in the final act is rather sketchily reproduced here, but it seems to lack tension, and the ending of the events in town comes off as rather anti-climactic. The direction and editing are rather puzzling, to say the least – occasionally the sudden fades to black are obviously down to the medium of production (curse you, TV ad breaks!), but there are parts of the action and dialogue (the scriptwriter should be beaten for leaving out some of King's best lines) that are so dreadfully melodramatic as to induce wincing – however, these are offset by some highly effective "boo" scares and some of the tautness Hooper is capable of when on form: the prison scene, the confrontation in the Petrie family's kitchen, when little Ralphie Glick comes calling on his brother, the morgue scene – all gold and worth the price of admission alone.

But overall, I found myself left wanting. The deft touches of characterisation King effortlessly creates are missing. Ben's glum declaration of feeling somehow responsible for everything seems loaded with a laughable level of pathos. The character of Father Callahan is sadly, no, criminally underused. Mark's abilities as an escapologist are clumsily foreshadowed (although it did provide this rather mordant film with it's one line of unintentional comedy gold – after having proven (off-screen) to his father his aptitude for getting out of handcuffs, Mark tries to further impress dad by getting loose from some ropes. Son (with a bright and chirpy tone of voice) to father: "You wanna tie me up?" I thought for a split second I was going to be found dead in my flat next Spring having choked to death on a big gulp of gin…). Ben's past horrors in the Marsten House aren't given anywhere near the depth or detail they required to get the fear across. And generally speaking, things happen too fast – hence: lack of tension.

King presents you with amazing amounts of detail in his novel, painting a picture of a credible town and its equally credible inhabitants – due to the format of the made for TV miniseries, it's simply impossible for Hooper to do the same. I reckon if the evil geniuses at HBO (given the high quality of recent shows they've made, like Rome, Band of Brothers, Deadwood and Carnivale) could get their mitts on the rights to the novel and make a 12 part miniseries, we might be on to something. Hooper, or more accurately his scriptwriter, I suppose, does some very puzzling things with the source material: his ethereal, animalistic presentation of Barlow is the polar opposite to King's suave Dracula wannabe (although he's still pretty fucking disturbing – the fat little 8 year old in pyjamas behind the sofa inside of me still got a chill when Barlow makes his first appearance), characters names were changed inexplicably (Floyd Tibbits became Ned Tibbets, for example), some characters were simply omitted (to the detriment of the film, I thought – the character of Jimmy Cody, especially), at least a third of the novel is junked (the tense "where the fuck is he?" search for Barlow is so truncated as to remove all the tense desperation and the existential nightmare of the reality of having to pound stakes through multiple hundred human bodies) the characters who are there are underwritten, in some cases miserably so, and the elements of small town minutiae included (Bonnie's affair with Larry Crockett, for example) serve as little more than episodic distractions, rather than fleshing out and enriching the tale with a human element. Frustrating, really.

One thing I discovered while researching Salem's Lot that interested me, was that when the film was still being considered for a cinematic release, George A Romero was slated for the director's chair – that I would have liked to have seen. If you have a read of Creepshows: The Illustrated Stephen King Movie Guide by Stephen Jones, you'll also discover that Romero didn't like the depiction of Barlow, stating, "The biggest problem I had with it, was that the vampire wasn't really the lord. The vampire was an attack dog for James Mason." This is my problem, too, but I guess you could state that depicting vampires in a modern, say Buffy-esque (now there's a show I'd like gathered up and burnt…), kind of way with charm and poise and glamour means that a lot of their sense of menace dissipates – having them here in the kind of way they were originally presented in folklore and myth, this makes them a savage, directed evil. King (in the same text) believed the adaptation was fine ("His screenplay I like quite a works"), but that Barlow's appearance was a little too like Graf Orlock in Nosferatu ("It was just a dreadful steal on the make-up. That was bad.").

Popular at the time, Salem's Lot has suffered due to age and comparisons with its far superior parent text. Not a bad film, but it could have been so much better.
Poor, to say the least. The quality jumps around in between scenes, but is never really all that much better than VHS, in my opinion. I have the strong suspicion that this print was cobbled together from a range of different sources. And if it wasn't, it sure as hell looks like it. This iconic film, considering some of the no-interest dreck served up to the public these days, deserves digital re-mastering. At least remove the crackle and grain, you bastards.
Blah. Flat, lifeless one-channel mono.
Extra Features
Diddly-squat. On the back cover it boldly states under the heading "Special Features": Interactive Menus (not that special in my opinion), Scene Access (hardly special either), Theatrical Trailer. I'm assuming that this last is for the butchered 112 minute version, although I was never aware that it received a cinematic release. Oh, word of warning: if you haven't seen this film before, DO NOT WATCH THE TRAILER FIRST. I can't stress this enough – it spoils everything, and I mean everything that happens in the film, totally and completely.
The Verdict
When all's said and done, this is the film that's responsible for my life as a horror fan. Seeing it for the first time was a pivotal experience for me. I immediately became obsessed with the genre, and tried to find something, anything that might recreate the feeling of fright I received when I saw Barlow on screen for the first time when I was 8. Sure, Father Time has given it a right beating, and sure, comparisons with the novel don't help in appreciating it, but for a good late 70s straight horror flick with no gimmicks and pretensions, it does the trick – just. The disc itself is crap, but the film is not bad. It's certainly worthy of a better release than this.
Movie Score
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