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Monday, February 19, 2018

Salem’s Lot (1979)




I knew when I decided to do this made for television marathon that I’d have to cover Salem’s Lot. Made for CBS I remember it was a big deal at the time. Stephen King was just starting to become well known and the network managed to get Chainsaw Massacre’s own Tobe Hooper to direct. That is a decent pedigree and a lot of talent involved. Between this and the Dan Curtis output earlier in the decade they make up the list of “must see” genre output for the small screen. With that in mind it is time to dive into David Soul vs the Master in Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot.

Things open up in a church south of the border. We see a man and boy, who we later find out are David and Mark, collecting holy water. The water glows blue and David says that they have been found. Then the action shifts to a couple years earlier. David Soul is Ben Mears, a writer who has returned to his childhood home to write a book. He has vivid memories of the Marsten house which he believes is evil. He had a strange experience before he moved away that convinced him it was haunted and since he writes horror novels he wants to use it as inspiration. When he returns to rent the house, he finds that it has already been sold to a couple antique dealers, Straker and Barlow. At first this is just annoying, but soon Ben starts to believe something is terribly wrong in town and that the dealers might be the cause of it. It seems that the evil house might have attracted evil men again. If only that were the case.

There should be no spoilers about the true intentions of Straker and Barlow being how famous the book and movie are. But just in case I will warn you some big ones are coming in the next couple of sentences.  Barlow, who is never seen until it is too late, is a vampire that has chosen Salem’s Lot as his new hunting ground. Straker is his human servant that protects him during the day and runs his affairs. Barlow’s appearance is more of the classic Nosferatu than it is Dracula so he can’t be seen in public. In fact, in the movie he never speaks, letting Straker speak for him. The town is quickly overrun as the locals are turned into vampires that in turn create more vampires. Ben eventually figures it out and with the help of a local doctor, Bill, who also happens to be the father of his lady friend, prepares to do battle with the undead. Also, along is Mark, a kid who is really into monsters and figures out early on what is happening. Together they head into the house for the big confrontation with Barlow and his minions.

Geoffrey Lewis makes a good vampire!
That might be the longest synopsis I’ve ever written for a review, but then again Salem’s Lot is more than three hours long! It was a two-night event and even though I was not quite ten years old I still remember being very excited for it. This was also my first introduction to the world of Stephen King, whom I later became a huge fan of having spent many hours reading his books and shot stories. Maybe it is nostalgia clouding my eyes, but I really enjoy Salem’s Lot and am going to give you a few reasons why.

The movie has a great cast. James Mason as Straker is menacing and larger than life in every scene he is in. Given that he is the only visible sign of the danger for a great deal of the movie this is a must. He creates the sense of foreboding that carries the events along until the vampire Barlow appears on screen. Elisha Cook Jr. has a small part as the local town drunk asked to keep an eye on things. Not much screen time but the few minutes we get him are great. Geoffrey Lewis gets more screen time and even gets to grow some fangs. He goes from harmless groundskeeper to scary vampire in the span of a couple of days. Fred Willard also gets to ham it up a bit as a randy real estate man who sleeps with the wrong married woman!

Master Vampire Straker
The direction and pacing of the movie are great. It would have been very easy for such a long project to get padded and bloated to fill out the runtime. But Hooper is very careful to make sure that doesn’t happen. There are a lot of characters and moving parts to the story so there is plenty of material to keep the audience interested without bogging down the main plot involving Ben. I also thought the choice of the music and the liberal use of fog created a neat gothic vibe where I didn’t expect it. More than once we see the vampire of a recently deceased loved one come tapping at the window, gently floating on what appears to be a cloud of fog. Fans who have grown up with 30 Days of Night or God help us Twilight might not recognize the classic nature of sequences like this. Before they were bloodthirsty monsters or tween love interests the vampire used to be an ethereal creature that were scary without being animalistic. I mean they will still kill the hell out of you, but in a classy way.

The design of the vampires is very simple, but incredibly effective. Barlow is the only one that is full on Nosferatu with the pointy ears and bat like appearance. The fresh vampires are basically the actors with some makeup to make them appear grey and bloodless, topped off with fangs and killer contact lenses. Seriously the contacts make a huge difference and make them look creepy as hell. This goes to show that sometimes you don’t have to be elaborate to create an effective monster for your movie.

I could go on, I did mention that Salem’s Lot is three hours long, but it would be beating a dead horse. This is a great movie, based on a great book, that was brought to the small screen by a legendary director. It is a time commitment but worth every second. You can’t call yourself a horror fan if you haven’t sat down at least once and watched it.


© Copyright 2018 John Shatzer

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