Salem’s Lot (1979)

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“A novelist and a young horror fan attempt to save a small New England town which has been invaded by vampires.” — IMDb

Salem’s Lot is, of course, a book by master of horror Stephen King, released in 1975 as his second published novel. I have yet to read the book (don’t worry, it’s on my list) so I am basing my review on simply the viewing of the movie version alone.

Warner Bros. acquired the rights to Salem’s Lot and actually received quite a few scripts — all rejected — before it was turned over to Warner Bros. Television. It was decided that it would do better as a television miniseries rather than a feature film due to the length of the book (~400 pages). It now exists as both a two-part series of 2 hours each, and an edited 3-hour release (which is what I watched). Despite TV restrictions making it much less edgy and graphic/violent than it may otherwise have been, I think it still turned out to be wonderfully creepy, due in large part to Tobe Hooper’s directing (as well as King’s always brilliant writing, of course).

The story centers around Ben Mears (David Soul), an author taking up temporary residence in Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine (also known as Salem’s Lot), while he writes a book about the local Marsten House, which is said to be haunted. The house, which is currently occupied by the mysterious Richard Straker (James Mason) and his always absent business partner, Kurt Barlow, has a large package delivered one night, and it’s not long before people in the town turn up missing or dead. It is soon realized that Kurt Barlow is in fact an ancient master vampire and is slowly turning the town into vampires as well. Ben and one of the local boys, Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin) barely escape with their lives…

** SPOILERS! **

I think, ultimately, the biggest downside of this movie for me is its length. I honestly have a hard time staying focused and engaged even during a movie as long as 2 hours, let alone 3+. I’m all about extensive character development and back story but over 3 hours is a damn marathon as far as movies are concerned. I understand why it wasn’t made into a regular feature film and, again, I’m saying this having not read the book, but the story as I saw it could have been easily condensed into a shorter timeframe allowing for less moments of slow story development and, at times, some boredom.

The fact that it was made for TV meant that it had to be a bit more tame than a feature film might have been. I think this worked both for and against it, but mostly for in the sense that it really relied more on atmosphere and tension building rather than a lot of shock and gore for the sake of moving the story along. It did a great job at building up this small town where everyone knows each other. It made Richard Straker, an unusual but mostly benign character at first, seem much more out of place since he was needing to acclimate to this very tight-knit community. Even Ben Mears coming back felt out of place, even though he grew up in that very town.

Despite it needing to keep things more PG, there were some truly chilling scenes. The kid scratching at his brother’s window has creeped me out ever since I first saw this movie when I was younger (though it definitely had less of an effect as an adult). The groundskeeper rocking in that chair with that sort of raspy hiss and those glowing eyes.

And Kurt Barlow’s first appearance in that jail cell HOLY FUCK. One of the only times in my LIFE that I have straight up SCREAMED and pulled the blanket up over my face. I’m not talking about a surprised squeak… I just loudly went “AHHHHHH!!!!” and covered my damn face. And the later scene of him appearing in the kitchen… it’s just this flat, black cape at first and then he sort of takes form underneath it and slowly rises up. OH. MAN. I really think that the character of Kurt Barlow was way under-utilized in this movie. He’s easily one of the most terrifying characters I’ve seen ANYWHERE and yet he only pops up a few times before he’s killed. Womp.

Ben pounding the stake into Barlow’s heart was such an iconic moment, and the shots of the house burning as you hear moaning and screaming from inside are intense.

Ultimately, I don’t know… this movie is so hit or miss for me. There’s some truly fantastic characters, and one iconic monster in Barlow… and we, of course, have the feeling of the walls closing in on you as more and more members of the community turning into vampires. I thought it was well done in that sense. But the meat of the movie is too broken up by long, slow scenes of character development. It just didn’t keep me engaged consistently enough and, again, I thought Barlow was such a powerful character that was barely on screen enough to be fully appreciated. I will definitely be giving the book a read because I’m curious to see how well the film adaptation stands up!

Rating: 6.5/10 | Director: Tobe Hooper | Writer: Stephen King (novel), Paul Monash (screenplay) | Cinematography: Jules Brenner | Music: Harry Sukman | Starring: David Soul, James Mason, Lance Kerwin, Bonnie Bedelia, Lew Ayres, Reggie Nalder

 

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