Salem’s Lot (Tobe Hooper, 1979)

by Douglas Buck February 23, 2020 7 minutes (1506 words) HD streaming

Successful novelist Ben Mears (David Soul) returns to his sleepy childhood home in Maine, the one with the great name of Salem’s Lot (Stephen King rocked it with that title), only to be shocked by the discovery of the residents being turned, one by one, into creatures of the night (as my daughter exclaimed when recognition hit her at about the one hour mark into this over 3 hour film, ‘Oh, they’re vampires!’)… and a growing certainty that the horror destroying the town emanates from that damn haunted Marsten House, looming from the hill above, and its new occupants, the unseen Barlow and his weirdo business ‘partner’ Straker (James Mason).

Jesus, man. From De Palma to Kubrick, Cronenberg to Carpenter, has any author scored this many cinematic heavyweights adapting his works right out of the gates? With my latest cinematic mission with my 15 year old daughter (taking a break between “The Walking Dead” seasons, that is) of watching all things King (well, at least until we start getting to too many bad ones in a row, but that won’t be until we reach the aughts), it’s been lots of enjoyment re-watching these earliest ones, at a time when King’s assembly line-arriving books were feeling so vibrant and fresh (a feeling which slowly dissipated for me, finally ending for good about halfway through his painfully indulgent It, from which, when finally I had slogged through its interminable 1200 pages, I never returned again), and the cinematic masters adapting them were at the heights of inspiration (one of the selfish benefits of being a parent, by the way, is both revisiting magical stuff you’ve always wanted to but might never have made time for, or finally catching great stuff you missed the first go-round and likely otherwise would never have gone back to, such as the absolutely brilliant, television-landscape changing Buffy, The Vampire Slayer series), and that includes this wonderfully crafted (and that’s even acknowledging the deliberate padding required to pace the film out over consecutive two-hour network television slots), faithful adaption by another genre legend, he who exploded on the scene with his infamously nihilistic, still harrowing masterpiece Texas Chainsaw Massacre… none other than Tobe Hooper.

King’s much-ballyhooed narrative trope of bringing traditional old-school horror into the everyday world of today works perfectly within the hands of Hooper. The limitations on explicit content allows the filmmaker to create and focus on more quietly effective moments, such as gravedigger Ryerson (Geoffrey Lewis) digging the grave for a young boy, the scene shot and composed in a way to make it seem the entire town is right there in view of the grave (it was fun explaining this kinda easy movie magic to my daughter), accompanied by the simply delicious jump scare finale of it, to the undead children floating before windows trying to entice a friend to let them in (shot cleverly in reverse to get an odd movement from the accompanying fog), to the discovery of the gravedigger, now undead, slowly creaking in his rocking chair in the dark room waiting for his victim, has Hooper creating an atmosphere so creepy that, even within the production limitations of television (especially at that time), moves nicely from the real into the horrifically surreal.

A creepy scene if there ever was one

And I can’t tell you the music it was to my ears to hear my daughter comment how creepy she found the weird (why, even awkward) bodily slitherings and hissings of the film’s vampires trying to seduce their victims. Neither jazzed up with garish makeup (other than the big fangs and cool contact lenses, naturally) or gifted with CGI accoutrements from way-too-overeager-to-please filmmakers, the simplicity of these strange moments – relying on performance, lighting and the actors’ bodies — creates a kind of unsetting corporeal perversity; an impressive Hooper achievement, giving us something this effective in the face of the censorial might of television at the time (no wonder it came with parental warnings back in the day… the very sensational thing, naturally, that guaranteed I wasn’t gonna miss it!).

Alas, of course, the opportunity to laugh derisively at anything that doesn’t meet today’s slicker consumer standards would mean Salem’s Lot would likely be laughed off the screen by most of today’s younger, too-cool-for-school audiences at, say, Montreal’s own Mile End hipster-headquarters Cinéma Moderne (and, to be fair, New York City’s own equally dimwitted audience-filled Metrograph… wait until I tell you how Martin Scorsese’s flawed yet fascinating New York, New York was met by the young outraged females in the crowd in a later post), of which I grow less enthusiastic by the day, one screening at a time… but, hey, at least my daughter gets it.

Soul’s understated performance style as Ben Mears manages to create a real anchor at the center in a film chock full of wonderfully cast familiar faces helping populate the small New England town; there’s everyone from at-the-time popular television actors (like comedian Fred Willard who I have to say has one of the most suspenseful moments in the entire 180 plus minutes, when the wonderful, long-time character actor George Dzundza, playing a drunken abusive husband, surprises Willard’s salesman character by bashing in on him in his own bedroom having an affair with his floozy wife, ending up with him holding his rifle to his face) and long-time studio vets (like noir legends Elisha Cook Jr and Marie Windsor). Bonnie Bedelia, as college girl Susan, Mears’ romantic interest, is quite engaging in her part (while I’ve seen her for sure in other things, nothing comes close to really standing out like she does for me here). James Mason as the antique dealing Straker, dripping with arrogance, seeing humans as nothing more than fodder for his master, does a wonderful job chewing at the scenery in the most creepy manner.

James Mason

I haven’t read the book in a long time, but as far as my memory goes, it’s quite the faithful adaption (other than turning the book’s Barlow from strikingly handsome vampiric sociopath into Reggie Nalder’s intensively crazed and frightening, rat-faced creature, openly referencing what Murnau did so brilliantly with his early startling version of the image of Dracula for his 1922 Nosferatu), to the point of trying to capture specific moments from the novel (for instance, the effective beat Hooper creates of the not-yet-turned gravedigger’s knuckles wrapping against a night table as his corpse is turned over is something I remember King dedicating a full passage to in the book).

Nosferatu-influenced vampire

A deep overriding affection plays out of horror films past, not only with the complete allegiance to the standard vampire mythos of holy water, stakes and coffins to sleep in, but things like the author-created young Mark Petrie (the appealing Lance Kerwin, already starting to fade after his “James at 15” television success) a teenager obsessively drawn (to his father’s consternation) to creating masks and models of his favorite Universal monsters, and the dilapidated Marsten House itself, which looks, with its large imposing gable, more than just coincidentally like the hiding place of another, more human, monster named Norman Bates, with Straker’s long stride down the long broken-down center staircase transporting us back to the Lugosi Dracula’s methodical walk down his own castle’s web-strewn staircase… but also an equally fond predilection for the more lurid, grizzlier treats of today; with the shocking moment of a character being carried by the inhumanly strong Straker (“Texas Chainsaw”-style) towards a series of sharp bones on the wall to be violently strung up there to die, the surprise death of not only Mark’s parents, but the constant pedophilia-hinting kidnapping of young boys by Straker (with the taboo image of him unwrapping the first kidnapped boy openly referencing the original “Drac”) as fodder for Barlow to dine on, Hooper did manages to nicely skirt the edges of allowable boob tube fare.

Salem’s Lot remains an exceptionally well-crafted, atmospheric horror flick with a nicely perverse edge, with Hooper (and King)’s influences speaking to traditions old and horrors new. Watching it again, perhaps because of its tv origins, it made me think it’s not mentioned nearly enough as one of Hooper’s finest (with Texas Chainsaw Massacre, naturally, always and forever at the tippiest of tops).

Alas, it might not have been Azia’s favorite, a bit slow for her, but she hung in there with me and still enjoyed it well enough with nary a complaint and a few aforementioned accolades (we watched it over two nights as originally presented, ending night one at the original break point).

Next up in the itinerary is a bit of a cheat, not exactly an adaption of an existing work, but a King effort nonetheless… this time an original collaboration with another true Master of Horror… none other than that late great Romero fellow. I mean what is there to say… King’s roll continued.

Salem’s Lot (Tobe Hooper, 1979)

Douglas Buck. Filmmaker. Full-time cinephile. Part-time electrical engineer. You can also follow Buck on “Buck a Review,” his film column of smart, snappy, at times irreverent reviews.

Buck A Review   horror   made for tv horror   stephen king   tobe hooper   vampire