DVD Movie Review: ‘Salem’s Lot (1979)

dvd_salemOnly the second film adaptation to be made of the great horror fiction of one Stephen King (the first being Carrie (1976) by Brian De Palma, which was a key catalyst in sending King on towards being perhaps the most popular author in the world, period), Tobe Hooper‘s ‘Salem’s Lot (1979), an adaptation of the author’s second novel (which King still counts as being, give or take, his own personal favourite) was originally a three-hour two-part TV movie adaptation, which was subsequently adapted (running time reduced, gore factor increased) into a cinematic release.

As I believe is the case for many people, it was bloody scary when I first watched it and, some 35 years later, still stands up as being among the very best adaptations of King’s work.

And why would that be? A mon avis, it is primarily because it manages very succesfully to root its terrors in a credible reality, namely small-town USA, in very much the same way that King’s novel did.

King was always a huge fan of Bram Stoker’s Dracula – a novel that he describes as the most optimistic scary novel of all time. Count Dracula, simultaneously feared and worshipped in his dark little European fiefdom of Transylvania, makes the fatal mistake of taking his act and putting it on the road. In London, he meets men and women of science and reason, by God – Abraham Van Helsing, who knows about blood transfusions; John Seward, who keeps his diary on wax phonograph cylinders; Mina Harker, who keeps hers in shorthand and later serves as secretary to the Fearless Vampire Hunters.”

SK got talking to his wife, the novelist Tabitha King, when he was still teaching (in 1971) and had just reintroduced the Count’s adventures to himself, via his lessons to his students, and wondered out loud what “might have happened if Drac had appeared not in turn-of-the-century London but in the America of the 1970s. ‘Probably he’d land in New York and be killed by a taxi-cab, like Margaret Mitchell in Atlanta,’ I added, laughing. My wife, who has been responsible for all of my greatest successes, did not join my laughter. ‘What if he came here, to Maine?’ she asked. What if he came to the country? After all, isn’t that where his castle was? In the Transylvanian countryside?’ That was really all it took. My mind lit up with possibilities, some hilarious, some horrible. I saw how such a man – such a thing – could operate with lethal ease in a small town; the locals would be very similar to the peasants he had known and ruled back home…he would soon become what he had always been: the boyar, the master.” [Quotes from Stephen King’s 2005 foreword and 1999 afterword to ‘Salem’s Lot]

And that is exactly what happens in both novel and film, but Tobe Hooper made key changes to the nature of the evil at the story’s dark heart, changes which, I believe, have ensured the film’s longevity.

To be fair Hooper (who was only recently after making one of the finest horror films of all time, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)), and his screenwriter Paul Monash, are by and large very faithful to King’s original story, but with one key exception. In the original, writer Ben Mears (played rather well by David Soul in the film) returns to his home town of Jerusalem’s Lot (‘Salem’s Lot) to write a novel that will hopefully exorcise his childhood fears about the brooding, Gothic mansion that can be seen from everywhere in town, the Marsten House.

Originally built and owned by one Hubie Marsten, who was a suspect in the disappearances of several children from the town and who hanged himself after murdering his wife. Mears went into the house on a dare as a child, and is still convinced that he saw the livid corpse of Marsten hanging from a beam, and that Marsten then opened his eyes and looked at him. The theme of his book is the Marsten house, examining the notion that the house itself may be evil incarnate – and he learns that two newcomers to the Lot have recently bought it, a Richard K. Straker (James Mason) and his antiques business partner Kurt Barlow, whom nobody has yet met. The pair are about to open a fine antiques shop, and gossip is rife in the town. Mears, as yet, has no proof, but he is convinced that “an evil house attracts evil men”.

Is he right, do you think? Course he is – SPOILERS AHEAD.

The evil Straker (played in marvellously melifluous tones by Mason) is opening the way for the arrival of master vampire Barlow, who has for centuries preyed on similar small towns the world over. And here is the rub – in King’s original, while Barlow is chilling when he makes his presence felt, he is still very clearly inspired by the stiff-collar etiquette and intelligence of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, that is to say he is a creature that would still not appear out of place at the finest parties.

Not so Hooper’s take on the lead vamp – played by the (uncredited) Reggie Nalder, Barlow, when he emerges, is revealed as a monstrous, vulpine creature very similar to Max Schreck’s creation in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922). Unlike in the novel, Barlow never speaks, but only howls, hisses, tears, scratches and feeds.

The 2004 remake (again, a TV movie adaptation) cast Rutger Hauer as Barlow and gave him a voice but, I’m sorry, rather as Boris Karloff bemoaned his Frankenstein’s monster ever talking, the same is true here – Nalder, and the evil he represents, is simply terrifying without any speech at all.

And, of course, let’s not forget *that* part – a sickly child finds that he has an univited guest at night, scratching at his window. Only problem is, it is his Undead brother, who very much wants to be let in, because a vampire always has to be invited into an abode. Do you remember how creepy that scene was? Course you do…

And so, does Mears manage to conquer evil, as in Dracula? Well, that would be telling but, as King himself said he did when he first wrote ‘Salem’s Lot, you will believe in vampires by the time this is done. Heh, heh, heh…

Watch the film here.

181 mins (TV movie). 112 mins. (Cinema release).

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