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What’s it About?

Vampires are invading a small New England town. It’s up to a novelist and a young horror fan to save it.

“Salem’s Lot” (1979)

Directed by  Tobe Hooper

9 out of 10

By Vic

Ah, good old reliable Vampires. Make a movie or write a book about them and your are pretty much guaranteed a hit or at least a somewhat popular and interesting entry in a long line of historic tales of bloodsuckers old and new. When Salem’s lot first aired in 1979 (I don’t even remember the network) I had missed it and even upon several re-airings about once a year or so, I still would miss it somehow. It was frustrating. I must admit though that the first time I missed it, it was because the TV spots looked incredibly terrifying and I chickened out.

Oh well. As a longtime horror film fan I have to admit that some movies are able to scare me enough to either miss it upon it’s initial release (Halloween: I was way too young to see that and my mother never really took me to see horror movies) or  I would un-wittingly be taken to see one by my Grandparents  who had no idea that they could have scarred me for life by taking me to see The Exorcist at a very young age.

Salem’s Lot is kinda like the first point. I just kept missing it and missing it. I believe I even got to reading the book at least 2 times before Warner Brothers released the heavily edited version on VHS. If I am correct (please forgive me if I’m wrong) I think that the bookends of the movie were cut out. But I didn’t know about that since I had never watched the mini – series.

Upon buying said VHS I ran home to watch it and even though I was missing out on some footage I still enjoyed this movie and it scared the pants of off me. The complete uncut edition is the cut to watch though. It makes more sense and it elevates the tone and style of this very creepy Tobe Hooper film that was produced by Richard Kobritz (Christine) and stars David Soul (Starsky and Hutch), James Mason (20.000 Leagues Under the Sea) and Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard).

Ben Mears (Soul) and Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin) are on the run from a vampiric threat and while in Guatemala they find out that they are being followed. It seems that when Vampires are close by the holy water they carry around tends to glow. I don’t quite remember if that was in the novel but it is a cool idea none the less. After this discovery the narrative switches to the past where we are introduced to Mears as he returns to his boyhood home of Jerusalem’s Lot to write his next novel about the creepy and seemingly haunted Marsten House that has a new occupant named Mr. Straker played by James Mason with precision timing and menace.

Straker has opened a new antiques store in Salem’s Lot and he is eager to have a Mr. Barlow (who always seems to be on  a buying trip) show up eventually to “meet” the townspeople. Hooper establishes brilliantly that the arrival of Mears, his investigation into the house and the disappearances of kids and townspeople are all linked. Mears goes from a courting novelist  (he and Susan Norton (Bedelia) have hit it off), to die hard supernatural investigator.

Hooper’s pace and build up of suspense carry the weight and complexity of King’s story with amazing precision. The production, sets, music and the eerie happenings are all top notch and Salem’s Lot from the start is replete with creepy houses, people and graveyards. Unbeknownst to Mears, Susan and eventually Mark (who loves all things horror despite his old man’s protestations) the Vampire leader, protected by Straker is now in their midst. Barlow is actually picked up hidden in a crate by some locals and carted back to the Marsten house.

Things start to go very wrong when the 2 Glick brothers, Danny and Ralphie go missing and when Danny re-appears he is in a very bad way. It seems that Straker has Ralphie and has taken him back to the house for Barlow to feed on. Thus ensues a search party and the local constable Gillespsie (Kenneth McMillan) suspects Straker after Mears finds some cloth from a black suit. Hooper then takes the ball and runs with it…

Why Salem’s Lot is worth your time –

– David Soul. His performance is smart, authentic, earnest and strong. Mears, though reluctantly, takes charge and is linked to what is happening because of his profession and a very bad experience as a youth. Soul acts with his eyes and his solemn gestures. His nervous, hand shaking moment building a crucifix with tongue depressors is epic.

– The suspense. Hooper builds incredible suspense by slowing weaving and interlocking all of the characters and their histories together.  Each town person has a run in somehow with the evil that is permeating in Salem’s Lot. Some die, some disappear, some become Vampires and some unite with Mears against the threat. The graveyard scene with Danny Glick’s casket is just incredible.  A great example of the many suspenseful moments.

– Great sets. The Marsten house is not only evil but it’s run down, dusty, fun of rotting furniture and embalmed animals. The production design is amazing and the Marsten house is a great example of how well done the sets are. The Marsten house looks a bit like the Bates house a bit, actually.

– Great supporting cast. Bedelia, Lew Aryes as Burke, Geoffrey Lewis as Mike Ryerson, Elisha Cook Jr. as the town drunk, Weasel and Fred Willard as Crockett. They all shine here. Ensembles in horror flicks are hard to pull of and they all mesh very well here, especially Lew Aryes and Geoffrey Lewis. Bedelia is soft, kind hearted and very spunky. She gives a very smooth performance here too. Especially in the film’s finale.

– James Mason. James Mason. James Mason. He’s creepy, menacing, smart and meticulous. Mason pulls it off with amazing believability. When the role requires him to be understated, polite  though a bit ghoulish, he is and when he becomes incredibly evil and almost indestructibly insane he just explodes with palpable menace. Mason is the darkest of the characters even almost as dark as Barlow.

– Those damn Glick Brothers. They scared the crap outta me as a kid. They still freak me out as an adult too. Ralphie appears to Danny outside his window and where Danny lets him float right on it, Mark uses his horror movie smarts to repel Danny. The way Hooper stages the scene is just terribly scary. Like I said, they float and glide in with discolored eyes and huge teeth. They are always ravenous for blood and as they float on a creepy fog or have mist follow them around. Insanely frightening.

– The way Vampires should be done! They are not glamorous, smart or try to pass themselves as human. They don’t go to plays or musicals or own homes. They are feral, fierce and monstrous. I mentioned the Glick Brother but Mike (Lewis) is just as scary, persuasive and strong willed. They can talk ok but once they succeed in baiting their victims they turn into horrible creatures out for blood. Much like the Vampires in John Carpenter’s 1998 film.

– It’s a King story!  Paul Monash does a  commendable job adapting King’s incredible novel to the small screen here. It strays a bit here and there but remains very close in tone and style. King’s incredible storytelling is present in the script, performances and suspense.

– Great horror score by Harry Sukman who scored Bonanza, Dr. Kildare and John Carpenter’s Someone’s Watching Me.

– Lance Kerwin as Mark. He really hates Vampires and after his Parents are killed and Father Callahan (James Gallery) bested he actually stares down Barlow and proclaims: “I’m going to kill you!” He is just a bad ass and hie has no qualms in destroying the Vampires with Mears.

– Barlow. He has the Count Orlock look down pat. Super creepy and scary as shit. Played by Reggie Nalder who also starred in The Man Who Knew Too Much and Zoltan

– Jules Brenner’s (Helter Skelter and Return of the Living Dead)  great camera work is involving and subjective.

– Great ending. Hopefully by now any recent releases of Salem’s Lot includes the bookends. You do NOT want to miss out on Hooper’s amazing ending

In conclusion it’s Tobe Hooper’s direction, Soul’s and Mason’s stunning presence and Monash’s frightening screenplay that elevates Salem’s Lot above much of the  TV Horror fare of the late 1970’s. It remains scary, suspenseful and a great example of how the Vampire genre can be when done with professionalism, admiration and respect. Highly Recommended!

Salem’s Lot was re-made in 2004 starring Rob Lowe which aired on the TNT Network.

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