KING'S CORNER: Salem's Lot (1979)

Updated: Oct 18

Salem's Lot - King's Corner Review


Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the film/miniseries adaptations of Stephen King's work, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.


For centuries, vampires have been a part of folklore throughout the world but with his novel 'Dracula', Bram Stoker defined many of the tropes associated with the blood sucking creature of the night. In 1931, Bela Lugosi's portrayal of the character in Tod Browning's adaptation of the novel cemented the imagery associated with the creature as a caped romanticised villain who dwells in a gothic castle in Transylvania.


The novel had a huge effect on Stephen King, who used to cover the book in a Fantasy and Science Fiction course when he was a teacher. He thought to himself, what if Dracula came to America in the twentieth century? His wife joked that he would probably get run over by a cab in New York so King's thoughts turned to a sleepy town in the heart of middle America sowing the seeds for what would become 'Salem's Lot'.


As with his previous novel 'Carrie', 'Salem's Lot' was a huge success for King which led to Warner Bros. studios acquiring the rights to the novel with horror great Tobe Hooper placed in the director's chair to helm the two part miniseries based on the book.


Director: Tobe Hooper

Starring: David Soul, James Mason, Bonnie Bedelia, Lance Kerwin, Geoffrey Lewis, Reggie Nalder


Written by: Paul Monash

Produced by: Richard Kobritz, Anna Cottle, Stirling Silliphant

Cinematography by: Jules Brenner

Original Score by: Harry Sukman


Synopsis:

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




Thoughts:

Opening in a church in Guatemala, Hooper's adaptation sees a haggard Ben Mears (played by David Soul) and Mark Petrie (played by Lance Kerwin) filling bottles with holy water. As the bottle glows, a worried Ben tells Mark that "they've found us again" closing the short but ominous prologue. From here the credits roll over an image of the infamous Marsten House (not too dissimilar in look to the Perkins residence from Psycho), which dwells under a full moon while Harry Sukman's score thunders in the background. It is a very old fashioned score in the vein of Bernard Hermann but it works wonders at establishing a sense that something wicked is heading to the town of Salem's Lot.



From here we meet up with Mears (some time before the prologue) who has returned to his hometown to write a book about the Marsten house, a place he believes to be of great evil, a place where he believes to have seen the ghost of the notorious Hubie Marsten that haunted his childhood. David Soul is solid in the role of Ben Mears by exhibiting an everyday man curiosity that gives way to fear over what is happening to him which works in tandem with the audience's curiosity over what is to come.


Intending to write his book in the Marsten house, Mears attempts to rent the property by the mysterious Richard Straker (played by James Mason) who intends to set up an antique store in town with his absent business partner, Kurt Barlow (played by Reggie Nalder). In a much more prominent role compared to the novel, Mason plays the role with a subtle devilment which sheds itself when Barlow is unleashed upon the town as he revels in the chaos that ensues.


RELATED: KING'S CORNER - Carrie (1976)


On the face of things he is simply a Renfield to Barlow's Dracula, but many sub textual readings into both the book and film have highlighted how the pairs arrival highlights the homophobia and xenophobia in small town America. One such view was conveyed well by Writer/Producer Bryan Fuller during his appearance on the Kingcast podcast series by viewing the novel through a queer lens. He describes how the town is suspicious of them as they are two middle aged men from Europe, who carry a certain level of sophistication that the town is not used to which turns them against them as it is against their perception of normality.


In the film this is perfectly orchestrated in the scene where Constable Parkins Gillespie (played by Kenneth McMillan), a man whose introduction is entrenched in xenophobia, confronts Straker over the disappearance of Ralphie Glick (played by Ronnie Scribner). Both Mears and Straker are the chief suspects in the disappearance of Glick as his disappearance coincides with their arrival but his line of questioning with Straker is more aggressive than Mears. His suspicions are interspersed with looks of disdain as he questions the whereabouts of Barlow too.

The story continues at a slow pace where the people of Salem's Lot are introduced including Ben Mears old school teacher Jason Burke (played by Lew Ayres), the town doctor Bill Norton (played by Ed Flanders) and his daughter Susan (played by Bonnie Bedelia). They help ground the film and make Salem' Lot seem like any average town in America, making it all the more frightening when Barlow reveals the true nature of himself. Having said that, the romantic subplot between Ben and Susan isn't particularly engaging, stretching into an anticlimactic epilogue.

One of the stand out performances of the townspeople comes from Geoffrey Lewis as Mike Ryerson, a local grave digger. His gradual transformation is a tragic story in and of itself as he loses his humanity piece by piece. This is perfectly encapsulated in the diner scene where he speaks with Ben and Jason his expression and nightmarish description of how he got bit as it is laced with fear and confusion. His confrontation with Jason once he has become a vampire is terrifying as he sits, eyes closed rocking back and forth in his chair. Very chilling. He looks up with his glowing yellow eyes, stands up in a monstrous fashion and utters, "Look at me teacher" showing that all trace of his humanity has been wiped away. Only the monster remains.



Whilst this moment is a highlight in the film, the most iconic scene comes when Ralphie Glick (played by Ronnie Scribner) appears at the window of his brother Danny (played by Brad Savage). It is one of those scenes that helped cement Hooper's status as Horror" as there is a suspenseful and dreamlike quality to the whole scene as it cuts back and forth between Ralphie and Danny's reaction. With fog billowing outside Ralphie emerges scraping the window with his nails. Eyes glowing and fangs protruding, a hypnotised Danny opens the window to welcome in his brother and...death. It is a scene that sticks with you more than any other scene as it shows how even the most innocent of the town can be corrupted by Barlow's evil ways.


This vampiric invasion is handled wonderfully by Hooper. It's spread is in geometric terms where an infected individual has a short period of sickness before transforming into a vampire, hanging a cloud of dread over the series that grows right up until the end. This corruption of the soul was an idea which swam through King's head as he wrote the novel. At this time the US government was engaged in corrupt actions (such as the Watergate scandal) which spread and filtered down to everyday American life, just as terrifying as the on screen monstrosities. This idea of corruption is just as relevant now as it was when the novel was written as we are living through the age of fake news and the dissemination of false information.


Although it is teased throughout the series, Barlow's first full appearance in the series is a memorable occasion. In the kitchen of the Petrie home the family are having a conversation with Father Callahan when the power goes out and the earth shakes. It stops and a cloaked figure crashes through the window. Rising from the floor the figure grabs Mark's parents and kills them (in a comical fashion that almost undermines the scene) unveiling it's monstrous appearance which is more in line with Count Orlok from Nosferatu than Count Dracula. A significant change from the novel where the series moved from the idea of a suave well spoken villain to a voiceless abomination. The look has even inspired modern day vampiric creations seen in the likes of 'Midnight Mass' and 'Jakob's Wife'.


Father Callahan is challenged to face the creature (known as The Master) but his faith in his symbols fail him compared to Mark who earlier managed to ward off one of the transformed Glick boys with a model cross. Again this isn't as powerful as in the novel due to the depiction of Callahan in the series who is a plot device more than a character. It also undermines an important message of personal, rather than symbolic, faith.


The grand finale is a visually impressive scene in the decrepit Marsten house where Hooper has a lot of fun with the camera as Mark, Ben and Bill search the house for Barlow to put an end to his reign of terror. A Necropolis, the house of evil's reputation is realised in all it's glory as Hooper drenches the setting with a haunting atmosphere like a distant cousin of the Sawyer family home from Hooper's 1974 classic 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre'. As they draw closer to Barlow, the house becomes less of a home and more of an ancient tomb. They find Barlow and manage to defeat him but at a great loss for both of them.



Whilst there are many departures from the source material, Hooper does a fine job adapting 'Salem's Lot'. A lot of it plays like a standard TV movie but he really shows off his creative chops during some horror sequences. Even to this day, the series' influences are found both in and out of King adaptations as many of the themes give it a timeless quality.


Verdict: ⭐⭐⭐½


- Joseph McElroy


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