I suppose I should preface this review by revealing a personal bias: that I am sooooo done with vampires. It isn’t only that the marketplace has been over-saturated with virtually every permutation of this time-honored Gothic folklore, both on television and our movie screens, representing these ancient blood-suckers as everything from erudite, if highly fetishized figures of blood-letting erotica to prepubescent punk-haired heartthrobs with a decided pigmentation complex and dangerous ‘sun’ allergy. After all, lore survives because it speaks either to our collective soul or a commonly shared fear it is in very real danger of being vanquished. Even so, I have grown utterly weary of our present culture’s preoccupation with the dead, the un-dead and what I have chosen to collectively coin as our willing embrace of this ‘theater of death’. In my not so terribly humble opinion, shared by others, I might add, this is a disturbing phenomenon, insidiously infesting our pop culture for at least a decade and only escalated to near Biblical proportions in the post-911 period; an affliction on our sense of well-being as a society; not because it anticipates an affront to some vaguely disguised conservative or even Christian morality, but rather, because it has steadily eroded our sense of judgement to place its overall rank of importance as anything more or better than mere lore – to be appreciated, rather than absorbed into our cultural DNA as a postmodernist decadence, heralding some mercifully as yet unseen human apocalypse. So, I think if someone suggests to me it is high time I forego my aspersions to this reigning status quo and see another vampire flick of TV series, I will instead be the first one to drive a wooden stake through my own heart, simply to spare myself this indignation. God bless!
Hence, it is saying a good deal that, in revisiting Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot (1979), the fascination for vampirism run amuck has been unearthly rekindled in yours truly. For some reason, I could still intensely recall whole scenes with crystal clarity almost verbatim from this miniseries, although I had not seen Salem’s Lot since 1979; perhaps now, more aware of Hooper’s investment in readdressing author, Stephen King’s richly packed drama into which elements of the supernatural have merely been grafted and, on occasion, mislaid. It would take a precocious nine year old another decade before my interest was pricked enough to read King’s novel, astutely described as “single-handedly ma(king) popular fiction grow up.” Indeed, King regarded Salem’s Lot as his favorite fright fest, a sort of Dracula meets Peyton Place, populated by fascinating, and often seedy little characters, the remote bucolic ‘austerity’ and peacefulness of this slight and sleepy New England community (actually shot in California) rocked to its core by an unanticipated terror unleashed in the dead of night. As both a novel and a CBS miniseries, Salem’s Lot was, as it has remained these many years, a thoroughly legitimate attempt to advance and mature the age-old occult of vampirism. Unlike most every other like-minded endeavor before or since Salem’s Lot, the scares (and there are many) nevertheless seem almost incidental, the finely wrought ensemble increasingly picked off at the behest of Richard K. Straker (the maleficent James Mason), a newly arrived antiques dealer cum joyously blood-thirsty procurer for Kurt Barlow (a.k.a. ‘the master’) – a transparently Nosferatu-inspired, century’s old vampire, complete with domed and angular visage, unholy gleaming yellow eyes and talon-like fingers, capable of disemboweling and devouring the innocent on a whim for its pleasure.
Salem’s Lot holds a unique place within the vampire mythology, not so much for advancing either its template or narrative (it’s still the same old story, a fight for gore and glory), but for ever so ingenuously taking vampires out of their Gothic cupboard, further bastardized by never-to-be-exsanguinated memories of all those Roger Corman/Christopher Lee/Frank Langella outings, perversely representing Vlad the Impaler in his many permutations – beginning with Braum Stoker’s revisionist classic and marching all the way up the cobwebby castle steps of Bela Lugosi’s Euro-trash sophisticate, as (choke!) sex symbols. Interestingly, producers of this miniseries have chosen to completely ignore these characterizations; also to set aside King’s literary impressions of Barlow as, at least in the novel, outwardly just an ordinary man with extraordinary tastes for human plasma, re-envisioned on TV as a cloaked, pasty and smooth-pated practitioner/escapee from the German expressionist’s cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
Almost instinctually, director, Tobe Hooper keeps the identity of actor, Reggie Nalder, as this towering menace, a secret for an interminably long time; Barlow’s initial consumption of the Glick boys, Danny (Brad Savage) and Ralphie (Ronnie Schriber) staged with a minimalist’s approach and/or real Val Lewton-esque flair for the genuine horror soon to follow; a fog-laden forest, spookily lit by cinematographer, Jules Brenner, an impromptu gust of wind effect, and then, the obliteration of what comes next, our view blocked by a shadowy figure, rising from the mire that covers them. Fade to black and now a word from our sponsors. Yet, there are moments in Salem’s Lot to rank among the greatest ‘scares’ ever achieved – or ever likely ‘to be’ achieved, chiefly, I suspect, because Tobe Hooper is hampered with a TV drama’s budget and forced to think creatively out of the box with no time for elaborate SFX or multiple takes to capture his good ole-fashioned bone-chilling night sweats. In lieu of these deprived assets, he instead tips his hat to the simplest of solutions; a dark old house remotely situated on a hill (the estate, slightly hinting of the Gothic Bates’ abode from Hitchcock’s Psycho 1960, actually built ‘around’ a preexisting dwelling owned by a family – who continued to live inside its shell throughout the duration of the shoot); a few moody set pieces, and only flashes here and there of the violence otherwise implied with surprising effectiveness. The grotesqueness in the exercise is thus bottled and trapped in the mind of the beholder, amplified by our communal anxiety of the unknown, the gruesomeness recalled from other stories depicting vampires. And Nalder’s ‘big reveal’ as Barlow, in extreme close-up, with mucusy fangs bared and an hypnotic and penetrating death stare directed into the camera, are so unsettling at a moment’s glance (which is about all Hooper gives us) that once seen it remain seared into the subconscious forever.
Hooper has, I believe, wisely gone for the more ‘predictable’ shock here; Nalder’s pale-skinned ‘corpse-like’ visage, with its Village of the Damned (1960) glowing orbs deeply sunken in their sockets, a sort of cliché to be found in most any amusement park haunted house ‘dark ride’ depiction of the ever-lasting undead and what ‘living forever’ off human sacrifices can do to a perfectly good body in search of another body to decimate for its own survival. By comparison, the 2004 remake of Salem’s Lot cast a more physically robust Rutger Hauer as an all too humanly appealing, and ever so worldly Barlow; moodily magnificent, though otherwise far more diminished as a sorcerer with telekinetic powers, rather than a decaying, but still all powerful menace ravaged by time and sin. Of course, Hauer is closer to what Stephen King had in mind. But like Stanley Kubrick’s re-imagining of King’s The Shining (1980), Hooper’s reexamination of the novel’s central antagonist as a chalky-complexioned and angularly framed hissing gargoyle, is far more perversely pleasing, if bluntly evil. There is no anticipation or subterfuge to Barlow’s reality in this Salem’s Lot. He is the satanic emissary, bringing death and devastation to these peoples and their land; a plague, a sin and a thoroughly unholy surprise for our protagonists to conquer…if they can.
From a dramatic standpoint, Hooper’s miniseries is on far shakier ground; David Soul (of Starsky and Hutch fame) a fairly amiable vampire slayer, and, James Mason (as art dealer/semi-possessed punter of human carcasses), fiendishly imperiling the welfare of innocent children with a faint whiff of demonic glee. If only the other performances in Salem’s Lot lived up to these two, the miniseries might have endured with more credibility to recommend it. Ironically, apart from the aforementioned, the best work done in the piece is not by the hams nearing their retirement – Elijah Cook Jr., Lew Ayres, and, Marie Windsor among them – nor even the then up and comers, George Dzundza, Geoffrey Lewis and a paralytic, Bonnie Bedelia, who appears as though even a strong fart might knock her down; but by the novices; Brad Savage, Ronnie Schriber and, the as yet unmentioned Lance Kerwin as mop-haired teenage monster-lover, Mark Petrie (Aside: Kerwin’s performance I have always blurred as a stand-in for the actual childhood of real-life SFX make-up artist, Rick Baker: Petrie’s bedroom a personalized homage and shrine to the classic icons of Universal Studios’ monster mash-up made famous throughout the thirties and forties). But for sheer unease, there is nothing to touch the moment of genuine dread when Kerwin’s goony teen experiences hell come to visit in the middle of the night; Henry Glick, newly exhumed from his freshly laden grave, ominously floating in a sort of Peter Pan-esque suspended animation just outside the French doors leading to Mark’s bedroom, beckoning him with an unearthly possession of his every command and a deathly grimace to undo the latch; Mark’s doom narrowly averted when he produces a crucifix instead, a mere symbol of his recollections gleaned from all the aforementioned Uni-monster flicks, not of his undying faith, that nevertheless wards off this unearthly attacker.
Salem’s Lot has its misfires too; Barlow’s arrival in the Petrie’s kitchen as Mark’s mom, June (Barbara Babcock) and dad, Ted (Joshua Bryant) condescendingly converse with the local priest, Father Donald Callahan (James Gallery) about their son’s ‘unhealthy’ preoccupation with his lost friends. It becomes something of a horror cliché that the very young are never to be taken seriously in their varied attempts to forewarn the adults of the looming human apocalypse only they can see; Mark’s parents minimizing his concerns until their own kitchen is rocked by seismic rumblings and then, the unanticipated appearance of Barlow, who knocks their two thick heads together, taking Mark around the throat. Father Callahan barters for Mark’s salvation with the mildly amused Straker. Alas, Mark’s faith is stronger than Callahan’s. He is spared, unlike the priest, who pays a price with the supreme sacrifice. Yet, the scene is almost unintentionally comedic; the pre-disaster dialogue in Paul Monash’s screenplay desperately grappling for something intelligent, or even vaguely coherent to say. Given the severity of the tremors suddenly erupting, furniture and dishes hurtling around the room, no one thinks to get up from the table or exit the room - or house, for that matter; not even to cringe and scatter after Barlow has catapulted through the kitchen window above the sink and risen like a tattered phoenix off the Linoleum to murder with an almost ‘Three Stooges’ inspired head-butt: ‘Why, I ought’a...’ and a ‘Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk’.
Salem’s Lot opens with a prologue in an old Spanish mission in Ximico, Guatemala; Ben Mears (David Soul) and Mark Petrie filling small flasks with holy water. When one of the bottles begins to ominously glow, Ben cryptically suggests, “They’ve found us again,” alluding to some demonic supernatural presence about to be unleashed. We regress in time, two years earlier to the town of Salem’s Lot (in the novel, originally intended to be called Jerusalem’s Lot (but changed by King’s publishers, who thought the religious connotation might sincerely offend); a quaint coastal hamlet in Maine. Ben, an author, has come home to write a book about Marsten House; a remote manor on the hillside overlooking the town where, at least in the novel, it is suggested he had a terrible childhood experience. As this is never entirely clarified in Hooper’s miniseries, we are left to ponder Ben’s obsession with the property; a slightly dilapidated Gothic bastion formerly owned by Depression-era Mafioso, Hubert ‘Hubie’ Marsten (another of King’s backstories omitted in this production). Ben approaches local realtor, Larry Crockett (Fred Willard) in the hopes of renting the estate but is informed the property has already been purchased by another new arrival in town, Richard Straker; a seemingly cordial antiques dealer eager to set up shop. Crockett’s secretary, Bonnie Sawyer (Julie Cobb) is having an affair with Crockett on the side. Not such a terrible prospect. If only she were not already married to Cully (George Dzundza), who is decidedly the jealous type.
But back to Straker for just a moment; an elegant figure, yet only half of a partnership with the even more secretive Kurt Barlow, chronically away on ‘business’, leaving Straker in charge of virtually all their joint business affairs. Disappointed at being unable to rent Marsten House, Ben instead moves into a boarding house several blocks away, run by Eva Miller (Marie Windsor). His room has an unobstructed view of the property. Meanwhile, Ben sets about reestablishing friendships – both old and new; first, with his former school teacher, Jason Burke (Lew Ayres) whom he confides in, suggesting Marsten House is somehow possessed by an evil presence. We also catch a glimpse of Mark Petrie, rehearsing in the Holly High School play. In another part of town, Mike Ryerson (Geoffrey Lewis) and Ned Tibbets (Barney McFadden) are hired to deliver a rather large crate to Marsten House. Ryerson supplements his income as the town’s undertaker. Ben also becomes chummy with Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia), a local who was once in love with Ned, but has since shifted her affections to Ben, much to Ned’s chagrin. Sue’s father, Dr. Bill Norton (Ed Flanders) eventually becomes Ben’s most trusted ally; Norton’s wife, Ann (Bonnie Bartlett) a little more skeptical about her daughter’s newfound and burgeoning romance with this stranger from parts unknown. We are reacquainted with Mark, quite the collector of vintage Universal horror movie memorabilia, and, his two best friends; fellow student, Danny Glick and his younger brother, Ralphie. Mark’s father, Ted is rather disappointed his teenage son has yet to set aside these childhood obsessions with the classic movie monsters.
Leaving Mark’s house, the Glick boys decide to take a shortcut through the forest at night. Meanwhile, Ned and Ryerson deliver their cargo to Marsten House; just an ordinary crate, or so it would seem, it nevertheless gives off a queer refrigeration, cooling the interior of their truck. Frightened off from having a look inside, the scene reverts back to Danny and Ralphie who have become lost in the woods. A sudden wind storm startles the boys. Danny flees, but Ralphie is confronted by Straker, knocked unconscious and taken back to Marsten House to be transformed into one of Barlow’s vampire slaves, now compelled to do ‘the master’s’ bidding. Danny makes it back to the family home, collapsing in the back yard from his ordeal; rushed to hospital by his parents, Marjorie (Clarissa Kaye-Mason) and Henry (Ned Wilson) where he is kept under observation. Ralphie’s disappearance puts the town on edge. Not long thereafter, the younger Glick returns in his otherworldly state to claim Danny, lured to the open his hospital window and thereafter bitten on the neck, transforming him into a vampire too. Danny’s lifeless remains are discovered by the night nurse early the next morning. His body is buried, but later exhumed by Ryerson, who is also transformed into a vampire by Danny.
Meanwhile, Crockett, having been found out in his affair with Bonnie, is ordered at gunpoint by Cully from his house while still in his skivvies; Barlow waiting just beyond the trees to kill and consume him. Danny returns to the Petrie home, preying on Mark to hypnotically compel him to enter the room through his second story bedroom window. However, recognizing Danny to be a vampire, Mark repels him with a crucifix. Danny retreats, attacking his own mother who collapses and is discovered on the kitchen floor by her husband. Now, Mark confides his experience to his parents and Father Callahan. A typical ‘horror’ cliché; none of the adults believe his story. They are in for a rude awakening; the kitchen where they are having their discussion suddenly rocked by nightmarish tremors; Barlow materializing to kill June and Ted, taking Mark hostage. Father Callahan orders the boy’s release, raising his cross to ward off the evil. But Straker suddenly appears, jovially suggesting only one reprieve is possible; an exchange of Callahan’s life for Mark. Believing his faith will protect him Callahan agrees to be martyred and is bewildered when the cross provides no protection against the evil in his midst. In another part of town, Burke is confronted by the newly vampirized Ryerson, narrowly avoiding a similar fate but suffering a near fatal heart attack instead.
Ben shares his suspicions with Dr. Norton. After Marjorie’s body is examined by Norton in the morgue, she rises to attack Ben. He uses a pair of tongue depressors to form a crucifix, applying it to Marjorie’s forehead and thus destroying her. Norton now agrees to help Ben rid the town of Straker and Barlow. Ben orders Susan to leave town immediately. And although she agrees, inexplicably, she follows Mark to Marsten House instead, eager to protect the boy from harm. Alas, both she and Mark are captured by Straker. While Mark manages to free himself of his bonds, Susan’s fate is cryptically left unknown, Straker suggesting he took her to meet the man for whom they came in search. In the meantime, Ben and Dr. Norton arrive at Marsten House, breaking in through its storm cellar. But their interminably slow exploration of its interior, and idiotic decision to split up in their search for Susan and Mark, leads to Straker surprising Norton in an upstairs hall; using superhuman strength to carry Norton to a wall cabinet full of sharp implements where he is impaled. Ben and Mark present a united front as Straker comes for them; Ben, firing multiple rounds from his pistol before Straker collapses dead on the stairwell.
The pair makes their way to the cellar; Ben, dragging the coffin containing Barlow’s remains, flooding it with shafts of light from a nearby window, thereby weakening Barlow considerably while he drives a wooden stake through his heart. The master destroyed, Ben and Mark are pursued by Ned and Ryserson – both vampires. Ben sets Marsten House ablaze, trapping most of the others inside. Now, Ben and Mark flee Salem’s Lot, already knowing the undead who have escaped will not rest until they have destroyed every living human in the town. We return to the old Spanish church in Guatemala; Ben and Mark, presumably the only ones who have survived this deluge, returning to their hovel where Ben discovers Susan waiting to seduce him. She beckons his return into her arms, but then reveals she too has been transformed into a vampire. Unable to reconcile his love for her with her present state, Ben drives a stake through Susan’s heart, thus putting a momentary end to her eternal suffering – a mercy killing if ever there was one.
Salem’s Lot is relatively faithful to its source material; although, inevitably, with a few artistic changes made, mostly to accommodate the limitations of both its budget and the medium of television. For obvious reasons, some of the novel’s more grotesquely graphic representations of blood-letting are left to the imagination by Hooper, who also has television censorship to consider. In condensing the plot of Stephen King’s rather sprawling and intricately woven novel, Salem’s Lot – the miniseries omits the character of Jimmy Cody. In the book, Cody is Matt (not Jason) Burke’s physician. He takes up the fight against the vampires, along with Ben, Susan, Mark and Father Callahan. Cody is later killed, falling from a rigged staircase, impaled on knives deliberately set up by the occupants of Eva’s boarding house; all of them, vampires. Susan’s conversion occurs much earlier in the book, her sacrificial killing taking place in the book’s middle act, long before Mark’s parents are murdered by Barlow. As a seemingly innocuous ‘human’ figure in the novel, it is Barlow, not Straker who confronts Callahan in the Petrie’s home after June and Ted are already dead, commenting, “Sad to see a man’s faith fail him” before forcing Callahan to drink of his blood. This reverse consumption condemns Callahan to a netherworld between life and death. He is neither human nor a vampire, but in limbo, and, in this state, he cannot reenter his church without enduring painful electrocutions. In the novel’s epilogue, Ben and Mark retreat to a Mexican seaside town where Mark is received into the Catholic Church by a friendly local priest after making a full confession of what they have both experienced. A year uneventfully passes and Ben encourages Mark to accompany him back to Salem’s Lot. Knowing the plague of vampirism will only continue to spread, Ben deliberately starts a brush fire in the wood surrounding the town. Marsten House and Salem’s Lot are destroyed in the hellish blaze that follows.
Although its’ rather methodical pacing will be too slow for some more accustomed to today’s chop-shop editing style (how sad), and the hokey acting from various participants does tend to leave a palpably silly aftertaste (certain performances have, in fact, not aged well at all) Salem’s Lot contains enough good scares along the way to chill to the bone. Credit here must go to Tobe Hooper whose film debut, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) continues to draw praise from horror aficionados as, arguably, the influential calling card of all modern day horror/slasher movies. Again, primarily for budgetary reasons, Hooper’s vision for Salem’s Lot is less ambitious; though only in scope. He nevertheless achieves his suspense more cleverly than most, with a mounting sense of dread and claustrophobia steadily creeping in. It is a genuine shame some of the SFX employed in Salem’s Lot do not hold up under today’s scrutiny; like the vaporizing of Marjorie Glick by placing a cross against her forehead in the morgue – her wailing vampire suddenly disappearing in a cheap dissolve without so much as a few cleverly timed ‘steam effects’ to amplify her demise. But I would sincerely argue, the floating Glick brothers, witnessed through windows, summoning their unsuspecting victims in a soupy backlit fog, is as powerful and haunting an image as any yet achieved in any horror movie, far more terrorizing than most of the elaborate devices of today might conjure.
And Hooper preys on a sort of fundamental human fear; to be confronted by the familiar in decidedly unfamiliar ways; as example, Burke finding Ryerson casually seated in a rocking chair in his doctor’s office; his head slightly tipped downward, the light on his threateningly burning eyes slowly brought into focus to reveal his darker purpose. In hindsight, apart from the first startled glimpse of Barlow in all his anemic and sallow wickedness, it is the subtleties of Salem’s Lot that work far better than the ‘big reveals’; the unexpected gusts of wind in the foggy forest, or Ryerson’s hypnotic unearthing of Danny’s corpse from its half-buried casket at the cemetery, or even, the unseen reunion of Marjorie and Danny; only heard by Henry as he prepares for a shave in the upstairs bathroom, hurrying downstairs to investigate ‘a noise’ and discovering his wife’s half-conscious body lying on the kitchen floor, murmuring seemingly innocuous hallucinations about seeing Danny again. These are the moments that arguably ingrain themselves in the mind of the viewer the very first time, and thereafter refuse to be purged entirely, even after the story has concluded. And it is Hooper who brings them to light with a lithe touch for the macabre, rather than the heavy-handed ax of blood-and-gusty mischief that would undeniably befall Salem’s Lot if it were remade today.
Warner Home Video has achieved a minor miracle on Salem’s Lot; preserved in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and given a considerable video upgrade. Salem’s Lot was shot of 35mm film and it looks very solid. It’s still an imperfect image, though largely due to the limitations of a low budget production and no fault of the mastering efforts put forth herein in 1080p. While grain patterns are sporadic and very uneven, ranging from practically non-existent, crisp and razor-sharp images, to softly focused, with decidedly exaggerated, extremely clumpy – and occasionally, almost digitized looking grain, what we have here is a presentation that will mostly please. Thoroughly impressive and invigorated colors, accurate flesh tones, oodles of fine detail revealed in skin, hair and fabrics, and, some perfectly balanced contrast levels. Good stuff, all around, with some minor caveats to consider. The DTS 2.0 mono in nondescript at best, clean, but otherwise thoroughly unremarkable. What can I tell you? It was a TV production after all, and shot at a time when TV was still considered the red-headed stepchild in the industry; good for the mass marketed sitcom and hour-long whodunit and/or cop drama and soap opera. Warner gives us an audio commentary from Tobe Hooper. While his recollections are intriguing, they are parsed out with a lot of dead air in between. We also get the European ‘theatrical trailer’, as Salem’s Lot was released as a truncated feature overseas. Bottom line: for those who remain fans of the miniseries; Salem’s Lot on Blu-ray is recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)