Stephen King adaptations are very hard to pull off successfully. For every Misery, there’s a Graveyard Shift; Carrie soars while Cujo stalls. The small screen has had it just as bad—the elephantine The Stand benefits from its four-night rollout, while no amount of time could save The Tommyknockers. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg—at last count, there were 91 King adaptations (I’ll need to double-check those figures) across all media. For this blurry-eyed cathode ray kid, however, nothing has yet to match the two-part graveyard dance known as Salem’s Lot (1979).
Originally airing on CBS on Saturday November 17th and 24th, Salem’s Lot was a huge success for the network; there was even talk of turning it into a weekly series. Alas, that never came to be. However, we were gifted with 183 minutes of measured, chilling suspense and terror helmed by none other than The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper. A modern update on vampire lore nestled in a haunted house, Salem’s Lot lives up to the promise inherent in much of King’s work, and often elevates it.
Let’s blow the dust off our faux TV GUIDE for a recap:
SALEM’S LOT (Saturday, 9 pm, CBS)
A writer returns to his sleepy hometown, only to find sinister forces taking it over. David Soul, James Mason star.
We open in a church in Guatemala, where Ben Mears (David Soul – Starsky & Hutch) and Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin – Enemy Mine), looking frazzled and worn, are filling bottles with holy water. A glowing blue light shines through one of the bottles. “They’ve found us again.” Flashback two years, and Ben is arriving at his old hometown of Salem’s Lot (short for Jerusalem’s Lot for you book learners). He immediately stops below the dilapidated house on the hill, the Marsten House, a local legend. Ben sees a dapper man coming out of the rundown mansion, who we soon discover is Mr. Straker (James Mason – Lolita), the co-proprietor of the new antique store opening in town. Ben has returned to write a new novel about the house, and the palpable evil he feels it emits (a childhood encounter within has forever shaken him to his bones). He takes up residence in a boarding house and starts a relationship with local teacher Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia – Die Hard).
As the antique shop nears opening while Straker waits for his partner, Mr. Barlow (Reggie Nalder – Mark of the Devil) to arrive, a sense of dread starts to overtake the town; children go missing, people are overcome with anemia before succumbing, and graves become unnecessary for the newly deceased. Before long, the town is rife with the vampiric undead as the antique shop owners spread their sickness; will Ben be able to save what’s left of Salem’s Lot?
There are images and scenes in Salem’s Lot as indelible as any in Hooper's or King’s bodies of work; for those who’ve seen it, you know every one of them, and there are several to savor. Newcomers take note—these vampires are not rooted in the Gothic romanticism of Stoker and the numerous cinematic adaptations thereafter, nor do they foresee the YA approach of Twilight. These bloodsuckers are deadly; a grim, grey visage with reflective eyes that show an empty soul replaced with pure evil.
Part of what attracted audiences to the Lot was King’s growing reputation as a modern master; Carrie was a great success in theaters, and producer Richard Kobritz (Christine) was keen to capitalize on King’s blossoming brand. ’Salem’s Lot (the first apostrophe was dropped for the miniseries) was King’s second published novel, and after several scripts were submitted (including one by Salem’s Lot sequel helmer Larry Cohen), Kobritz and Warner Brothers chose the one written by Paul Monash, a seasoned TV writer, well-known for soaper Peyton Place.
All parties agreed (including King) that Monash’s take best encapsulated the essence of the story; how small towns wither and die, in this case through outside supernatural forces. He was also able to condense, enfold, or eliminate unnecessary characters from the book (a frequent pitfall of adapting King—so many damn characters), while highlighting key scenes for maximum creepiness. Of course, critics of the series felt there was padding over three hours; too many conversations and a subplot involving a realtor (Fred Willard – Anchorman), the co-worker he’s having an affair with (Julie Cobb – Defending Your Life), and her suspicious husband (George Dzundza – Basic Instinct) that has no bearing on the events at hand.
But those critics are wrong. The conversations add weight to not only the relationships between the characters, but to the stakes at play. Monash and Hooper are very adept at showing the mundaneness of small-town life—this place is barely alive before Straker shows up. The subplot acts as a catalyst for the arrival of Barlow, and passes the baton to Geoffrey Lewis’ character, Mike, local handyman and gravedigger. Monash cleverly shows the claustrophobic link between the citizens; as Ben first enters town, he passes or encounters characters central to the story, introducing them to us as a form of shorthand. It makes perfect sense that vampires would set up shop here to spread their disease—everyone knows everyone.
Early King is also devoid of the sentimentality that chokes the terror out of some of his later stories; suffice to say that the obstacles these kids face are impenetrable, immovable, and nigh impossible to overcome. I’m sure people were surprised that the writer of Peyton Place didn’t succumb to the florid charms of old-school vampirism, languishing in bodices and cobweb-strewn candelabras. Much of Salem’s Lot’s potency comes from the modern-day setting; and while the story sticks with solid lore (crucifixes come in very handy), the ice-cold sarcasm and dripping menace of Straker (played with an exacting relish by Mason) ensure that the daylight holds no comfort as well.
Tobe Hooper’s best work happens when he has a great tale to cling to. From Chain Saw’s backwoods boogeymen, the suburban spectres of Poltergeist, through to the Londongeddon meltdown of Lifeforce, he finds the humanity of the story (well, maybe not Lifeforce—that thing starts in space and never really comes down, even when it’s back on earth) and allows the lunacy to permeate from the outside. He also has a touch with actors, and Salem’s Lot, in addition to the above mentioned, also boasts Lew Ayres (Damien: Omen II) and Ed Flanders (The Exorcist III) as Ben’s mentor and Susan’s dad, respectively. Other than Mark and the two Glick boys, the story is populated with adults—what a concept! Not only that, but great character actors, all given moments to shine on a spacious canvas that allows it.
Hooper and DP Jules Brenner (The Return of the Living Dead) create a sustained mood that is impressive far beyond what is normally seen in a TV film; the camera glides and swoops, reverse photography gives an otherworldly quality to some of the most famous moments, and you can practically feel the chill caressing you through the shadows.
Salem’s Lot brought the hoary vampire kicking and screaming into the daylight and the modern age. Its influence loomed over the ’80s, as two of the most well-regarded films in the subgenre, Fright Night (1985) and The Lost Boys (1987), pay homage in various ways, borrowing the updated feel, and in a few choice moments, entire scenes. The miniseries was remade—regrettably—in 2004, with none of the feel, none of the cadence of Hooper’s terrorshow. But it makes no difference; the original Salem’s Lot is much like the Marsten House itself—looming large, it stands above the rest in a state of undead grace. And for those brave enough to enter, a place of horrific pleasures await.
Salem’s Lot is available on DVD from Warner Home Video.Next: It Came From The Tube: GHOST STORY / CIRCLE OF FEAR (1972)