You’ll enjoy Mr. Barlow. And he’ll enjoy you.

Based on the Stephen King novel, Salem’s Lot is a three-hour-long miniseries that originally aired back in 1979, with director Tobe Hooper’s slow burn storytelling approach immersing viewers intricately into the world of a sleepy little town in Maine by paying attention to the atmosphere and tension King so cleverly established in his original story. From the guy who gave us The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Salem’s Lot proved Hooper was an assured filmmaker who could still deliver shocking and jarring horror while using a more subtle directorial methodology.

At the start of Salem’s Lot, we meet writer Ben Mears (David Soul), who is returning home to the small town to write his second novel (in reality, it was also King's sophomore novel) based on the infamous Marsten House that he grew up fearing as a kid. Coincidentally, the long-rumored haunted house remained vacant for 25 years and just as Mears was returning to his hometown, an unusual man by the name of Richard T. Straker (James Mason) purchased the creepy old mansion for himself and his antiques dealing partner, the elusive Mr. Kurt Barlow (Reggie Nalder).

One night, Straker has a mysterious oversized crate delivered to the Marsten house and suddenly a string of weird events begin to plague the town of Salem’s Lot—kids start disappearing, bodies begin turning up and some of the townsfolk suffer from unusual cases of "anemia." The town becomes suspicious of the strange new residents of the nefarious Marsten House, especially Mr. Barlow, who has yet to make an appearance in town despite Mr. Straker’s insistence that his partner will be arriving in time for their antiques shop to open. But as the days tick away, the once quiet town slowly begins to descend into a spiral of paranoia and fear.

Mears, who believes that the Marsten House has always been the perfect breeding place for evil, isn’t buying Straker’s story about why he’s set up shop in Salem’s Lot, so he sets out to uncover the truth about Straker and his mysterious associate. The insightful author begins noticing the parallels between the evil plaguing his hometown and the new residents, forcing Mears to confront his own fears about the Marsten House that still terrifies him, even as a grown man. Soon it’s up to him as well as horror-loving teenager Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin) to put a stop to the plague of death that has nearly wiped out their entire town.

Hooper masterfully manages to work in a gaggle of other key storyline threads and subplots that run throughout the miniseries, never letting the plot or momentum of the film’s events get too muddled along the way. True to form for a King story, we are introduced to a cavalcade of characters throughout Salem’s Lot that are all immediately relatable and engrossing.  At the helm, Hooper gives everyone ample screen time to let their stories play out for viewers and that’s part of what makes Salem’s Lot compelling and incredibly fascinating even after three decades.

Everything in Salem’s Lot is connected to that house.

Why Salem’s Lot still remains one of the finest King adaptations ever can be partly credited to screenwriter Paul Monash (who also tackled Carrie for Brian De Palma several years prior), who makes sure each and every resident of the fictional Maine town matters, complimenting King's overarching tale of one man's battle for redemption against the evil that has moved into his small town. Whether it’s “Boom Boom” Bonnie (Julie Cobb), who's been cheating on her husband, Cully (George Dzundza), with her real estate boss Larry (Fred Willard), doomed gravedigger Mike Ryerson (the late, great Geoffrey Lewis), who terrorizes a kindly school teacher by the name of Jason Burke (Lew Ayres), or even the Glick brothers (Brad Savage, Ronnie Scribner)—two early victims of Barlow’s savagery—who haunt their intended prey by floating and scratching at bedroom windows.

Regardless of their relationship to the film’s hero Mears, all these characters were still equally important to the overall story of Salem’s Lot and that’s a pretty damned remarkable feat. Very few adaptations of King’s work have ever really successfully achieved that level of intricate character-driven storytelling, which again makes Salem’s Lot still a standout effort all-around.

As the heart and soul of Salem’s Lot, Soul’s performance as Ben Mears is divinely bizarre—his character always seems to be lost in deep thought, making him an unlikely hero for the small town, which is what I always dug about his character. Soul’s off-kilter responses to the dark and sinister events unfolding around him in Salem’s Lot add a lot to the film and does an admirable job building a sense of paranoia and a general feeling of unease while watching.

We also see Mears develop a romantic relationship with local art teacher Susan (the always wonderful Bonnie Bedelia), giving his character much larger stakes than just his own personal safety and well-being. The chemistry the two share throughout Salem’s Lot feels wholly genuine and quite simply, it’s hard not to absolutely fall in love with Bedelia here.

I can assure you that people will find Mr. Barlow well worth the wait.

As the main human antagonist in Salem’s Lot, Mason is truly chill-inducing, his portrayal of cryptic antiques dealer Mr. Straker a memorable performance that oozes shades of Vincent Price. Every single line he delivers drips with a foreboding sense of doom and also an otherworldly kind of charm to the point where you can’t help but hang on every last syllable he says. Mason easily steals every scene in Salem’s Lot and as far as evil vampire sidekicks go, he’s truly one of the greatest of all-time simply because his smug façade never once cracks even when he’s under suspicion by the local constable (Kenneth McMillan).

Growing up as a horror-loving child, there was one vampire that managed to terrorize me like no other and that was Barlow from Salem’s Lot. The film was my first foray into the world of bloodsuckers at the tender age of six, and the first time Barlow actually comes into frame (during the attack on Ned Tebbets, played by Barney McFadden) is still one of the greatest jump scare moments ever in horror. That moment alone always ensured that I would spend the rest of my time watching Salem’s Lot from beneath the safety of my trusty childhood blanket over the years and even upon revisiting the film recently, that moment is still effective as hell.

While there have been countless vampire films since (and prior to) the release of Salem’s Lot, Barlow has always been one of the most memorable blood-fiends for me, due to the design of the creature and the fact that a character who never utters a single word could still be so commanding over any scene he shows up in. With his freakish blue skin, haunting yellow-tinged eyes and gnarled teeth that never seem to end, Barlow is truly the embodiment of the things nightmares are made of and in over three and a half decades, we’ve yet to experience another vampire like him.

Salem’s Lot also features many other incredibly memorable visuals and moments—from Barlow essentially appearing out of nothingness to face down the town’s priest to an undead Mike Ryerson casually rocking back and forth in Jason Burke’s rocking chair to the floating Glick boys outside various windows (I have never slept with my curtains open after Salem’s Lot, that’s for sure) to even the indelible façade of the Marsten House, which hovers over the town like a beacon of death. Hooper’s always had a penchant as a filmmaker for creating haunting cinematic images and his work here still remains some of my favorite stuff from him as a director to this day.

But in terms of gore, you couldn't ask for a bigger departure for Hooper after The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (or even Eaten Alive, released in 1976) than Salem’s Lot. Whereas his 1974 directorial debut was chock-full of graphically disturbing and demented images, the miniseries was forced to play by the network's rules, which is something I think works in favor of both the story and for Hooper as well. Even before the first vampire attack, there’s a palpable, quickly established sense of dread, allowing that atmosphere to play up the more horrific events to come. And as the story unfolds, it’s the quick cut moments of tension utilized throughout Salem’s Lot that effectively heightens the sense of fear in viewers and allows the adaptation to quietly creep its way into your psyche without you even realizing it.

There's no doubt in my mind that even after almost 36 years, Salem’s Lot is still the pinnacle of all horror television miniseries. A remarkable tale written by the genre's most beloved author (King) and told by one of the premiere Masters of Horror (Hooper), Salem’s Lot is undeniably timeless and a quietly understated gothic haunted house film that explores fear and death in Small Town, America. Hooper’s masterful approach to tension, atmosphere and scares still remain some of the best horror cinema moments ever and ultimately proves that you don't need a lot of blood and guts to be able to scare the hell out of audiences. If you’ve never experienced Salem’s Lot for yourself, as Straker would say, “It’s time to face The Master!”

  • Heather Wixson
    About the Author - Heather Wixson

    Heather A. Wixson was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, until she followed her dreams and moved to Los Angeles in 2009. A 14-year veteran in the world of horror entertainment journalism, Wixson fell in love with genre films at a very early age, and has spent more than a decade as a writer and supporter of preserving the history of horror and science fiction cinema. Throughout her career, Wixson has contributed to several notable websites, including Fangoria, Dread Central, Terror Tube, and FEARnet, and she currently serves as the Managing Editor for Daily Dead, which has been her home since 2013. She's also written for both Fangoria Magazine & ReMind Magazine, and her latest book project, Monsters, Makeup & Effects: Volume One will be released on October 20, 2021.