Salem's Lot (1979)

I have been a fan of Stephen King since elementary school, having read Pet Sematary first and many of his contemporary books around the same time.  I hate to say that I was an adult before I started looking into his first few books beyond the Richard Bachman novels and his collections of short stories.  While I had seen the movie versions of Carrie, 'Salem's Lot and The Shining I had never sat down to read the novels.  I have no idea why that was, other than the guy just writes so much that there may always be something out there I missed.

Carrie was a pulp novel, much like his Bachman stories, but didn't seem so much like an exploitation piece as those did.  It was definitely helped by Brian De Palma's movie, which is one of the few adaptations of his work that is better than the source material.  Salem's Lot I half-remembered from seeing on television in 1979 on a small black and white television, while The Shining might as well just say that it was inspired by the book rather than based on it.  Sometime after reading 'Salem's Lot I found a rental version of the miniseries, since I had pretty much no memory of it except for Kurt Barlow looking like Count Orlock from Nosferatu, a Symphony of Terror.  Although I definitely like the book better the miniseries, directed by Tobe Hooper, was still a great adaptation on its own despite being restricted in what it could do by the very nature of 1970s television.

Benjamin Mears (David Soul) is a writer who was born in 'Salem's Lot, but whose family moved away when he was young.  Despite that he is still haunted by the Marsden House, an old manse that was the scene of a number of tragedies and is rumored to be haunted.  He comes to town intending to rent it so he can write a book about it, but finds it already occupied by Richard Straker (James Mason), who has purchased it on behalf of a mysterious antiques dealer named Kurt Barlow (Reggie Nalder).  

Mears soon meets and starts a relationship with teacher Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia), who is being stalked by her ex-boyfriend Ned (Barney McFadden).  Meanwhile, the disappearance of a young boy and the sudden death of his brother, as well as real estate agent Larry Crockett (Fred Willard), leads Ben and his old teacher Jason Burke (Lew Ayres) to start suspecting something supernatural may be happening.  As more and more people in the town begin to succumb to exhaustion and anemia, Mears convinces Susan's father Bill (Ed Flanders) to help him put an end to Barlow, who appears to be the source of the problems.  He is not the only one, as local junior high student Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin) has his own reasons to see Barlow dead.

Salem's Lot was originally supposed to be a theatrical film, following on the success of Carrie as well as a renewed interest in vampires.  After several attempts to whittle the story down to two hours by various screenwriters, producer Bruce Kobritz hired Paul Monash to write a two-night mini-series.  Where a lot of Hollywood studios would not touch Tobe Hooper because of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, it is exactly that which got him the job on Salem's Lot.  He was a great fit, as a major factor of TCM was the fact it contained little blood and relied on tension and making the audience uncomfortable.  While parts of Salem's Lot were reshot with more blood for a shortened European movie release, there is only one outright gory scene in the whole of the original, and I'm surprised Hooper got away with that.  There are also some other topics that somehow made it over from King's book, but I'm sure this came with a parental discretion warning at the beginning. 

The acting is quite good throughout and the production is head and shoulders above most television movies of the time.  The only major disappointment is that Barlow is hardly in the film.  A decision was made, like in King's book, to concentrate on most of the characters, but it seems a waste to have gone through so much effort to make up Barlow to look like Orlock and then have him absent most of the film, especially since he makes a great entrance when he finally does show up.  

The most important thing is that, despite originally being a two-night event, Salem's Lot works well as a three-hour movie.  It never gets boring, the characters maintain their quirks from the book, and Hooper does a great job of keeping a sense of menace throughout despite Barlow's absence and less emphasis on the Marsden House than one would expect.  When we do get inside the house the set design is magnificent, as if the whole place were diseased even before Straker and Barlow's arrival.  Thus, this remains not only one of the better television movies from the past, but also one of Tobe Hooper's best films.

Salem's Lot (1979)
Time: 183 minutes
Starring: David Soul, Bonnie Bedelia, Lance Kerwin, Ed Flanders, Lew Ayres, James Mason, Reggie Nalder
Director: Tobe Hooper



  1. Particularly at the time it was released, there was great shock value in the surprise twist that "Kurt Barlow: Antiques Dealer" isn't a suave continental Lugosi/Langella-esque gentleman, but rather an inarticulate beast who seems even less human than Count Orlock.

    1. Unfortunately, in pure 1970s style, they put him right on the poster instead of letting it be a surprise. The first reveal of him is fantastic.


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