I read Salem’s Lot by Stephen King shortly after it was first published when I was in the 6th grade, and it was the first novel that ever truly scared me. More importantly, as someone who spent his childhood watching Hammer Films and the Universal monster movies, it was the first book that ever truly entertained me. It was that book that got me hooked on reading.
As such, my expectations were high when four years later the film version of SALEM’S LOT (1979) arrived as a TV movie directed by Tobe Hooper and starring David Soul and James Mason. And while it was well-received by critics and fans alike, I was somewhat disappointed by it. I just couldn’t shake my feelings for the novel, which I felt was vastly superior.
The biggest disappointment for me at the time was the film’s interpretation of the story’s vampire, Mr. Barlow. Barlow was creepy and terrifying in the novel, with lots of dialogue to back up his evil presence. In the film, he was changed to a mute Nosferatu clone, and while he did indeed look frightening, the fact that the make-up resembled the classic 1922 Nosferatu make-up on Max Schreck was a let-down.
Anyway, it had been years since I had seen the film version of SALEM’S LOT, and so I thought it was time to watch it again and place it IN THE SPOOKLIGHT.
In SALEM’S LOT, writer Ben Mears (David Soul) returns to his childhood home of Salem’s Lot (Jerusalem’s Lot in the novel), drawn there by the Marsten House, a house that watches over the town like a demonic gargoyle. In short, it’s the town’s haunted house. Ben has been obsessed with this house his entire life, an obsession that began when he ventured into the house as a boy on a dare and saw the hanging body of a man there, a man who while hanging opened his eyes and looked at him.
This moment is a perfect example of the difference between the movie and the book. In the book, this scene, this image, although not even a major part of the plot, was one of its most frightening. Indeed, for me, of all the scenes and images from the novel, this is the one that scared me the most back in 1975 and stayed with me the longest, the hanging man who opened his eyes. In the movie, it’s mentioned briefly by Ben Mears in a conversation, and it’s nothing more than an afterthought. There you go.
So Ben returns home to write about the Marsten House and seek out old acquaintances, like Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia), who he starts to date. He’s writing about the Marsten House because he believes the house itself is evil, and as such it attracts evil.
And he’s right, because currently living in the house are two men, Mr. Straker (James Mason) and Mr. Barlow (Reggie Nalder). Barlow is a vampire, and Straker is the man empowered with protecting him. Together, they prey upon the townsfolk of Salem’s Lot, gradually changing nearly everyone in town into a vampire. Unless that is, Ben Mears can stop them.
It’s a great story, but it plays better in the novel than in the movie, which is hindered by dated dialogue by screenwriter Paul Monash.
I was a huge fan of the TV show STARSKY AND HUTCH (1975-79) back in the day, and so at the time when I first saw SALEM’S LOT I gave David Soul who starred in the show a free pass. Watching it today was a different story. Soul’s interpretation of Ben Mears has its problems, mostly because at times Soul seems to be sleepwalking through the role. He also doesn’t do fear well. When Ben Mears is supposed to be terrified, he comes off as more dazed than anything else.
By far, the best performance in the movie belongs to James Mason as Mr. Straker. Of course, this comes as no surprise as Mason was a phenomenal actor who was no stranger to villainous roles. His dark interpretation of Dr. Polidori in FRANKENSTEIN: THE TRUE STORY (1973) was one of the most memorable parts of that horror movie, and his villainous turn as attorney Ed Concannon in THE VERDICT (1982) was every bit as effective as Paul Newman’s lead performance as Frank Galvin. Both men won Oscars for their performances that year, Newman for Best Actor, and Mason for Best Supporting Actor. These roles are from the tail end of Mason’s career, which began in the 1930s and spanned five decades.
As Straker, Mason is frightening. The scene where he taunts a priest is one of the best in the film.
The rest of the cast, which is chock-full of character actors, is so-so. In the key role of young Mark Petrie, the boy who loves monsters and monster movies, and the character who I obviously identified with when I first read the novel in 1975, Lance Kerwin is just okay. Like David Soul, his interpretation of fear comes off more like a “deer in the headlights” daze.
Likewise, Bonnie Bedelia is okay as Susan Norton, but Lew Ayres is effective as school teacher Jason Burke, and unlike Soul and Kerwin, Ayres does do fear well. Ed Flanders is solid as Dr. Bill Norton, and Geoffrey Lewis enjoys some fine moments as Mike Ryerson, especially once Mike becomes a vampire. Veteran actors Elisha Cook Jr. and Fred Willard are also in the cast.
And while Reggie Nalder does look horrifying as Barlow in his Nosferatu-style make-up, ultimately he doesn’t make much of an impact in the movie because his scenes are few and far between. Even though I prefer the Barlow character from the novel to the one here in the movie, I still would have liked to have seen the vampire more in the film.
The story, which flows naturally in the novel, with its expansive cast of characters, doesn’t flow as well in the movie, as the townsfolk and their personal issues play like characters in a soap opera.
Director Tobe Hooper, fresh off his success with THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974), definitely puts his personal stamp on the movie and creates some scary scenes. Chief amongst them is the creepy and very memorable scene- it might be the most memorable of the entire movie— of young vampire Danny Glick floating outside Mark Petrie’s window, beckoning to be let inside. It’s certainly one of my favorite parts of the movie.
Another frightening image features Geoffrey Lewis’ Mike Ryerson as a vampire, sitting in a rocking chair.
But the biggest parts of the story strangely fall flat. The end, for instance, when Mark and Susan enter the Marston house in search of Barlow, lacks the necessary suspense. In the book, these scenes were terrifying. In the movie, not so much.
The pacing is a little off as well. The film runs for 184 minutes and originally aired on television in two 2 hour segments. The bulk of the first half is spent introducing all the characters, while Barlow doesn’t really show up until the second part, and then things move very quickly, often too quickly.
The film did very well and earned high ratings, and for a while there was talk of turning it into a television series, but the idea never materialized.
I like the film version of SALEM’S LOT, and even though it hasn’t aged all that well, and is a bit dated— in contrast, the classic TV vampire movie THE NIGHT STALKER (1972) still holds up remarkably well today— it’s still a fun movie to watch, with some genuine creepy scenes, especially for a TV movie, and we certainly have Tobe Hooper to thank for that. While the vampire is OK, and the leads meh, you do have James Mason chewing up the scenery as the diabolically evil Mr. Straker.
The biggest drawback is that the source material, the novel by Stephen King, is so darned good, it makes this above average thriller seem much more ordinary than it really is.
SALEM’S LOT is kinda like its vampire, Mr. Barlow. Scary, but nowhere near as powerful as depicted in the novel by Stephen King.
Books by Michael Arruda:
TIME FRAME, science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.
FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.