After Brian DePalma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Carrie hit big the race was on to adapt the author’s books pretty much as fast as he could publish them. Second out the gate was Salem’s Lot, a television miniseries on King’s vampire infested prose that was helmed by Texas Chainsaw director Tobe Hooper.
Salem’s Lot has always been one of my favorite of King’s virtually inhuman output, due to the effortless melding of old and new sensibilities. Traditional old scary Scooby-Doo houses and graveyards after dark are invigorated with more modern concepts as the vampirism spreading slowly throughout the town is comparable to a virus conquering antibodies in a host until the town slowly dies.
Author Ben Mears (Hutch from TV’s Starskey & Hutch) has returned to his childhood town of Salem’s Lot in Maine to write a book about the old Marsden house, a creepy mansion with a dark history that holds traumatic memories for him. As he gets reaquainted with his old neighbourhood he sparks up a burgeoning romance with Susan (John McClane’s wife from Die Hard) and reconnects with his old English teacher but while Mears takes a stroll down memory lane another newcomer in town is making his mark. The sinister Mr Straker (James Mason classing up the joint with his silken vocals) has opened up a antique store in house and, with his mysterious, unseen business partner Mr. Barlow, has moved into the Marsden place much to Ben’s unease.
Soon the disappearance of a young boy in town (which coincides with the delivery of a massive crate to the old house) sparks off many disturbing and escalating occurrences that eventually reveal that, thanks to Straker and Barlow, Salem’s Lot has come down with a particularly nasty case of Vampirism. As the fanged epidemic slowly claims the blissfully unaware town like an undead cancer, Mears and local boy Mark discover this insidious plot and desperately strive to halt the steady rise in the population of pointy toothed bastards but it may already be too late.
Just because Salem’s Lot was made in 1979 for television doesn’t mean the adaptation is wearing kids gloves when it comes to scares. Not only does it boast some well crafted jump scares for the medium but some unleashes some genuinely unsettling imagery that must have freaked the living shit out of viewers huddled round the tube at the time. The sight of a grey-skinned, recently deceased child floating outside his brother’s window, scratching on the window pane with elongated finger nails and beaming at him with a cluster of yellow fangs poking out from his gums isn’t enough to loosen up your bowels even a tad then you may very well be as dead as the vampires themselves. Similarly another child victim leaping out of his uncovered grave to give the world’s most damaging hickey to a horrified onlooker and the assault on Mark’s family by the hideous-looking Mr Barlow also work hard to successfully reduce your ability to sleep. In fact Barlow’s visage in particular is fairly hair-raising as his pallor, bloodshot eyes and dental work that resembles a ripped out fireplace strongly recalls the 1922 Nosferatu if he had been ravaged by a persistent meth addiction.
Hooper, an old hand at drawing out horrific tension while not needing to spray the place in viscera thanks to his peerless work with Texan power tools, proves that his devastating debut was no fluke although the gargantuan, three hour running time does admittedly tend to drag a bit and leaves you… well, drained. The bulk of this epic length is due to Hooper’s insistence of diligently following the book’s style of getting to know a fair amount of Salem’s Lot’s populace before they all become “evening people” but in the face of an unrelenting tide of yellow-eyed blood suckers, the wandering pee-pee of a bed hopping realtor (an impossibly young Fred Willard) or Mike’s father fussing on whether he will grow out of magic tricks seem important in fleshing out the supporting cast but ultimately insignificant.
While some may probably find that Salem’s Lot may be too dated (it carries the burden of being made for television in the late 70’s so every jump scare is unsubtlely highlighted by a prolonged fart of high pitched trumpets and crashing percussion) it’s well made enough and boast enough legitimate scares to stand with the best and brightest the vampire genre has to offer.
Ironically, the vampires may suck but rest assured, Salem’s Lot does not.