“Spook Show 2019 – 02: Salem’s Lot (1979)” by Richard F. Yates
Okay! It took longer than I expected to get back to the Spook Show reviews, but WE’RE BACK!!! Today, we’re looking at a “classic” vampire tale based on a novel by the King of Horror… (Yes. Another Stephen King story. What can I say? They guy knows how to tell a SPOOKY tale!)
[This is a photograph that I took of the actual DVD that I watched. The image is included for review purposes only!]
Salem’s Lot is a 1979 made-for-t.v. miniseries, starring David Soul (from that old cop show, Starsky & Hutch---anyone old enough to remember THAT???) and James Mason, and it was directed by the legendary Tobe Hooper! Hooper is best known for his iconic films, like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist (personally, I loved his campy ‘80’s remake of Invaders from Mars), but it turns out he actually directed a lot of television show episodes, too, (although, to be honest, I haven’t seen ANY of those... Sorry Tobe…) Hooper had a real SENSE for horror, and whatever the budget he had to work with, it was his ability to create a creepy MOOD that made his works so enjoyable---even if his films were sometimes a bit gross. (Texas Chain Saw Massacre is YUCKY. Funny at times, but very, very yucky. Even Poltergeist has that one disgusting scene where the guy starts picking the skin off his face---really for no reason other than to gross the viewer out!)
The screenwriter for Salem’s Lot was Paul Monash, who was most well known for the soap opera he scripted over 500 episodes of, Peyton Place, (and Salem’s Lot DOES have a very soap opera-esque feel for much of its run time); however, Monash also wrote the screenplay for Carrie (another Stephen King adaptation) and, a few years after Salem’s Lot, he would script an episode of V, about an alien invasion. Monash’s forte, however, was definitely the soaps, and as I mentioned, Salem’s Lot does play out like a soap opera, with lots of “Who’s cheating on who?” and “Are they still dating?” and “Why did she marry him?” drama thrown in to what is supposed to be a vampire story. The original mini-series aired over the course of several nights, and I remember watching it when it originally played...and being kind of freaked out by several scenes!
So let’s start driving that stake into the heart of this review. For those who have never read the book or seen the show, here’s what Salem’s Lot is about. Ben Mears (played by David Soul) is a writer (Stephen King decided to try something new with this story and make it about a writer!) who returns to his hometown to write a book about the Marsden House, the local “haunted house” that scared the crap out of him as a little kid. Mears’s aunt had worked there when he was a youngster, and he once entered the house on a dare and saw a horrifying, ghostly scene: one of the former owners of the house, hanging by his neck, and the ghastly figure’s eyes opened and look at young Mears, who ran out of the house and was forever terrified. Mears eventually comes back to town to write his new novel based on the Marsden House. Unfortunately, the place has been purchased, just before Mears returns to town, by Richard Straker (played by James Mason), an eccentric antiques dealer who, along with his mostly unseen partner, Kurt Barlow, moved to the small town of Salem’s Lot to open a shop, but we learn rather quickly that Barlow, (played by Reggie Nadler), isn't REALLY a shopkeeper, he's a vampire---and not a sparkly Twilight vamp or a leather clad, gun toting Underworld gangster, but a rat-like, Nosferatu inspired super-creep.
Since we’ve brought up those OTHER types of vamps, I think it’s important to note that vampirism in this film is NOT glamorous or desirable. This is DISEASE VECTOR vampirism, in the more traditional, folklore sense. Barlow comes to town and starts to feed, and the corpses of his victims become vampires, and these vamps bite other folks and THEY become vamps, until nearly everyone in town is either sick and dying or dead. And these vampires are ugly, hissing, animalistic, glowing eyed demons, not pretty or sparkly super-models. These are MONSTERS. And I think that’s great!
The vamps here are also very ghostly and ethereal. They can fly and vanish and hypnotize people just by looking at them, and in one scene Barlow opens a jail cell just by waving his hand near the door lock. This is also the first scene where we get a good look at his monster make-up, and it’s still, to this day, a brilliant, creepy look! ALTHOUGH!!!! I do have to point this out---it’s been several years since I’ve read Stephen King’s novel, but the portrayal of Kurt Barlow is REMARKABLY different in the book compared to what we see on the screen. Instead of the rodent-like, growling, non-verbal monster, the novel’s version of Barlow is SEDUCTIVE. He doesn’t growl and pounce on his victims, he croons and convinces them that they WANT to be bitten. He promises them power and immortality (both lies, as technically the HUMAN dies and their body is taken over by a demon when they are bitten, AND the demon becomes a SLAVE to Barlow… "The Master commands it!" says one vamp as he's trying to convince a potential victim to open a window and let him in...) But, for a visual medium, like television, the choice to make Barlow a BEAST was probably the right move. And besides that, James Mason’s scene stealing portrayal of Straker more than makes up for the loss of a suave, seductive Barlow.
The GOOD: Despite being forty-years-old, and a made-for-t.v. production, the show does still have some great special effects. The “glowing eyes” that all of the vampires have is a fantastic effect, and by filming some of the earliest vampiric attack scenes BACKWARDS, they have a very creepy, eerie, dream-like feel. One of my favorite scenes, which happens about an hour into the show, is when the very first vampire shows up on screen, little Ralphie Glick, who floats up to his brother’s window, smoke billowing around him, and he hovers there, eyes glowing, a creepy smile on his face, as he half taps-half scratches at the window, waiting for his brother to open it and let him in, which he does---although they cut away (to a commercial break, originally, I’d wager) before they show any biting. It might not be too scary for modern audiences who are used to gore and blood, but I remember watching that scene when I was about seven years old and it aired on t.v., and it TERRIFIED me!
Actually, some of the most disturbing scenes in the show, NOW, don’t even come from the vampires. The scariest scene happens when the alcoholic, somewhat psychotic truck driver, Cully, sets a trap for his wife and catches her in bed with Fred Willard! Cully pulls a shotgun on the adulterous couple, and then proceeds to torture them, psychologically, making the guy hold the barrel of the gun to his face and saying things like, “See how much self-control you have!? Don’t move Larry! Don’t move or I’ll blow you away!” Then, after Willard flees the house in terror, Cully heads back to the bedroom and, with the camera focused on the closed bedroom door, we hear the sounds of violence and the poor wife screaming---and the scene cuts to a commercial.
The BAD: I’ve talked to several people who feel that this show moves too slowly, or who say that it’s just BORING---and it certainly does take it’s time building tension over the course of a longer than average set-up. To me, this doesn’t feel like PADDING, it feels like GROUNDWORK. If you enjoyed the original Dark Shadows television show, which is probably the closest thing I can think of to Salem’s Lot, you’ll know that pacing is an important part of a supernatural soap. There are a lot of characters that need to be introduced, and each of them needs some foible or trauma or idiosyncrasy that we can get our hooks into---so that, once the vampires start multiplying, we CARE that these folks are dropping dead. But YEAH, the show is slow. I loved Dark Shadows, though, personally, and I appreciate this show, too… All THREE HOURS of it!
It’s not gory. It’s not sexy (at ALL---especially the lukewarm romance between David Soul and Bonnie Bedelia’s character, Susan Norton. It’s got to be the flattest, least interesting romance ever portrayed on television!). But I think this show does a much better job of portraying the old school, European folk-lore version of vampirism than modern, romanticized, Hollywood vampire films do. (Several scholars have connected disease outbreaks, for things like tuberculosis, to vampire panics. Folks like Paul Barber, whose book Vampires, Burial, and Death, I HIGHLY recommend, show how the progression of these illnesses, particularly through families, was thought to be cause by VAMPIRE attacks, before modern medicine figured out how the illnesses were ACTUALLY spread. For anyone interested in why people really used to BELIEVE in vampires, Barber’s book is brilliant---gruesome, but very thought provoking.)
And, although some people would undoubtedly think they are dated, I still like the special effects in this show, and I particularly enjoy the solid ghost/poltergeist association to vampires in this film, especially in relation to the Marsden House, but even just in scenes where vampires appear. In one freakish scene, a young man, Mark, is being grilled by his parents and a catholic priest about his insistence that he was visited in the night by the vampiric specter of his dead friend, Danny Glick. They say it was just a dream. He protests. Suddenly, the house begins to shake. The cupboard doors and drawers in the kitchen start to wobble open and closed. The light over the kitchen table explodes, and then something crashes through the window into the room that looks like a black towel or blanket, and it slowly rises from the floor as the winds blow, until it becomes the monster, Barlow! It’s a goofy scene, actually, but very fun!
And that’s probably a good description of this entire mini-series---by today's sensibilities, anyway. When it first aired, for me at least, watching this was a truly horrific experience. But I’m older now, and it doesn’t really SCARE me anymore. (At this point, I’m FAR more terrified of stuff like Grey’s Anatomy. Medical shit is NOT entertainment, man, it's just straight HORRIBLE. I don’t want to know about all the terrible, bizarre ways that people can get sick and die… I’d rather stick to monsters and ghosts. Thanks.) I'll admit it, Salem’s Lot is slow. It takes it’s time getting to the monsters, and the acting isn’t necessarily the best I’ve ever seen, and there are quite a few elements of the show that make little or no sense… But I do find this to be, overall, an enjoyable story. And I love the monster effects, which is REALLY what this type of show is all about. It’s long, but it was MEANT to be watched over the course of a few days, so if you need to, you can hit stop, go water the lawn or get some groceries, and then come back the next day and finish it. Tobe won’t mind...
I guess I’d recommend this one for fans of OLD SCHOOL vampires, for people who like supernatural soap operas, and for folks who like bland, sexless romance stories, but mostly (unfortunately) I think this one MIGHT be for the folks who saw it when it originally aired and want to relive the days of their youth, when they didn’t have so much REAL LIFE to worry about and actually found floating kids with glowing eyes (and smoke machines pumping away in the background) scary. It’s MY speed, but definitely not for everyone…
---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Holy Fool)
P.S. – I said I was going to include my complete Spook Show recommendations list with each Spooky review, just in case this is some reader’s first encounter with this series. Here are the films I’ve already looked at:
SPOOK SHOW 2019 Reviews!!!
“Spook Show 2019 – 01: The Shining (1980)”
SPOOK SHOW 2018 Reviews!!!
“Spook Show 2018 – 01: The Exorcist (1973)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 02: Curse of the Demon (1957)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 03: Frogs (1972)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 04: Child’s Play (1988)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 05: The Haunting (1963)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 06: Shaun of the Dead (2004)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 07: Fright Night (1985)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 08: Mr. Vampire (1985)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 09: The Devil Rides Out (1968)”
“Spook Show 2018 – 10: Ghoulies (1985)”
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Oh man.... you have reviewed and watched quite a number of spooky shows and films... I just can't do it... I'm a big chicken when it comes to these things! Many of these older films/series/games... I remember with such rose-tinted nostalgia... I generally try not to revisit them (mostly games...), as the thing rarely lives up to the memory! However, I'm happy that in this case... it appears it did live up to your memory at least in part, and you weren't disappointed!
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Awesome review. I loved both the mini-series and book. Granted it is 40 year old and the first time I saw it I was about 10, it made an impression. I think this is where my vampire fascination began.
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