Saturday, February 6, 2021

Television Reviews: Salem's Lot (1979)

Salem's Lot (1979)
directed by Tobe Hooper
This is the three hour television miniseries adaptation of Stephen King's novel of the same name. Although it was directed by the man who became famous for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this movie was tasteful and restrained in its use of violence and sexually charged imagery. There's very little. What there is turns out to be all the more impressive because of its rarity. It's certainly toned down a great deal from King's book, where there are detailed descriptions of gore and exactly what certain perverted bus drivers or preachers want to do to the teen girls they encounter. 
Obviously a lot of these changes were for television, but I never felt the movie was holding anything back either. It manages to scare and occasionally titillate without nudity, much cleavage, or long takes of blood spurting everywhere. It also prunes away and/or combines many of King's characters, simplifies or flattens many of those who remain, and completely alters the novel's urbane but dangerous master vampire to a wordless snarling monster who can never ever ever be mistaken for anything else. 
Despite these changes this miniseries was and remains one of the best adaptations of King's work. This movie is an excellent example of how to move a story from one setting to another. It keeps the major themes and story points. It utilizes the advantages of the new medium while minimizing the losses of the original. This movie was made before the attention span of viewers had dropped to almost nothing. 
So the film takes its sweet time getting around to the major points. But along the way it creates some spooky atmospherics that add to the feeling of mounting dread that infuses the film like nougat in a Three Musketeers bar. 
This is like some of the classic Hammer movies right before they declined. There aren't too many directors who can make the viewer feel fear in a sun drenched environment. Hooper was one such director. This film has been remade but I like this version best which is why I rewatched it.
The writer Ben Mears (David Soul-Hutch from the Starsky and Hutch series) has returned to his hometown of Salem's Lot to write a book about the Marsten House, a local place of ill repute that seems to have been a focus of strange and/or murderous events over the years. Ben recalls an paranormal event that he experienced in the Marsten House as a child. Ben also by happenstance runs across the young single teacher Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia) who has read one of his books. One thing leads to another and Bob's your uncle, Ben and Susan are a couple. 
Susan's parents aren't necessarily happy about this. They worry that Ben lacks the resources to take care of their daughter or that he won't stick around when things get tough. Susan's ex-boyfriend is angered to be dumped for someone whom he considers less than manly. Most everyone in the town thinks that writing is either not real work or downright effeminate. Some people think that Ben is to be avoided because he might even have (gasp) left wing views.
Another town resident who has interests outside of the norm is the teen boy Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin). Mark is a burgeoning writer with a fascination for history, horror novels, and folklore. 
Richard Straker (James Mason) is the current resident of the Marsten House. He arrived there shortly before Ben did. Straker is a smooth talking Englishman who claims to be an antique dealer. Straker says he is partners with the never seen Mr. Barlow (Reggie Nadler). 

Straker assures everyone that they will just love Mr. Barlow once he makes his appearance. Straker has just the right mix of dedication, contempt, and perhaps fleeting guilt. His role is a dark version of John the Baptist.
When strange events start to occur the blustering yet ultimately cowardly town Constable Gillespie (Kenneth McMillan) turns his attentions to the town newcomers. Fred Willard is a local broker who has sold the Marsten House to Straker and Barlow. Willard's character is also having an affair with his married secretary, played by Bonnie Cobb. Her brutish husband, quite convincingly played by George Dzundza, is getting suspicious about what wifey is up to while he's away.
The movie drops or distills almost all of the book's social commentary but that likely worked better for the screen. I rewatched this to see if it had the same impact on me as it did all those years ago. It didn't of course but it still held up well. This film gets maximum impact out of hearing sounds in the night that don't go away, a creaking chair in a house that's supposed to be empty, or the realization that you didn't finish a task before dark. Salem's Lot also provided one of the more iconic images in horror filmdom, the vampire scratching the window. Good stuff.  
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