Salem’s Lot (1979)
It’s my favorite time of year! With autumn finally arriving in all its pumpkin-spice flavored glory, it’s time to settle down with some good, old-fashioned scares. First up is Salem’s Lot, the 1979 TV adaptation of Stephen King’s vampire novel starring every late-70s character actor ever, and James Mason.
Last year I made it exactly halfway through King’s novel before hitting what I usually call King’s “sadism wall.” Every single Stephen King novel I’ve ever read arrives at a point where King begins to take bizarre enjoyment out of torturing his characters. While I’m all for a bit of nasty horror, it’s something different when an author actually enjoys making his readers nauseous. So I abandoned Salem’s Lot as I had abandoned Pet Semetary and Misery before it – which is a shame, as I was really enjoying the scary vampires.
The 1979 Salem’s Lot could have done with a bit more of that sadism, though, because it’s one of the most aggressively un-scary movies I’ve ever seen. The tale centers on Ben Mears (David Soul), a writer who returns to his hometown of Salem’s Lot to work on a book about the creepy, potentially evil Marston House. He encounters the slightly weird small town inhabitants and strikes up a relationship with Susan (Bonnie Bedelia), the local schoolteacher. But something is wrong in Salem’s Lot and it all has to do with Mr. Straker (James Mason), an elderly gent who has moved into the Marston House with his business partner Mr. Barlow – a mysterious man who seems to go on a lot of business trips to Europe. After a little boy goes missing in the woods, deaths begin to pile up, leading Mears to suspect that there’s something vampiric going on at that evil old house.
Salem’s Lot cleaves very close to King’s book, with some important differences; what it doesn’t manage to adapt is the scares. Director Tobe Hooper spends much time setting up the small town life, but tension dissipates with every slightly weird or sudden cut from one scene to the next. Plot threads are introduced to be summarily discarded; other threads are picked up without the least bit of narrative consistency. What happened when the sheriff got ahold of Straker’s black coat? Where did the priest come from, and what happened to him? Can vampires be destroyed by fire? What actually did happen at the Marston House? What the hell is going on?! For a three-hour TV miniseries, there are too many unanswered questions and too many extended scenes in which nothing happens. The entire cast speaks in monotone – all except James Mason, the sole bright light in the murky mirage. Mason is having a great time snacking on the scenery and tossing veiled vampiric threats at everyone in sight. Thank God too, because otherwise I would never have sat through the damn film.
One thing I will say for Salem’s Lot: the vampires are proper vampires. There’s no sparkling, no gentleman counts, no erudite discussions about how we misunderstand the poor baby bloodsuckers. These are evil motherfuckers who want to drink blood and destroy civilization from the inside out. I miss those kinds of vampires.