Fright Fest 2018: Salem’s Lot (1979)
Until recently, Stephen King movie adaptations were dreadful. And not in a good way. His first adaptation was good, the 1976’s depiction of Carrie, which may have had more to do with Brian De Palma’s version and not the journal styled storytelling from King. Some adaptations, mostly spanning through the 90s, where just down right embarrassing. Both made for TV movies IT and The Stand were nauseating to watch. In fact, it was only through a sheer force of will that i was able to finally watch the entire 90s IT movie. Without Tim Curry I wouldn’t have made it. But nowadays, King movies seem to be doing alright. The new IT is actually creepy and fun to watch. Adaptions of his newer work such as 11.22.63 was great. And i’ve heard nothing but good things surrounding the new Castle Rock show. But before all these newfound home runs, solid adaptions were slim pickenings. However, there was one that was and still is arguably the best Stephen King inspired movie, and that would be Tobe Hooper’s take on Salem’s Lot.
“A novelist and a young horror fan attempt to save a small New England town which has been invaded by vampires” -IMDb.
Before we dig into the meat of the discussion here, lets talk a bit about the source material for these mini series’. Its an important place to start. Salem’s Lot, as for many of you I’m sure, is one of the pillar novels every horror fanatic reads. Even people who don’t like King read Salem’s Lot. It’s a classic vampire tale told in a very traditional way, even more traditional some would say then Richard Matheson’s I am Legend. In all it’s glory, Salem’s Lot doesn’t have some black ink virus running amok, nor does it glitter in the sunlight, nor are there packs of ravaging monsters with shark teeth. Salem’s Lot is about evil incarnate taking form in a small town that from the outside seems idyllic, but for those who walk its streets and call it home, its nothing to idolize.
From book to film, there are currently two different mini series’, both capturing the jest of what King wrote, though some more than others, I’d say. And in mentioning that, I’m begging my own question, just what are the differences?
Dynamic Verses Literal Translation…
Yup. That’s pretty much what the differences really are. The Tobe Hooper directed 1979 made for TV movie mini series is what I’d call a dynamic interpretation of the source material, meaning, the movie is not a word for word literal translation of King’s masterpiece. Tobe took the ideas of the book and made it into his own movie, which was to be frank, creepy as fuck. The newer 2004 mini series is more literal. But i’m not here to talk about that version.
As the film opens we see a grizzly looking Ben Mears (played by David Soul) and Mark Petrie (played by Lance Kerwin). They seem to be on the run somewhere south of the border. Inside an empty church, they fill a flask with holy water, and in the process notice the water glowing. They look at each other and say something like “They’ve found us,” implying of course that someone or something is after them. Who are they on the run from? This question rolls across our mind as we jump back in time, a few months or years, if i recall. Ben is driving into a sunny idyllic looking town called Jerusalem’s Lot (but everyone in town just calls it Salem’s Lot, or The Lot). He stops at large house that sits on a hill. He’s obviously disturbed–aggravated–scared even. Why? What is it about this house that terrifies him? And not just that, but he seems equally unsettled to find someone at the front door. Is this stranger living at the house?
As the movie progresses, we discover this particular house is called the Marsten House, and has a history with the town. The movie does a decent enough job brushing over this particular history. The book, obviously, goes much deeper. And to put the cherry on top, someone has bought said house. Newcomers in town, business partners Mr. Richard Straker (played by James Mason) and Mr. Kurt Barlow (played by Reggie Nalder), who also own an antique store at the heart of Salem’s Lot. Straker is another character deviation from the book. In fact, it almost seems that Tobe reversed their appearance, almost. In the book, Straker is a tall, bald, imposing fellow. In the movie, he is every part an English gentleman. His behavior is also different. Tobe’s version paints Straker as an obedient servant to Barlow, but he also shows hints of fear and remorse. As if, he knows what he must do and he does it without question, but he feels sorry for the town. Pity, almost.
“You’ll enjoy Mr. Barlow. And he’ll enjoy you” -Mr. Straker.
While we’re on the subject, let me say a few words on Mr. Barlow. I didn’t mind his persona in the book. King plucked the aristocratic out of Europe and placed him in middle-America. But I very much love how Tobe Hooper changed his character. In the movie, Barlow is as Straker is in the book, a tall, bald, imposing looking fellow. And more. Tobe went complete Nosferatu with Barlow–and again, I LOVE IT. I think having the ultimate evil looking the part is genius. And in generation, and certainly in the late 70s with all those Hammer films, an evil looking vampire is a breath of fresh air.
Continuing in the story, just like in the book, Ben and local girl Susan Norton (played by Bonnie Bedelia) hit things off and begin courting. Other similarities include the infidelity of Cully’s wife, Bonnie Sawyer. Though in the book she is having an affair with some dude with the electrical company (?) and in Tobe’s adaptation its Larry Crockett (played fantastically by Fred Willard). I actually like this change a lot, and the scene between Cully and Crockett is hilarious. Also the role of Mr. Burke (played by Lew Ayres) is for the most part untouched. He is still (more or less) the aged Van Helsing of the group of vampire hunters that eventually forms.
What really makes this movie are the scary scenes. The mysterious crate that is picked up at the docks and delivered to the Marsten House on the order of Mr. Straker is a chilling couple of scenes. And the paranoia of Ned Tibbets and Mike Ryerson (played by late great Geoffrey Lewis who passed away in 2015) is strongly felt, especially at the end of the delivery as Ned tosses the forgotten locks into the basement of the Marsten House. When Ryerson eventually becomes a vampire and is sitting in the dark with those glowing eyes staring at Burke, oh man! And who could forget the terrifying scene when Ralphie Glick returns from the grave, floating in a cloud of fog at his brother’s second story window, whispering to let him inside. I don’t know why. Its a very simply scene. There are no exploding heads or anything of the such. But yet it is an utterly terrifying moment in cinematic history.
“Open the window. Open the window, Danny. Open the window, Danny. Please! Let me in!” -Ralphie Glick.
As the vampirism spreads, we gradually realize what is happening to the town and wonder how our heroes intend to stop it. Much like the book, once things take off, they really take off. And there are certain tragedies that befall our protagonists that are similar enough to the source material. While the book and movie have both been out since the late 70s, I cannot go much further. This book and movie are just too good to spoil. I will though mention three characters that I wished were in or developed more in the 1979 film adaptation. Father Donald Callahan was an extremely important character in the book, but he’s more or less glossed over in the movie. Dud Rogers–while a minor character in the book, was still a favorite of mine. The notion of this hunchback who manages the local dump gave the town more color and depth. And finally, Dr. James Cody who in the book was an instrumental member of the group of vampire hunters. In the Tobe Hooper adaptation, his character was more or less merged with Susan’s father, Bill Norton. Personally, I was not a huge fan of this change.
Overall, I think because of my particular tastes for classic films and monsters, my favorite Stephen King adaptation will always be the 1979 version of Salem’s Lot. Sometimes a literal translation of a book to film doesn’t always work, in fact, it hardly ever does. Was the newer 2004 entertaining? Sure. Was it better then the 1979 take? Hell no! Tobe Hooper took the themes of the book but made it his own movie, giving the atmosphere a more chilling presence. The 1979 movie instilled the impression that evil was really infesting Salem’s Lot. Yes, the movie is over 3 hrs. But if you have yet to see this one, you need to. And if you have yet to read the novel, shame on you!
My rating: 5/5
From the battlefields of Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front to the horrors of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot to even the absurd cult classics of J. Michael Muro movies, Street Trash, Thomas S Flowers’s love for gross and equally deeply emotionally things has no bar or limit. Such appetites saturate his own writings, from the paranormal happenings of his PSTD ridden thriller series Subdue, to his gory zombie infested PLANET OF THE DEAD series, to even his recent dabbling of vampiric flirtation in THE LAST HELLFIGHTER. He hopes that his love for the genre seeps into the minds of his readers. And that you will enjoy his books just as much as he enjoyed writing them. You can follow Thomas and get yourself a FREE eBook copy of FEAST by joining his MONTHLY mailing list. Sign up by vising www.ThomasSFlowers.com.
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“Ben Harker, Harlem native. WWI veteran. Vampire slayer.”