Written by: Stephen King (novel), Paul Monash (screenplay)
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Starring: David Soul, James Mason, and Lance Kerwin
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"You'll enjoy Mr. Barlow. And he'll enjoy you."
During the course of his 40-year career, Stephen King has directed one film and written only a handful of actual screenplays himself. Despite this, however, dozens of other films can accurately labeled “Stephen King movies,” even those he had no direct involvement in. His is a voice that’s unmistakable, capable of seeping through the cracks even when it’s being channeled by directors that are distinctive auteurs in their own right. I have a shelf dedicated to his films in my own home, so he’s become a genre unto himself—he’s been that formative for myself and countless others.
There’s something almost ethereal about his work that’s tough to pin down—just what makes a Stephen King movie a Stephen King movie? For me, that answer can be found in Salem’s Lot, King’s second novel and the second of his works to be translated to the screen. Something about it captures King’s essence—the lore is a familiar enough riff on a popular tale, yet it’s couched in that distinct, off-kilter King vibe that transforms it into something all its own.
In truth, Salem’s Lot is a bald-faced Dracula riff that’s been transplanted to King’s signature Maine locale. The titular town—whose name is short for Jerusalem’s Lot—is a sleepy little village nestled in a quiet sort of desolation. Like most of King’s towns, it’s unremarkable, Every Town USA façade is what makes it such an appealing setting for a ghastly horror tale. It’s the sort of place you’d pass through without ever suspecting anything awful could ever visit its confines. Writer Ben Mears (David Soul) knows better, though. A former native of the town, Mears harbors unshakeable memories about the horrors he once witnessed at the Marsten House as a child. Now, years later, he’s returned with the conviction that something inherently horrible rests in the foundation of the old hilltop mansion, almost as if it were a magnet for evil.
Even he doesn’t realize just how right he is, as his own attempt to move into the Marsten House is thwarted when local real estate agent Larry Crockett (Fred Willard) informs him that the property has recently been sold to Straker (James Mason) and Barlow, a couple of business partners looking to renovate the home into an antique store. Soon enough, however, their true, much more sinister intentions become obvious: Barlow is curiously nowhere to be found, and several of the townsfolk go missing or turn up with mysterious ailments. No one is spared: women, children, burly truck drivers. Something foul has arrived in Salem’s Lot, and even though it’s of the obvious, familiar sort (spoiler: a fucking vampire), it’s vintage King, whose sensibilities were already crystalizing by this point.
In fact, even though it arrived so early in his career, Salem’s Lot features just about everything I associate with King: the intermingling of childhood fascination and trauma, the small, sleepy town with a long memory, colorful, folky characters, the incongruent, almost primal evil that visits it. Of course, there’s also the suggestion that Salem’s Lot is a natural conduit for this sort of thing, as Mears insists something about the town itself has drawn these sinister forces. It’s a classic turnabout by King, and it represents one of his more subtle signatures: no matter how familiar or well-worn his material may be, there’s a slight twist to it to make to make it feel more ominous. It doesn’t matter that Barlow is essentially a Dracula rip-off, since he’s more akin to the malevolent, cosmic force that’s brought him to Salem’s Lot in the first place. That vague sense of a preternatural, almost karmic evil is pure, vintage King—I’ve always loved the idea that his entire universe is guided by these inexplicable forces, and Salem’s Lot taps into it, however so slightly.
Much of the effectiveness here rests in the miniseries format, an approach that would become more maligned (unfairly or not) with later King adaptations. Salem’s Lot, however, reveals the advantages of allowing King’s tomes to sprawl out so the audience can soak in the atmosphere and characters. Salem’s Lot more than lives up to its name: in typical King fashion, the town itself becomes something of a character, as its various citizens mingle about, creating a rich tapestry of small-town Americana. Sure, maybe it results in a few asides like Crockett’s affair with local truck-driver Sully’s wife, but it only enhances the lived-in quality of the film. These feel like genuine, down-home people brought to life by an incredibly deep cast—in addition to the aforementioned stars, Salem’s Lot boasts the likes of Lew Ayres (!), Bonnie Bedelia, Ed Flanders, and Geoffrey Lewis. It’s the 70s all-star disaster movie casting approach translated to the small screen, and it adds a layer of gravitas and prestige to this adaptation of what is essentially a pulp novel.
Of course, it’s only so pulpy. Given the obvious television constraints, most of the novel’s graphic violence is toned down and suggested. You lose the stark juxtaposition of such explicitly horrific events terrorizing this seemingly innocent town, thus robbing the original story of some of its more staggering power. Positioned as a sort of dark counterpart to the comparatively quaint Dark Shadows, King’s novel is a triumphantly fucked up collection of gruesome moments, including a child sacrifice. The film is much more suggestive in this respect, and it’s an obvious sticking point of contention—you could easily imagine a modern-day R-rated theatrical take that would be more capable of stretching boundaries.
In lieu of an abundance of on-screen violence, Salem’s Lot unsettles with a chilling, otherworldly vibe. One of the other (understandable) points of contention is the film’s portrayal of Barlow: where King envisioned him more out of the suave Dracula mold, screenwriter Paul Monash and Hooper reimagine him as a demonic, blue-skinned Nosferatu riff. The alteration is noticeable but not altogether unwelcome: Barlow’s rigid, inhuman movements suggest something unfathomably nightmarish and heightens that Lovecraftian sense of something indescribably awful visiting this unsuspecting town. Somewhat ironically, it’s a perfect match for King’s conception of that overarching, preternatural evil that guided Barlow to this particular spot. Like that force, this Barlow—with his feral hissing and bizarre body language—feels like something ancient and, well, unholy. It might not be King’s Barlow, and, sure, it’s basically a blue Nosferatu, but he’s iconic all the same—despite barely appearing on-screen for much of the film’s 3-hour runtime.
Leave it to Tobe Hooper to pull something like that off. Following in the footsteps of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Eaten Alive—both of which are masterclasses in unnerving through suggestion and atmosphere—Salem’s Lot proves to be a natural fit for the director. Obviously, this is a less sweltering affair, as Hooper trades in the sun-soaked, rural American south for cozy, moonlit New England confines, but it’s no less evocative, particularly when Hooper goes all-in on striking horror imagery. A sequence where one of Barlow’s child victims returns from the grave as a vampire is positively haunting: it’s all billowing fog and atmospheric moonlight, with the child’s unsettling face showing signs of impossible life beneath his dead eyes. Something awful lurks in his smile and waits to unleash the full brunt of the film’s gothic horrors on audiences. It’s one of the most indelible sequences from Hooper’s oeuvre and provides definitive proof that he was more than a one-trick pony following Texas Chain Saw.
Of course, much of the effectiveness rests in King’s lore itself. Sometimes, what’s staggering about King’s work is how simplistic and familiar it can be: the Marsten house is that creepy old place every child whispers about and avoids, but, in King’s hands, it also becomes one of the author’s signature, preternatural bad places, a nexus of ultimate, unfathomable evil. That one of the main heroes is a kid (Lance Kerwin in the role of Mark Petrie)—and a Monster Kid who obsesses over horror movies at that—makes Salem’s Lot an apt, early precursor to King’s fascination with the capacity of children to repel evil. For all its breadth, width, and scope, Salem’s Lot is ultimately a potent tale about facing childhood nightmares by trekking into the heart of darkness and learning that you can never quite escape it. Horrors endure, lengthening like shadows in the autumn sun, impossible to outrun forever.
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