Vampires are a horror staple. They have been since Bela Lugosi brought Dracula to life in the Universal Monsters classic. So of course horror’s undisputed master would have to pen a vampire story, right? In fact, Salem’s Lot was Stephen King’s second major novel. Four years after King published it, horror maverick Tobe Hooper adapted it as a made-for-television movie. But don’t be fooled by its television origins. Salem’s Lot is a grossly under appreciated classic.
Successful author Ben Mears returns to his hometown of Salem’s Lot to write his next novel. Since his childhood, Mears has obsessed about the Marsten house, a dilapidated local haunt. But now the mysterious antique dealer Straker and his never-seen partner, Barlow, live in the Marsten house. Soon Salem’s Lot’s residents begin dying of mysterious causes. Mears suspects Barlow may in fact be a vampire. But he can convinces others of the danger before it’s too late?
Salem’s Lot An Atmospheric Nod to Vintage Horror
Salem’s Lot couldn’t be a further departure from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre for Tobe Hooper. The two-part television movie trades on the same Gothic atmosphere that Hammer Films previously used to great effect for years. Though its setting is contemporary small-town American, Salem’s Lot fully immerses itself in ‘old-school’ horror iconography. From the looming haunted Marsten House itself to its vampires’ mist-covered appearances, Salem’s Lot has a distinctly nostalgic feel. One of movie’s central characters, high schooler and horror nerd, Mark Petrie, esstentially stands in for horror fans. Despite its three-hour length, Hooper maintains this atmosphere and a consistent sense of dread.
Hooper Innovates Some Fun Old-School Scares
Never let anyone tell you that a PG horror movie can’t be scary. If you want proof, you need look no further than Salem’s Lot. Over its three-hours, Hooper uses old-school innovation to scare up several good jumps. Ralphie Glick’s wooded shortcut and disappearance delivers an unnerving jolt. A later graveyard scare and Barlow’s first appearance also effectively combine mounting tensions with frightening payoffs. In addition, the climatic showdown in the Marsten House draws out the suspense to a nearly excruciating level.
Instead, Barlow harkens back to Max Schrecks Count Orlok in the 1922 Nosferatu.
But if there’s a highlight to Hooper’s adaptation, it’s the vampires themselves. Screenwriter Paul Monash deviated not only from King’s source material, but Hollywood’s traditional vampire. The movie’s vampires, and Barlow himself, are not the familiar artistocratic European vampire. Instead, Barlow harkens back to Max Schreck’s Count Orlok in the 1922 Nosferatu. The aesthetics of these feral vampires really distinguishes Salem’s Lot from other vampire movies. Yet if there’s a highlight in the movie, it would arguably be the Glick boys’ floating entrances. Hooper’s use of camera trickery in these scenes wmay look a little dated, but they’re still creepy. More importantly, the practical inventiveness behind these scenes exemplify what I love about horror.
An All-Star Cast of Familiar Faces
While no major ‘stars’ appear in Salem’s Lot, the TV movie is anchored by an impressive cast of familiar faces. Starsky & Hutch star, David Soul, may not convince as an introverted author, but he’s still a convincing protagonist for the movie. Veteran character actors Lew Ayres, Geoffrey Lewis, George Dzundza, and Elisha Cook Jr, among others, elevate the movie above its TV origins. But it’s British thespian James Mason, as the villainous Straker, who’s clearly having the most fun. Mason’s ability to alternate between dry humour and seething menace is uncanny. Barlow may be the ‘Master’, but it’s Straker who stands out.
Salem’s Lot An Underappreciated Stephen King Adaptation
Maybe it’s due to its television movie status, but Salem’s Lot is a criminally underappeciated Stephen King adaptation. Never does the movie feel like it’s three-hour runtime And there’s so many iconic images and excellent balance between jumps and suspense. Of course, Hooper’s adaptation differs from King’s novel in several important respects. But there’s a clear affection in the movie for not only the source material, but horror in general. Ultimately, Salem’s Lot maintains the best of King’s novel while standing on its own as an ode to classic horror.