‘Salem’s Lot’ – REVIEW (Warner Bros, 1979)

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Salem’s Lot was a television mini-series adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel of the same name. It was directed by Tobe Hooper, shortly after his success directing ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ and was released in 1979.

Novelist Ben Mears returns to his childhood town to exercise the ghosts of his past, unaware that an ancient evil has unleashed itself upon the Lot..

..one by one the people are disappearing, Salem’s Lot is dying. Ben fears the answer lies in the old Marsten House, with its mysterious new occupants, the sinister Mr Straker and the elusive Mr Barlow..

The mini-series was an American production starring David Soul, Bonnie Bedelia, Lance Kerwin and James Mason. The plot centres on a writer who returns to his hometown to discover that the townsfolk are being turned into vampires; it also combines elements of the haunted house sub-genre of horror.

Many regard ‘Salem’s Lot’ as a staple of the a classic horror genre and it generally received good reviews, mixing the classic vampire tale with a more contemporary setting and moving away from the then standard depiction of a vampire ‘master’ back to an earlier Germanic cinema interpretation. It has some really subtle, creepy and clever effects, which heralded a move away from Hooper’s previous work and aligned him to a more mainstream audience.

Personal recollection

My parents were quite late into the video recorder revolution, indeed the first unit we acquired was a Panasonic NV-333 VHS recorder purchased cheap and second hand from a Granada TV Rental store in the Ryemarket, Stourbridge in the late summer of 1985. I always remember being very envious of my best friend as his parents were very early adopters of technology and they had already been enjoying a Sony Betamax C7 recorder for several years.. ..another friends parents had even brought a Philips V2000 before them! Anyway, I am digressing.. ..we finally had a video recorder and me and my dad would walk down to a lovely little local independent video store called ‘Video Vault’ (obviously, long gone now a car rental), which was run by a very friendly and somewhat glamorous lady. As such, and because of my young age, although I always wanted to watch the horror movies, they were strictly off limits. I even felt slightly guilty looking at the covers of them, especially as they segregated in the ’18 only’ section!

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A Panasonic NV-333 VHS cassette recorder – my early gateway to horror!

I distinctly remember seeing the cover of the VHS version of ‘Salem’s Lot’ on the shelf at ‘Video Vault’ and being really intrigued, but that was all I was allowed to do.. ..look. However, soon after, I noticed with some excitement in the Radio Times that ‘Salem’s Lot’ was being shown on BBC One (a re-run, Thursday 15th and 22nd August, 1985).. ..so, I rather sneakily recorded both episodes.. ..not too hard as my parents didn’t really know how to record or set the timer, so I always used to do it for them. Every time I was left in the house on my own after that, I would have a watch.. ..from the moment I saw the titles, I knew it was going to be good.

So for me ‘Salem’s Lot’ has a bit of a special place in my heart as was not only one of my first forays into horror, it also largely introduced me to the work of Stephen King.

Synopsis (contains spoilers)

The story starts at a church in Guatemala, a dishevelled Ben Mears (David Soul) and a boy, Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin) are filling small bottles with holy water. As they are stowing the bottles in the their satchel, Mears is distressed to see that one of them begins to emit an eerie supernatural glow. He turns to Mark and tells him “they’ve found us again.” Mark suggests they move on again, but Mears is reluctant to just yet, deciding to face the unknown evil (I am not sure this prologue was in the version I recorded off British terrestrial TV, I always remember it starting at the Marsten House title sequence.. ..I think it was the ‘theatrical’ version shown in two parts).

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Ben and Mark have been found by another vampire © Warner Bros. Television Distribution

We are then taken back to two years earlier; Mears returning after a long absence to his small hometown of Salem’s Lot in Maine, United States. We learn that Mears is a successfully published author who intends to write a book about the Marsten House, an old, ominous property on a hilltop overlooking the town. The house has always fascinated Mears and has a reputation for being haunted, he has hopes to be able to rent the property. Upon viewing the house (in obvious fear) on his way into town he sees an ominous stranger leave.

We learn that this is another new arrival in town, the mysterious Richard Straker (James Mason), who has recently bought the Marsten House. He is also just about to open a fine antiques shop in the town, which seems somewhat out of place. Straker is a confident and seemingly educated European, who has an often mentioned, but absent, business partner named Kurt Barlow (Reggie Nalder).

As there are no other suitable properties for rental, Mears moves into a boarding house in town, which is run by Eva Miller (Marie Windsor). He then soon meets and starts a romantic relationship with a local woman, Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia). As they continue to see each other he develops a friendly and mutually respectful relationship with Susan’s father, Bill Norton (Ed Flanders). Mears also reconnects with his kindly former school teacher, Jason Burke (Lew Ayres), who is delighted that his once star pupil has gone on to become a successful writer.

Whilst they are discussing Mears return to Salem’s Lot the school play is in rehearsal and leading the play is Mark Petrie. Burke, states that Petrie is his latest protégée and has written the school play, as did Mears before him. The school play somewhat centres around the Marsten house as it did in Mears version. Mears asks Burke if he feels that a building could be inherently evil and divulges that the Marsten House is the subject of the book that he is writing and his reason for returning.

We also learn from conversations that Mears, on a dare, visited the Marsten House when he was a boy. It was always said to be haunted and a murder site. Indeed, as a boy Mearns saw a vision of a dead Hubie Marsten (the owner) hanging from a rope when entering the house and ran away, as fast as he could, when Hubie’s eyes suddenly opened.

A large crate which is ice cold to the touch and seemingly moves of its own accord is delivered one night to the Marsten House at the request of Straker. Shortly thereafter increasing numbers of townspeople begin to disappear or die under strange circumstances

As the new arrivals in town both Mears and Straker are the prime suspects and are both watched and eventually questioned by Const. Parkins Gillespie (Kenneth McMillan). However, it becomes clear that the frozen crate contained Straker’s business partner Kurt Barlow.. ..an ancient master vampire who has come to Salem’s Lot after sending Straker to make ready for his arrival. Barlow is very much of the ‘Nosferatu’ clan of vampires, who never speaks and therefore the character of Straker serves not just as an analogue for ‘Renfield’ in Bram Stoker‘s original ‘Dracula’, he is critical to the dialogue and is played to perfection by Mason.

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Straker played to perfection by James Mason © Warner Bros. Television Distribution

Straker kidnaps a young boy, Ralphie Glick (Ronnie Scribner), as an offering to Barlow, while Barlow himself kills local realtor Larry Crockett (Fred Willard). The Glick boy then returns as a vampire to claim his brother, Danny (Brad Savage). After his funeral, the undead Danny infects a gravedigger, Mike Ryerson (Geoffrey Lewis). He then attempts to prey on his school friend Mark Petrie. However, Mark is a horror film buff (good lad!) and amateur magician and repels the vampire using a cross from a model kit he is building.

As the ‘vampirism’ spreads, Mears, Burke, and Dr. Norton gradually realise what is happening to the town and attempt to stop it. Mears is attacked by Ralph and Danny’s presumed-dead mother Marjorie Glick (Clarissa Kaye) after she revives on a mortician’s table, but he defends himself using a makeshift cross. Mark’s parents are both killed by Barlow during a dramatic ‘reveal’, but Mark is allowed to escape thanks to a priest (Father Callahan) being sacrificed in his place because of an implied lack of faith.

The vampire gravedigger, Ryerson attempts to infect Burke, but is stopped when confronted with a crucifix. Unfortunately, this intervention is fatal for Burke who has a heart attack from the fear of encountering a very dead, but very animated Ryerson.

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Ryerson is back from the dead! © Warner Bros. Television Distribution

Seeking revenge for his parents’ deaths, Mark breaks into the Marsten House, and a concerned Susan follows him inside; both are soon captured by Straker. They are subsequently followed by Mears and Susan’s father, Dr. Norton. Straker soon kills Norton by impaling him on a group of antlers before being fatally shot by Mears, despite showing super-human strength and powers of resistance. Thereafter, Mears and the freed Mark find Barlow’s coffin in the cellar and destroy him by driving a stake through his heart. Fleeing the other vampires in the house (the infected townsfolk), they set fire to the Marsten property as they leave, though Susan is nowhere to be found. While the house burns, the wind carries the fire towards the town itself. As Mears and the boy drive away from Salem’s Lot, Mears comments that the fire should drive all the vampires from their hiding places and purify the town from the evil that has engulfed it.

Finally, the story returns to the starting point with Mears and Mark at the church in Guatemala two years later. It is soon evident that they are on the run from the surviving Salem’s Lot vampires, and that their bottles of holy water glow whenever they encounter a vampire. Realising that they have been tracked down yet again, Mears and Mark return to their lodgings to collect their belongings. Once there, Mears finds Susan lying in his bed. Now a vampire, she prepares to bite him as he leans down to kiss her, but instead Mears drives a stake through her heart and kills her. A grief-stricken Mears then leaves with Mark, knowing that the vampires will continue to pursue them.

What did the critics have to say?

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Advert for the initial US showing

Salem’s Lot‘ has received generally positive reviews. Review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes reports 88% of critics gave the movie positive write-ups based on 17 reviews, with an average rating of 6.7/10.

Mark Kermode has referred to it as “very scary” and “one of the very best screen adaptations of a Stephen King novel to date”. Time Out praised “Hooper’s fluid camerawork, creepy atmospherics, and skilful handling of the gripping climax“. They also placed ‘Salem’s Lot’ on their list of best vampire films.

Ronnie Scribner‘s infamous ‘window’ scene was ranked #4 on Empire Magazine‘s list of ‘Top 10 Scariest Movie Scenes’ and was ranked #42 on Channel 4‘s ‘100 Greatest Scary Moments’ in 2003.

The 112 minute ‘movie’ version of ‘Salem’s Lot‘ is usually seen as the poor relation in comparison to the original mini-series, episodic format. However, it is preferred by some people including Stephen King himself.

Tobe Hooper’s direction

Salem’s Lot‘ does not rely on the same kind of dynamics as ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre‘. Tobe Hooper is quoted as saying “This film is very spooky – it suggests things and always has the overtone of the grave. It affects you differently than my other horror films. It’s more soft-shelled” and “A television movie does not have blood or violence. It has atmosphere which creates something you cannot escape – the reminder that our time is limited and all the accoutrements that go with it, such as the visuals“.

Although ‘Salem’s Lot‘ was aimed at television, a European theatrical release was planned from the start, which included more violence; for example, two versions of the scene where Cully Sawyer threatens Larry Crockett with a shotgun were shot. In the theatrical version, Larry holds the gun barrel in his mouth, while in the mini-series the barrel is in front of his face.

The design and special effects

Unable to find a house in the filming location of Ferndale that in anyway resembled the Marsten House from the book, an estimated $100,000 was spent on constructing a three-story facade over an already-existing house on a hillside (see this page from Google maps). This location overlooks Ferndale and the Eel River Valley and was perfect. The facade was designed by Mort Rabinowitz and took 20 days to build.

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The Marsten House and a production still showing it as a facade covering a smaller dwelling

The vampire makeup involving glowing contact lenses was invented by Jack Young. According to Tobe Hooper, the makeup on actor Reggie Nalder would constantly fall off, as well as the fake nails and teeth. The contact lenses could only be worn for 15 minutes at a time before they had to be removed to let the eye rest for 30 minutes. Nalder has been quoted as saying “The makeup and contact lenses were painful but I got used to them. I liked the money best of all”.

The levitating vampires were accomplished by placing the actors on a boom crane instead of traditional wires: “We didn’t fly our vampires in on wires, because even in the best of films you can see them“, producer Richard Korbitz explained. “We wanted to get a feeling of floating. And the effect is horrific, because you know there are no wires. It has a very spooky, eerie quality to it”. The sequences were also shot in reverse [sic] to make the scenes appear even more eerie.

The films score

The producer Richard Kobritz wanted “a good, atmospheric, old-fashioned, Bernie Herrmann-type score“. As such, the score was composed and conducted by Harry Sukman, whom Korbitz described as “a former cohort and protege of Victor Young“.

Homages, inspirations and influences

Tobe Hooper, a great admirer of Alfred Hitchcock, pays several homages to ‘Psycho (1960) in ‘Salem’s Lot‘. The appearance of Kurt Barlow is an obvious and deliberate homage to Count Orlok in ‘Nosferatu (1922).

‘Salem’s Lot‘ has had a significant impact on the vampire genre, inspiring films such as ‘Fright Night‘ (1985) and ‘The Lost Boys‘ (1987). The ‘window’ scene was spoofed in ‘The Simpsons‘ episode ‘Treehouse of Horror IV‘.

Sequels and adaptions

A sequel television series, intended to air on NBC, was originally planned. The series was going to be produced by Richard Korbitz and involved Robert Bloch. It was set to continue the vampire hunting actives of Ben Mears and Mark Petrie, though it was ultimately never made. In a Fangoria interview in 1989, actor Reggie Nalder acknowledged that he had spoken with producers about a sequel to ‘Salem’s Lot‘, but nothing came out of it.

In 1987, a loose sequel named ‘A Return to Salem’s Lot‘ was released, directed and written by Larry Cohen. The sequel used the poster art from the original depicting Nalder as Kurt Barlow, although the film features neither the character nor the actor. It is a very disappointing film in nearly every aspect; from story-line to special effects. I can’t recommend you watch it as not only is it a waste of a few hours, it somehow soils the original.

In 2004, a new TV adaptation of ‘Salem’s Lot‘ was made by TNT in association with Warner Bros. It was directed by Mikael Salomon and shown over two parts with a similar running length to the original mini-series. Starring Rob Lowe as Ben Mears, Donald Sutherland as Richard Straker, Rutger Hauer as Kurt Barlow, and James Cromwell as Father Callahan (in a substantially expanded role). Although this is a good watch and is far closer to the original Stephen King story.. ..I still prefer the 1979 mini-series.

Differences compared to Stephen King’s original novel

Although generally the same story, the television adaptation takes several liberties with Stephen King’s source material. Many characters have either been combined or merely deleted, as have certain subplots, and the character of Barlow is vastly different in the mini-series from how he is in the novel. However, King praised Paul Monash’s screenplay and commented “Monash has succeeded in combining the characters a lot, and it works“.

Producer Richard Kobritz, who took a strong creative interest in his films, added several changes to Monash’s script including turning the head vampire Kurt Barlow from a cultured human-looking villain into a speechless demonic-looking monster. He explained:

We went back to the old German Nosferatu concept where he is the essence of evil, and not anything romantic or smarmy, or, you know, the rouge-cheeked, widow-peaked Dracula. I wanted nothing suave or sexual, because I just didn’t think it’d work; we’ve seen too much of it. The other thing we did with the character which I think is an improvement is that Barlow does not speak. When he’s killed at the end, he obviously emits sounds, but it’s not even a full line of dialogue, in contrast to the book and the first draft of the screenplay. I just thought it would be suicidal on our part to have a vampire that talks. What kind of voice do you put behind a vampire? You can’t do Bela Lugosi, or you’re going to get a laugh. You can’t do Regan in ‘The Exorcist, or you’re going to get something that’s unintelligible, and besides, you’ve been there before. That’s why I think the James Mason role of Straker became more important.”

Other changes by Kobritz included having the final confrontation with Barlow in the cellar of the Marsten House.. ..in the book it is in the basement of Eva Miller’s boarding house, a concept Kobritz described, thus:

Just doesn’t work. I mean, from a point of sheer construction in a well-written screenplay, he’s got to reside in the inside of the Marsten House. He’s a major star in the picture – the third or fourth most important character – he’s got to be there. It may have worked in the book, but not in the movie“.

Susan’s death was also moved to the end of the film, to give her a more climatic death, with Kobrtiz stating it had “more impact and provides the film with a snap ending“.

Retrollection recommendation?

As stated at the beginning of this review ‘Salem’s Lot’ has a special place in my memories and my heart. It almost single handily got me into horror; along with ‘Children of the Corn’ this is what also introduced me to the work of Stephen King.. ..so naturally it gets a massive ‘thumbs up’ from me!

Moreover, I think the filming, direction and special effects work is first rate.. ..the ‘window’ scenes have become famous; everything comes together to really show that the film crew knew what they were doing. As such, it also introduced me to the work of Tobe Hooper, who I think was one of the best horror directors of modern times. ‘Salem’s Lot’ is a classic horror film that extends beyond ‘cult’ status and is well worth a watch.. ..if by any chance you haven’t seen it yet give it a watch.. ..although it has aged, this is one creepy movie!

Finally, look out for my ‘Children of the Corn’ review, which is coming up next.

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Film trivia

  • The title of King’s original novel is ‘’Salem’s Lot’ and includes an apostrophe in front of the word Salem because the title is a shortening of ‘Jerusalem’s Lot’; the actual name of the town where the story is set. To avoid confusion, the mini-series mostly refers to the town as ‘Salem’s Lot’ and the first apostrophe is simply dropped.
  • Stephen King was inspired to write the book ‘’Salem’s Lot’ when he was teaching and had his English class read ‘Dracula’. He became curious as to what would happen if vampires came to modern day, small town America.
  • Stephen King was picturing Ben Gazzara when he wrote the character of Ben Mears.
  • Originally, the intent was for Warner Brothers to turn Stephen King’s 400 page bestseller into a feature film. Stirling Silliphant, Robert Getchell and Larry Cohen all attempted to distil the material down to the typical film length of c. two hours, but they all failed to adequately capture the essence of the novel. Producer Richard Kobritz felt that it would be better adapted as a TV mini-series and the project was handed over to Warner Brothers Television.
  • The screen writer Paul Monash had previously penned the very first adaptation of a Stephen King novel, writing the screenplay for Brian de Palma‘s film adaptation of ‘Carrie’ (1976).
  • The theatrical release of ‘Salem’s Lot’ is one of the longest horror films in terms of duration, made to date; running in at 3 hours and 4 mins.
  • Producer Richard Kobritz selected Tobe Hooper to direct ‘Salem’s Lot’ after catching a screening of Hooper’s ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’.
  • The studio interiors for the Marsten House cost the production $70,000 to construct. However, I think this was money well spent.. ..it exactly creates what I have always imaged a haunted house interior would look like, basically rotting, rancid and full of old taxidermy.
  • ‘Salem’s Lot’ was the last production that composer Harry Sukman worked on before his death in 1984. It is an excellent piece of work and was nominated for an Emmy.
  • Some of the titles chosen for the film’s theatrical release outside of the US and UK included ‘Blood Thirst’, ‘Phantasma II’, and ‘Le Notti di Salem’ (Italian for “The Nights of Salem”). The title of ‘Phantasma II’ used in Spanish territories infers that ‘Salem’s Lot’ was a sequel to Don Coscarelli’s ‘Phantasm’, released in 1979. The two movies have absolutely nothing in common.
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Spanish theatrical poster © Warner Bros. Inc.

  • The map of Salem’s Lot in Larry Crockett’s real estate office seems to be an altered version of a street map for the city of New Orleans.
  • When first aired it was quite strange to see David Soul in the role of Ben Mears as he was so associated at the time with his character in the immensely successful ‘Starsky & Hutch’.
  • This was not David Soul’s first theatrical encounter with a vampire. In season 2 of ‘Starsky & Hutch’ there is an episode entitled ‘The Vampire’, where they deal with a psychopath who drains the blood of his victims in an attempt to bring his dead wife back to life.
  • Clarissa Kaye-Mason who played Marjorie Glick was the wife of James Mason who played Richard Straker. Both were delighted to be in the production, with Mason apparently revelling in playing an evil role.
  • The Jeep that Ben Mears drives in the film is a CJ-5 model, often confused with the later Wrangler models. David Soul obviously had trouble closing the somewhat flimsy door on the car as he has to close it twice on more than one occasion. If you look closely in one scene, he actually opens and re-closes the door whilst he is driving off at high speed, with Dr Norton.
  • The line where Ryerson says to Burke “you’ll sleep like the dead, teacher…” is a subtle reference to the poetry of Giorgos Seferis.
  • The town of Ximico in Guatemala is fictitious

Fair use

‘Salem’s Lot’, film stills & imagery © 1979 Warner Bros. Television Distribution. All Rights Reserved. Used under fair dealing and fair use for research and commentary purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended. Please refer to the ‘Welcome to Retrollection‘ page for full terms and conditions.

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