Thirty years of horror: Salem’s Lot (1979)

Chris: By 1979 there was no bigger name in horror in any media than Stephen King. His run of work in that era–The Stand, The Shining, and a short fiction collection–made him a household name. The film version of his first novel, Carrie, had been a tremendous success with critics and at the box office, and so adapting more of his work for the screen was a no-brainer.

One of the problems with doing that–setting aside creative issues–was the sheer length of King’s other works of that era. As a novel, Carrie comes in at under 200 pages, and not a lot happens between a couple of big events. King’s later works would nearly quadruple that word count, making adapting for the screen a problem for the studios. They’d be required to either significantly adapt the work for the screen, or make 3 hour films. With Salem’s Lot, the first post-Carrie attempt to film King, they tried that latter approach, turning it into a two-part miniseries for CBS.

After the jump, how’d that work out?

Tom: I confess I didn’t make it through this. It’s just so slow and drawn out. I could feel myself getting older as I watched it. So much filler, for the obvious and crass fact that this is a miniseries to be spread out over multiple nights because that gives CBS more advertising to sell. So many scenes so early for no good reason. For instance, is Bonnie Bedelia really that easy to pick up? I have no objection with any of the movies on this list, because they’re all movies, regardless of whether I like them or not. But I do object to Salem’s Lot because it’s not a movie, and it shows. So I gave up before making it an hour into this soggy turgid vehicle for beer commercials, or whatever they were advertising on primetime back in 1979.

Chris: I can still remember seeing the TV listing for Salem’s Lot. I didn’t really know who Stephen King was, but the accompanying blurb mentioned vampires and that sounded pretty promising for network television in 1979. I’m not sure how the ratings went for his, but I can tell you that it had an impact on our 7th grade class at school. The famous (and imitated) scene with Ralphie Glick coming back to his brother’s bedroom window was terrifying to us. I checked out the book from the local library and finished it in a few weeks, utterly spellbound. Since then, both the book and this filmed version have held a special place in my heart. I was eagerly anticipating revisiting this.

Tom: I remember that scene as well. So I made sure to check it out on Youtube. That’s all there was to it? It’s not nearly as creepy as I remember. Put a fog machine behind a boy, film it, and run the film backwards. Oh, and give him scary contact lenses and plastic fangs. Were we really that easy scared back in 1979? Actually, don’t answer that. I remember being terrified by a movie called Prophecy, about a rampaging mutant bear. Re-watching Prophecy as an adult is pretty embarrassing. “What dumbass kid would be scared of that?”

Chris: Sadly, Salem’s Lot didn’t turn out so hot. I was actually even more interested when I saw in the opening credits that Tobe Hooper was directing here. While I had problems with Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I’d enjoyed some of the camera work and thought that with tighter controls and a better story this would work out well.

It doesn’t. Hooper lost me right off by making terrible lighting and setting choices. A quiet moment between Ben and Susan by a lake looks like they’re sitting in an intersection, so brightly and garishly is it shot. A key scene with the Glick brothers taking their shortcut home looks like they’ve decided to cut through a fog-shrouded moor. The supposedly forbidding basement of the Marsten house appears to have been lit with klieg lights. Worst of all, in the window scene it appears that Danny Glick is sleeping with every light in his bedroom blazing.

Tom: Can I just say “I told you so” for everyone who holds up Texas Chainsaw Massacre as the work of some sort of daring auteur?

Chris: All of those are terrible choices. When I read the book, I was surprised that King’s description of the shortcut made it sound like the kind of easily accessible trail we all used as kids, instead of the Mirkwood that the TV show makes it seem to be. Being grabbed by a vampire on the well-trod path through a small copse of trees is something easy to relate to and frightening; what’s presented here isn’t. Honestly, there’s a lot that isn’t frightening here. The pacing is glacial. Perhaps it was a noble attempt to try to closely hew to the original fiction of King, but the end result had me wishing a good screenwriter had taken a bang at a hundred-minute adaptation. As written and filmed here, the movie just drifts aimlessly from one big buildup and letdown to another. Even having Barlow look like a Murnau-esque ghoul doesn’t make the scary happen.

Tom: The pacing is to allow for more commercials. It’s the medium, pure and simple. A television network is quite different from a movie studio, which is quite different from a dude in Texas who’s cobbled together a camera crew, a handful of local actors, and Gunnar Hansen in a silly mask. Salem’s Lot shows no sign of any sort of ingenuity or even insight into the art of moviemaking.

Chris: The acting here is pretty stiff, too. It’s hard to imagine how anyone thought Lance Kerwin (Then the star of a tv series called James At 16) was going to be something as an actor, because he’s just by turns too wooden and too overwrought. David Soul actually isn’t as incredibly horrid as I figured he might be, but that helmet of hair is really…something. The supporting cast is mostly forgettable, save for Bonnie Bedelia who does a nice turn as Susan. The esteemed James Mason appears to be here to collect a paycheck.

Tom: I also watched on Youtube the scene where James Mason and the Master confront a priest. Mason appears to have as much contempt for Salem’s Lot as I do.

Chris: What was really distressing to discover as I watched was the weakness of the source material. While I’ve always thought of King as a competent genre writer, seeing Salem’s Lot again forced me to confront something I hadn’t noticed before, namely the shoddy way that King worked out the ecology of his vampires. Consider that Straker shows up to Salem’s Lot, clearly preparing his store for sales and visitors. Then along comes his partner Barlow, who seems intent on just attacking everything that moves. He doesn’t just kill, either. He converts. That just seems puzzling to me. If vampires are an apex predator and they feed off humans, why in the world would an alpha vampire like Barlow be wanting to create competition for himself for scarce targets to feed on? And why have Straker spend so much time setting up the store when Barlow’s going to have the town population at zero within a month?

I’ve read that King’s inspiration for Salem’s Lot was a reading of Dracula that made him think about updating the story to modern times. That’s absolutely a workable idea, but it would clearly take smarter and more thoughtful authors to work out the details of what that might plausibly and frightfully feel like. This ends up being dull, overlong, and forgettable. Even as a nostalgia piece, it failed to menace.

(So what’s this “thirty years of horror” thing?)