Salem's Lot

(USA - 1979)

by Mike McGowan

Cast: David Soul, James Mason, Lance Kerwin, Bonny Bedelia, Lew Ayres, Julie Cobb, Elisha Cook, Jr., George Dzundza, Ed Flanders, Geoffrey Lewis
Genre: Horror
Director: Tobe Hooper
Screenplay: Paul Monash based on the novel by Steven King
Cinematography: Jules Brenner
Composer: Harry Sukman
Runtime: 184 minutes

Salem's Lot is a made for TV miniseries based on Steven King's classic vampire novel which aired in 1979. Set in the New England town of Salem's Lot, this wonderfully crafted tale of a town slowly devoured by an Evil, brought on by evil men drawn to an evil house, is simply the scariest movie I have ever seen in my life.

My favorite film genre is horror. Good horror, bad horror, suspense, gore and B-movie schlock. I love it all. I've seen a lot of it. A whole lot. But I have never been so scared that I actually had to get up and leave a movie midway, save once. As a kid, probably around 10 years old or more, I got up midway through this film to go make a PB&J sandwhich and could not return. I had to wait until the next day to watch the rest of it.

Now, I'll tell you right off the bat, if you aren't a real film fan, this movie isn't for you. Let's play the word association game for a second, to determine if you should bother watching this or not. I'll say a word, and you say the first thing that comes to mind. Ready? Let's go.

"Horror Movie."

OK, if your first thought was Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street, you can go ahead and stop right here. Don't waste your time reading any further. For those of you who answered Exorcist, The Birds or Halloween, let us continue.

"Night of the Living Dead."

If you thought of anything filmed in Color, leave right now and delete this file from your web browser's cache. If your first thought was either a fond memory of the Romero clasic, or you had a craving for steak continue.

"Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

If your first thought was "slasher movie" get out. GET OUT NOW!!!!!! My horror film bretheren and I have no use for you. But if you thought of the sheer madness caught on celluloid during that painfully prolongued dinner sequence (which drives me to the brink of madness whenever I see it) then you are familiar with the genious of Toby Hooper. You are ready for this review.

I loved TCM. Tobe Hooper did an excellent job stuffing the lightning in a bottle. He captured fear. In Salem's Lot, he marries that ability to inject the viewer's veins with fright to the art of story telling and
character development. And each and every one of the characters in this film is richly detailed.

There are two versions floating around out there. For years, the edited two hour movie was the only one to be had. Now with the advent of DVD and the special features/deleted scenes craze we can experience the original 3 hour epic vision. Which to watch? Both are perfect, as seemingly impossible as that may be. I watched the short version first, and then about 50 times.Only recently have I been able to see the extended masterpiece. The short version works better as a terrifying fright fest. The long version works better as a tale weaving film. Both are forces to be reckoned with. You really ought to see them both. But if you have the chance, see the short version first to scare yourself to death, then get a hold of the long version so you can experience this classic in a new, deeper way.

The film (either version) follows Ben Mears, an author who has returned to Salem's Lot, the town of his youth. He is back to write a new novel about the Marsten House, the town's old haunted house ("Every town has one."). Rumored to have been host to murders and other ghastly happenings, the house was Ben Mears first introduction to the world of ghosts and spirits. As a child he had seen a ghost, hanging by its neck inside it's brooding walls. You get the feeling early on that his return is less one of a professional engagement, but one of a man who has been long too absent of facing his fears.

Ben Mears is played to perfection by David Soul (of Starskey and Hutch fame.) Not only does he make the character believable, he also makes him likeable, and not in the "hero" fashion of most of today's films. Ben Mears is relateable. And later in the film, during the height of the town's vampire infestation, he relay's a mixture of desperate bravery and choking fright that wrenches at your gut. His performance can swing from relaxing to tense to nerve-wracking and back again. Rarely have I seen an actor so convincing and so versatile in a movie.

Soon after arriving, Ben Mears learns that the Marsten House has been bought by a pair of antique dealers who have come to set up shop in Salem's Lot. The duo is represented by the consumate British gentleman, Mister Straker, played impeccably by James Mason. All actors who intend to play the role of the bad guy should watch James Mason in this role. He is the embodiment of evil in this film. Period. It is one of my favorite performances ever.

Mr. Straker's partner in this new business venture is the never-seen-publicly Mister Barlow. Mr. Barlow becomes the object of gossip and wonderment in a small town where the slightest change is viewed as a major event. The mystery that shrouds Mr. Barlow consumes the town's psyche, to the point where the townsfolk come to almost covet his impending arrival. Tobe Hooper brilliantly achieves this establishes that Mr. Barlow has the legendary hypnotic attraction possessed by vampires long before he even arrives. It is subtle, but meticulously employed.

Soon, children in Salem's Lot go missing and a mysterious disease begins to spread through the town. It is Ben who first supposes that an evil has washed over Salem's Lot, and that it must be purged.

All told, there is no fresh ground broken in this film. There aren't any suprise twists to be had, or shocking revelations to ponder after the credits roll. What King and Hooper have done, is taken a tried and true legend, and endeavored to tell its story better than anyone has before. I say they have succeeded. The film is quick to draw you in, and slow to relinquish it's hold. One of the things that makes this achievement all the more amazing, is that due to the obvious television contstraints, there is virtually no use of gore, violence or even blood. This would have been an easy movie to make with a Rick Baker effects team at your disposal. But how do you convey horror to a modern audience without throwing a bucket of blood at them? Watch this film for the blueprint (or any Hitchcock film while you're at

From the direction to the script, from the score to the acting, this movie is one of my all time favorites. It is sad that it is overlooked in favor of the "I Know What Your Urban Legand On Elm Street Did Last Friday the 13th" crud fests. This is what a horror movie should be. This is what a vampire movie should be. It truly is the best of the best.

I gladly give this film 4 stars. If I had more to give, I'd give them all. It is my favorite horror film, and one of my top 5 films of all time. It is brilliantly told, and above all else, downright scary. If this movie
doesn't scare the crap out of you, you need to check your pulse.



I would like to give special note to a few key scenes. These references will seem cryptic to you if you've never seen Salem's Lot. Come back when you've watched it, and you'll see what I mean.

First, the Glick boys at the window. How does Tobe Hooper do it? He does more with the light sound of nails scraping glass than a hundred directors do with all their special effects.

The scene in the morgue, when Ben fashions a cross from tongue depressors and proceeds to bless it. This is one of my all time favorite scenes in any movie. The suspense, the fright. Watch this scene and tell me your pulse doesn't start to race each time Ben raises his voice and shouts "Bill!"

The final scene in the basement of the Marsten House. When the camera trains on Mark (Lance Krewin) and you see the newly awakened undead slowly creeping up behind him, and your ears are filled with the wonderful score and the chilling sound of Ben driving a spike into Barlow's chest...I'm sorry, it's just overload. Fantastic.

There are many more scenes in this movie that I just don't have the time to note ("Look at me teacher.") I'd rather spend my time watching this movie again!

And in case you were wondering, during which scene did I have to walk out as a child? The scene in the prison. Enough said.

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