Tobe Hooper, of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist fame, tried bringing Stephen King’s vampire novel Salem’s Lot to TV in November 1979. The result was a two-episode miniseries that does some things poorly and yet manages to capture a great deal of King’s sense of anxiety and strange other-worldly menace.
Part of the problem is that King’s novels and stories are notoriously hard to make into movies. They tend to be long and interweave a large number of storylines and character arcs, making it almost impossible to condense them without losing important elements.
But the difficulty also lies in the way King scares you with his words: He likes to create a slow, creeping, enveloping psychological dread that can’t always be translated from the page. Many directors have tried their hands at this: Hooper joined Brian DePalma, Stanley Kubrick, Rob Reiner, Frank Darabont, John Carpenter and others. All had varying degrees of success.
Salem’s Lot opens in Mexico, with a man named Ben Mears (David Soul, just off his four-year run as Hutch in Starsky and Hutch) and a teenager named Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin) taking refuge in a church, filling vials with holy water, afraid that some unnamed hazard is closing in on them.
From there, we cut to two years earlier. We’re in the town of Salem’s Lot, Maine, the state where King famously sets many of his stories. Ben, who grew up in the town, has come back to write a book about the Marsten House: an old, derelict and perhaps even haunted mansion on a hill. This house has coincidentally just been purchased by a pair of men who intend to open an antiques shop in town. One of these men, Richard Straker (James Mason), has established himself in the house; the other, Kurt Barlow (Reggie Nalder), has never been seen.
As Ben researches his book, he meets and falls in love with a local girl named Susan (Bonnie Bedelia). At the same time, strange events begin to consume the town.
Two men deliver a huge supernaturally cold crate to the Marsten House; one disappears and the other develops a strange sickness, growing pale and uninterested in the world. A local boy vanishes, only to begin visiting his brother at night, levitating outside a bedroom window and pleading to be let in. More and more people begin to fall sick and vanish – including both of Mark’s parents – and eventually Ben figures out what’s going on. The unseen man in the Marsten House, Kurt Barlow, is an ancient vampire who’s come to take over Salem’s Lot.
In the climactic scene, Ben, Susan and Mark journey into the Marsten House, battle the supernaturally strong Richard Straker and manage to find the vampire in his coffin. Ben drives a stake through his heart but this does not seem to dispel the evil entirely. A fire consumes the house and sweeps down toward the town. Susan vanishes.
Ben and Mark make a run for it and we find them again back where we started, two years later in Mexico, still being hunted by the vampires from Kurt Barlow’s clan. Susan is among them, and in the end Ben is forced to choose between giving in to the love he still feels and killing her.
Watch the Trailer for ‘Salem’s Lot’
These proceedings have a distinctly made-for-TV feel to them. The budget is small and there’s and relatively low level of gore and violence, as the series aired on CBS. Despite his skills as a filmmaker, Hooper struggles for the most part to elevate the material, and much of it feels like it could have been directed by any network hack.
Despite this, there is something effective here. The cast features a number of talented actors who bring a high level of commitment to their parts. James Mason was in his heyday a major British star, and he shines as the vampire’s evil protector Richard Straker. Fred Willard – known for his roles in Christopher Guest‘s mockumentaries – makes an appearance, as do veteran character actors George Dzundza, Geoffrey Lewis and Kenneth McMillan (maybe best remembered for his astounding turn as the floating, insane Vladimir Harkonnen in David Lynch‘s Dune).
It’s also a treat to see Marie Windsor, who cut her teeth playing femme fatales in some of the great film noirs of the ’50s, and Elisha Cook Jr., who appeared in everything from the 1941 version of The Maltese Falcon to Kubrick’s The Killing and Rosemary’s Baby.
To his credit, Hooper does reference several wonderful vampire tropes. Kurt Barlow is a direct homage to the famous vampire played by Max Schreck in F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), with the same bald, narrow-faced inhuman appearance. It’s a creepy and effective approach and the makeup artists on the film, Jack Young and Ben Lane, were nominated for an Emmy for their work. Hooper also came up with the idea of having vampires levitate outside the second story windows of their victims in a swirl of fog, a wonderful touch that Joel Schumacher then paid homage to in his 1987 vampire flick The Lost Boys.
But where the miniseries best succeeds is in its evocation of the slow descent of a group of people from normalcy into a nightmare world. It is this gradual submersion in horror that King excels at, and it’s usually aided in his work by the feeling of how closely the evil is connected to the heroes’ own histories and the roots of the society that produced them.
Stephen King does not think particularly well about women and their dilemmas, as his books and most of the movies made from them so often attest, but he is unmatched when dealing with men and their terrors. They are plagued by past transgressions, childhood traumas and duties unfulfilled. The vampire story in Salem’s Lot, focusing on a man coming back to the town where he grew up and forging a friendship with an orphaned teenager to target an evil menace, works as a perfect vehicle.
A good deal of this comes through in the series. In the end, Salem’s Lot may not be as good as the novel of the same name, but it does manage to capture a lot of what makes King great.