If you’re a writer in a Stephen King story, never ever go home. Nothing good is waiting for you there. Nothing at all. If your home is in New England, just forget about it. In fact, even if you aren’t a writer, don’t go back home. Don’t reunite with your friends. Just be happy with whatever you’ve got.
Originally airing on November 17 and 24, 1979, Salem’s Lot is considered one of the best Stephen King adaptions and some of Tobe Hooper’s finest directorial work.
We open in Guatemala, where Ben Mears (David Soul, TV’s Starsky and Hutch) and Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin, Enemy Mine) are filling bottle after bottle with holy water until one glows. Whatever they’re chasing — or running from — has found them.
After that open, we go back in time two years, to when Ben moves back to Salem’s Lot, Maine. He’s come back to his hometown to write about the Marsten House, an old haunted house. He pushes his luck even further, learning nothing from fellow writer Roger Cobb in House, and tries to rent it. However, Richard Straker (the superb James Mason), a stranger in town, has already bought it for his business partner Kurt Barlow.
Instead, Ben moves into Eva Miller’s boarding house. Soon, he’s friends with Dr. Bill Norton (Ed Flanders, the TV movie The Legend of Lizzie Borden and TV’s St. Elsewhere), romantically involved with Bill’s daughter Susan (Bonnie Bedelia, Die Hard, Needful Things) and reconnecting with his old teacher, Jason Burke (Lew Ayers, Battle for the Planet of the Apes).
Soon, Ben remembers a traumatic childhood encounter within the Marsten House and comes up with the theory that the house casts a shadow over all of Salem’s Lot. It gets worse when a crate shows up to the house and people begin to die. Both Ben and Straker are suspects, but it’s really Barlow (Reggie Nalder, Mark of the Devil, Bird with the Crystal Plumage). He’s a vampire that wants to take over the whole town, starting with local boy Ralphie Glick and realtor Larry Crockett (Fred Willard in a rare non-comedic role and I haven’t even gotten to the scene where he has to put a shotgun in his own mouth!).
That’s when this movie really gets frightening. The scene where Ralphie floats outside his brother Danny’s (Brad Savage, Red Dawn) window is harrowing. And when Danny dies, he comes back to kill gravedigger Mike Ryerson (Geoffrey Lewis, Night of the Comet) and goes after Mark Petrie, who we saw in the opening. Luckily, Mark is a horror movie fan and he uses a cross to chase away the young bloodsucker. The way the vampires fly in this movie is really strange looking and was achieved by floating them off boom cranes instead of wires, then playing that footage backward to for an otherworldly effect.
The town is quickly taken over by vampires, with Ben, Burke and Dr. Norton all trying to stop it. Even Ralph and Danny’s dead mother Marjorie (Clarrisa Kaye, who as, at the time, the wife of James Mason) rises from the dead to try and kill everyone but is stopped with a cross. Mark’s parents are killed by Barlow, but a priest helps him escape. And Burke has a heart attack after Mike Ryerson comes back to drink his blood.
Seeking revenge, Mark breaks into the Marsten House. Susan comes to help him, but they are both taken hostage. Mears and Dr. Norton attempt to save them, but Straker kills the doctor by impaling him on antlers. Ben shoots the vampire’s thrall and then he and Mark stake Barlow. They set the house on fire, driving all of the vampires from their hiding places and purifying the town. However, Susan is nowhere to be found.
That’s when we get back to the opening, as the rest of Salem’s Lot’s vampires are still chasing them. Ben finds Susan in his bed, ready to kill him. Instead of kissing her, he impales her with a stake and our heroes go back on the run — a journey that would take them to a planned NBC series that was to be produced by Richard Korbitz and written by Robert Bloch.
There was a loose sequel made in 1987, A Return to Salem’s Lot, that was written and directed by Larry Cohen (not Lawerence). There was also a remake in 2004 that aired on the TNT channel with Rob Lowe as Ben, Donald Sutherland as Straker and Rutger Hauer as Barlow (I wonder how he feels about Anne Rice typecasting him as a vampire).
While this movie is three hours and seven minutes long, it’s an attempt to capture 400 pages of King’s prose (and this is one of his shorter novels). Paul Monash, who produced Carrie and wrote for TV’s Peyton Place was picked to work the novel into a filmable screenplay. One of the most noticeable tweaks is that Barlow is a cultured, well-spoken man in the novel and a Nosferatu-like bestial killer in the movie.
Originally, George Romero was to direct this when it was to be a theatrical movie. He didn’t feel that he could work within the constraints of television censorship. However, Tobe Hooper really succeeded with this effort, despite much of the book’s violence being trimmed. That said, there is a European theatrical version that contains a longer cut of Cully threatening Larry with the shotgun. It was released in Spain as Phantasma II, a supposed sequel to Phantasm!
This is not just one of my favorite King adaptions, but one of my favorite movies. It’s long running time flies by and there are so many iconic moments of fright that it holds up, nearly four decades after it was filmed.
Shudder is celebrating KIng of Horror month throughout May. You can be part of it just by streaming this movie! No need to search for the link — here it is!