Salemís Lot (1979) *** (TV version) ***Ĺ (theatrical version)
The 1970ís were exceptionally good years for horror on television, having produced a number of films that many fans would have paid good money to see in theaters (and which fans in Britain, Canada, and Australia frequently did end up paying for). The studios behind these movies frequently displayed astonishing nerve, given the constraints of the medium, but I can think of no ballsier gambit from the era than Warner Brothers hiring Tobe Hooper to helm a broadcast adaptation of Stephen Kingís ĎSalemís Lot. Actually, Hooper was evidently the second choice, George Romero having understandably concluded that it was not worth his while to try to direct a horror movie that would make it past a TV stationís standards and practices department. Truth be told, Romero probably would have ended up spending more time fighting with the suits than doing anything creative, but Hooper presumably was willing to be less of a purist about his work. And remarkably enough, Hooper managed to create one of the most effective films of his career under the same tight restrictions that Romero rejected.
Exactly how effective varies, however, depending upon the form in which you encounter it. You see, when Salemís Lot originally aired, its sprawling 183 minutes were split in half to fill a pair of two-hour broadcast timeslots. This was the first example of what would later become a major pop-culture phenomenon, the two-part Stephen King telemovie. While the experiment would not be repeated for a good many years, Salemís Lot was eventually followed by similar adaptations of It, The Stand, The Shining, and quite a few othersó even a second rendition of Salemís Lot itself in 2004. In the interim, the originalís popularity was such that the producers almost immediately had it trimmed down to anywhere between 103 and 115 minutes (depending on the intended market) and released it to theaters overseas as Salemís Lot: The Movie. One of those short versions was then picked up for domestic distribution on both cable TV and home video, and for more than a decade, it was the only form in which Salemís Lot was readily available. Then in the mid-90ís, the three-hour edit resurfaced as a two-tape set, with the eventual result that the theatrical version became the difficult one to find. More recently, the near extinction of VHS has upgraded ďdifficultĒ to ďvirtually impossible,Ē as so far as I can determine, Warner Brothers has seen fit to release only the long version on DVD. To me, this is an extremely irritating state of affairs, for I find the faster-paced, more streamlined theatrical edit to be superior by a substantial margin.
Even first-time viewers are likely to experience a certain amount of dťjŗ vu, no matter which edit they watch. In writing ĎSalemís Lot the novel, King had deliberately sought to update the basic premise and overall plotline of Bram Stokerís Dracula for a modern, small-town American setting, and the film version also plays very much like Dracula, New England style. Author Ben Mears (David Soul) returns to his old home town of Salemís Lot after an absence spanning his entire adult life. His aim is to write a new novel based on the sinister history of the Marsten Houseó the huge, old hilltop manse overlooking the town, which has developed a reputation for hauntedness in its many years of abandonment, and where a young Ben Mears once had a terrifying experience. He had broken into the house on a dare, and once inside, he saw or thought he saw the ghost of its last owner, local 19th-century fat cat Hubie Marsten, dangling from the rafters where he had hung himself decades before. Evidently a glutton for punishment, Mears actually hopes to rent the decaying old place for the duration of his stay, but real estate agent Larry Crockett (Fred Willard, of Chesty Anderson, USN and Idle Hands) informs him that the Marsten House was recently bought by a pair of men from out of town who are due to open up an antique shop on the main drag any day now. So instead, Mears winds up renting a room at the boarding house run by Eva Miller (Marie Windsor, from Swamp Women and Chamber of Horrors).
Ben is nothing if not busy during his first couple of days in town. While strolling through the park that afternnon, he encounters an attractive young art teacher named Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia, later of Needful Things). The two hit it off rapidly (catching a girl reading one of your books is a hell of an ice-breaker), and Ben quickly strikes up a romance with her. Then, he heads over to Holly Junior High School (where Susan works) to seek out one of his own teachers from back in the day. Jason Berk (Lew Ayers, from Fingers at the Window and Donovanís Brain) was actually the one who inspired Ben to pursue a writing career in the first place, and Mears makes a catching-up date with the old man for later that evening. He also bumps into Susan again, and walks her home from work. Unfortunately, that display of togetherness catches the eye of Ned Tebbets (Barney McFadden, from Crazed), an ex-boyfriend of Susanís who hasnít quite fully internalized his ex-ness yet. Way to make a first impression on the old hometown there, Ben.
Meanwhile, Larry Crockett receives a visit from Richard Straker (James Mason, from Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), one of the antique dealers staying at the Marsten House. Straker is expecting the delivery of a large and valuable piece of furniture this evening, but he will not be around to pick it up. His partner, Kurt Barlow, hasnít yet arrived in Salemís Lot at all, being still occupied with unfinished business related to their old shop in New York. Consequently, Straker hopes Crockett will be able to find him a couple of townies to pick up the delivery and transport it to the house for himó two men with a small truck ought to suffice. Crockett does as he is asked, hiring Tebbets and a man named Mike (Geoffrey Lewis, from Moon of the Wolf and Night of the Comet), who works as the caretaker and sexton at the Salemís Lot cemetery. Despite having regular jobs, both men are always eager for a chance to make a little extra cash, and they drive out to Portland to collect Strakerís large and surprisingly heavy crate from the dockside. The weight of the box isnít the only surprising thing, either. The wood of the crate is freezing cold to the touch, as if something inside it were sucking all of the heat out of the surrounding air, and while the truck is on the road, the crate shifts steadily forward toward the driverís cab, even in spite of its immense weight. It gives the movers the uneasy feeling that the box is crawling toward them of its own volition, and by the time they reach the Marsten House, theyíve become so wigged out that they just dump the crate in the basement and split, not bothering to follow Strakerís instructions about padlocking all the doors to the cellar on their way out.
That delivery, as youíve surely surmised already, marks the arrival of capital-E Evil in the little town of Salemís Lot. The very same night, Holly Junior High students Danny (Brad Savage) and Ralphie (Ronnie Scribner) Glick are attacked in the woods on their way back from the home of their slightly older friend and schoolmate, Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin). Danny is merely knocked unconscious, but Ralphie is abducted, never to be seen alive again. The townspeopleó Constable Parkins Gillespie (Kenneth McMillan, from Dune and The Clairvoyant) especiallyó have their suspicions, but none of them were on hand to witness Straker removing Ralphieís body from the trunk of his old Cadillac and carrying it into the basement of the Marsten House, and he was careful enough to leave no conclusive evidence at the scene of the crime. Then within hours of Ralphieís disappearance, something much worse than Straker intercepts Larry Crockett outside the home of his secretary (and adulterous girlfriend), Bonnie Sawyer (Julie Cobb), and Danny Glick, too, winds up in the hospital before the night is through. When Dr. Bill Norton (Ed Flanders, of The Ninth Configuration and The Exorcist III)ó Susanís fatheró examines the boy, he tentatively diagnoses his condition as pernicious anemia, which is not the sort of thing that people typically just come down with out of nowhere.
Unless, of course, thereís a vampire in town; horror movie doctors have been misdiagnosing vampire attacks as pernicious anemia since at least the 1960ís. The undead Ralphie returns for his brother in the hospital when night falls once more, killing him this time. Further bad doings follow the funeral, for something makes Mike dawdle his way through the burial as if in a trance, so that he has made hardly any progress by sunset. The dead boy then climbs out of his coffin and bites him. Mike is noticeably unwell when he staggers into the neighborhood tavern a couple of days later, meeting up with Ben Mears and Jason Berk. He complains of weakness and bad dreams, and Berk notices strange scratches low down on the left side of his neck. Jason convinces Mike to spend the night at his house, but he still doesnít last until dawn. Mark Petrie fares rather better when Danny Glick appears outside his bedroom window, however. Inveterate horror movie fan that he is, Mark knows just what to do when pointy-toothed dead people show up at your window at night and ask to be let in. Breaking a cruciform tombstone off of one of the Aurora model kits on his desk, Mark sends his now-undead playmate packing.
Jason, too, has begun to suspect that something more than natural is behind the current rash of strange deaths in Salemís Lot, and he receives confirmation when Mike returns to his house looking for something other than brandy to drink. Luckily, Berk had finagled the loan of a crucifix out of Eva Miller the night before, when worry over Mikeís alarming condition temporarily did a number on his rationality, so he is prepared when the irrational comes knocking at his door in a form that is nevertheless indisputably real. Ben, meanwhile, becomes one of the few people in town to go to the hospital for something other than anemia when Ned Tebbets ambushes him in a jealous rage. Ned winds up in jail, and it is through his eyes that we finally receive our introduction to the mysterious Kurt Barlow (Reggie Nalder, of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Draculaís Dog). With the townspeople now dying or fleeing at a rate that will depopulate Salemís Lot in a matter of weeks, Ben determines that something must be done. Having learned from Jason the true nature of the villageís problem, he hopes to enlist Dr. Nortonís help for an invasion of the Marsten House, where he is convinced the master vampire has made his lair. Norton is finally persuaded to cooperate when the bodies of his anemia patients begin disappearing en masse from the morgue. Young Mark gets exactly the same idea in his head as Ben when Barlow and Straker attack the Petrie family at home, and the vampire kills his parents. Finally, Susan Norton gets into the game when she sees the boy sneaking into the old mansion with a hammer and a wooden stake, and goes to see what heís up to. The flaw in both anti-vampire plans, of course, is that Straker, for one, doesnít need to spend the daylight hours asleep in a coffin, and while he may be mortal, his close bond with Barlow has left him considerably more than human.
Thereís no getting around the fact that Salemís Lot was made for television, nor is there any getting around the fact that Salemís Lot: The Movie is missing just a bit less than half of the original footage. Some punches have obviously been pulled in the scare scenes, thereís no gore to speak of, and quite a few scene transitions make no sense at all unless you mentally insert a commercial break after the fade to black. A lot of the characters in the theatrical version seem like they ought to have had more to do, and there are two whom it handles in an extremely disorienting manner. Eva Millerís ex-husband, Weasel Phillips (Elisha Cook Jr., of Voodoo Island and Messiah of Evil) is introduced as a topic of conversation between Dr. Norton and Ben, pops up briefly a couple of scenes later, and is then never seen again. Father Donald Callaghan (James Gallery) has the opposite problem, showing up to defend the Petrie family against Barlow (with notably limited success) when weíve seen him only once before and have never been properly introduced. Naturally, whatís going on here is that these and other minor characters, like Cully Sawyer (George Dzundza, from Something Is Out There and Basic Instinct), the jealous husband of Crockettís secretary, figure mainly in subplots with little bearing on the main action of the story. With more than three hours to fill (four, if you count commercials), the broadcast version could afford to spend time on the small-town soap opera stuff that accounts for so much of the novelís bulk, but all of that filler had to go when Salemís Lot was trimmed down for theatrical release. The fact that the movie works so welló better, in factó when shorn of its subplots should be taken as a cautionary example for anyone seeking to adapt Stephen King to the screen in the future. There are, however, a few spots in which the drastic editing seriously compromises the short versionís narrative integrity. Most glaringly, Susanís fate is dealt with in an epilogue segment which was excised completely from Salemís Lot: The Movie, with the result that we are left to infer on our own what became of one of the filmís central characters. It should go without saying that this is hardly good storytelling technique, although the misstep is forgivable under the circumstances. After all, nobody could have realized when they were working on the TV edit that the studio bosses would soon be asking them to spin exactly the same yarn using only half as much footage.
For those who want a break from todayís effete and mincing vampires, there are few films that I can recommend more highly than Salemís Lot. The vampires here are monsters, period, none of them more than Kurt Barlow himself. The characterization of Barlow is actually the point on which the movie diverges most strongly from the book, albeit in a way that makes a considerable amount of sense. Kingís vampires owe a lot to Richard Mathesonís in I Am Legendó they are horrible, repellant, almost mindless creatures, with scarcely anything left of their humanity and no recognizable drives or interests beyond their hunger for blood. Barlow was the exception, being essentially interchangeable with the literary Count Dracula. The movie Barlow, on the other hand, is exceptional in the opposite direction. He is more monstrous, more inhuman, more singleminded than his creations, and Reggie Nalder plays him as an unexpected hybrid of two well-known previous cinematic vampires. Visually speaking, Barlow is an update of Nosferatuís Count Orlock, complete with bald head, pointed ears, talon-like hands, and even the unusual placement of his fangs at the center of his upper jaw. (Note that the other vampires all wear their fangs in the traditional place, on their canine teeth.) But in terms of demeanor, Nalderís Barlow most closely resembles Christopher Leeís performance in Dracula, Prince of Darkness. Though his life circumstances would seem to require a considerable amount of intelligence, Barlow (like Leeís second turn as Dracula) comes across as little more than an animal, speechless, savage, and completely without fear. Not only could he never pass for human, it is impossible to imagine him having any interest in trying. The total effect is one of the grander achievements of horror on the small screen, and Barlow seems like he really could make the room fifteen or twenty degrees colder just by stepping into it. It is thus too bad that Hooper and screenwriter Paul Monasch restored a feature of Dracula which King wisely chucked overboard when reworking the plot for ĎSalemís Lotó like Stokerís Dracula, Barlow doesnít get nearly enough time in the spotlight, and he is vanquished far too easily in the end.
The changes to Barlowís character inevitably mean that more of the storyís burden of villainy will fall on Richard Straker, and so it is well that Salemís Lot has an actor of James Masonís caliber to fill the part. In fact, Mason is probably the best single thing about the film. A point which the producers of 70ís TV movies understood well, but which seems to be mostly lost on their modern-day counterparts, is that the tawdriness of television production values makes it essential to have a couple of old pros in the cast to give the picture some weight. Mason has all the weight a made-for-TV horror flick could ever need, investing Straker with a mannerly, genteel sort of menace that you just donít see anymore. His worldliness and good breeding are the perfect counterweight to Nalderís unthinking, wild-eyed viciousness, making for a very well-rounded partnership of evil.