Looking back at the ground-breaking Stephen King mini-series from 1979.
In 1979, Stephen King was on the cusp of turning from being just another successful horror novelist into the virtual genre factory that he would become in the next decade, where his prolific nature was matched only by the relentless series of (usually disappointing) movie and TV adaptations of his novels. But at the end of the 1970s, this was only just beginning. King hadn’t actually written that much at the time: you could conceivably buy his entire catalogue for not much more than the price of a night out in the pub, given that there were five novels (including the freshly published The Dead Zone) and a short story collection. Yet with the resurgence of interest in horror and the arrival of Fangoria magazine (which played a major part in turning King into as big a cult figure as George Romero or John Carpenter for its young readers), King seemed to be about to take a step beyond his contemporaries who also filled up the paperback shelves. His gargantuan novel The Stand, after all, seemed like a statement of intent – that this was not an author content to simply grind out airport novels, but one who aspired to greater, grander things within a literary genre that was still despised by the establishment.
As a youthful horror fan and Fangoria reader myself, I picked up three King books that year – the aforementioned The Stand and The Dead Zone, and short story collection Night Shift. I adored (and adore still) the latter, but The Stand felt bloated and meandering, a story that was less grand in scope as waffling in content. A few hundred pages in, I put it down and found myself moving onto to something else. It was years before I read The Dead Zone, and found it impressive enough to give The Stand another go. This time, I finished, but it often felt more of an ordeal than a joy. King was (and for all I know, still is) an author who doesn’t believe in brevity, yet his best work for me has always been his short stories – sharp, punchy tales that still have plenty of plot and character development, but which don’t waste time in what sometimes feels like a determined effort to get the book to a length where it looks like a ‘serious’ work.
My disappointment with The Stand meant that I didn’t pick up the first three King novels, and had no real interest in subsequent works. But in the last couple of years, I have bought copies of The Shining and Salem’s Lot from car boot sales and charity shops, and while I haven’t got around to reading the former yet, I eagerly delved into Salem’s Lot as soon as I bought it. Because of all the King novels, this was the one that appealed the most. Partly because Night Shift contained both the Lovecraft pastiche Jerusalem’s Lot and the excellent short story Salem’s Lot sequel One for the Road, and partly because I was a great fan of the 1979 TV mini-series based on the novel.
King’s first novel, Carrie, had been filmed by Brian De Palma in 1976, and by 1979, his other works were in production or pre-production – The Shining was being filmed by no less a director than Stanley Kubrick, while George Romero had big plans to film the gargantuan The Stand (in the end, the project proved too big and expensive for a director who had yet to prove himself in the mainstream, and it ended up some years later as a forgettable TV mini-series). Salem’s Lot would turn out to be the first of the ongoing King adaptations that continued into the 1990s and beyond, though not without problems. Initially planned as a feature film, it proved surprisingly difficult to adapt – various writers tried and failed to take King’s 439 pages and turn them into a film length story. In the end, the size of the novel meant that it would be more suited to two-part TV production, despite the difficulties involved in translating a horror story to US television standards of the time. In this, it was the first of many: to date, there have been a further nine King two-parters made for TV, including another version of Salem’s Lot in 2004.
1979 was actually the perfect year for Salem’s Lot to be filmed. As horror lurched into the splattery and the slashery, that year saw a last gasp of the gothic that had been in decline for a decade, with no less than three high profile Dracula films – John Badham’s bland, big-budget Studio 54esque version of Bram Stoker’s novel, the comedy spoof Love at First Bite and Werner Herzog’s remake of Nosferatu (itself another version of the Stoker novel) – there was also the TV series Cliffhangers, which featured a ten-part story called The Curse of Dracula, and Marvel Comics revived the cancelled Tomb of Dracula comic book as a magazine format, black and white strip aimed at more mature readers (translation: it featured mild nudity).
What all these 1979 versions of Dracula had in common was a shift away from horror and into a gothic romanticism, with their Draculas – even Klaus Kinski’s cadaverous Nosferatu – portrayed as doomed, tragic figures, in need of the love of a good woman more than the blood of the innocent it seemed. This felt like Mills and Boon horror, stripped of anything sinister – vampire cinema catching up with the work of Anne Rice. For those of us who saw Dracula as a classic horror figure – the sinister, snarling figure of Christopher Lee, designed to be feared, not fancied – this didn’t appeal at all, and perhaps we weren’t alone. It’s notable that only the spoof film was a box office success, essentially doing for the gothic what Airplane! did for disaster films. The olde-worlde thrills of Dracula could hardly compete with the altogether more visceral and believable horrors of the era, and the filmmakers seemed to know that. 1979 might have been The Year of Dracula, but after that, the Count wasn’t much heard from for a very long time.
So Salem’s Lot proved to be a breath of fresh – or perhaps fetid – air, as it presented a vampire who was entirely feral. Inspired by the look of Nosferatu (though ramped up to eleven), no one was going to see Reggie Nalder’s Mr Barlow as a heartthrob. This was a change from the novel, where the vampire is a far more traditionally urbane character. As producer Richard Kobritz told Cinefantastique, “I wanted nothing suave or sexual, because I just didn’t think it’d work; we’ve seen too much of it.” He also made his vampire silent, save for animalistic hisses, which again removed it from the tradition of charming, seductive vampire characters. Barlow, the mysterious vampire character who the story keeps hidden for much of the time, is a genuine monster – unhuman and inhuman, not swayed by a pretty face or a heaving bosom. He’s a pestilence, and that made him very much a part of the contemporary horror tradition that had been ushered in by the silent, faceless killer of Halloween and the zombie infection of Dawn of the Dead.
Indeed, King’s story – and the smart adaptation of it in this film – very much plays on the idea of vampirism as a disease that spreads through a community. This makes sense and is by far the most interesting aspect of the story. For years, my one issue with Dracula movies was that here we had a story where vampirism was passed from person to person through the bite (or several bites, depending on how closely a film followed Stoker’s rules) and yet was contained to a handful of people. In Stoker’s Dracula, the king of the vampires spends all his time bothering a single family. Yet common sense says that vampirism would spread like wildfire once it took hold, not unlike Romero’s zombie plague in his …Dead films. Salem’s Lot smartly shows how an entire town is wiped out by the arrival of this disease, though admittedly, the film does fudge things slightly as it rushes to get all the plot points in towards the end. There is nothing romanticised about these vampires – they are a virus.
The gritty, very modern horror feel of Salem’s Lot can be attributed in part to the fact that it was directed by Tobe Hooper, fresh from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Death Trap, and very much at the fore of the reinvention of genre cinema in the 1970s. His star was very much in the ascendancy at the time – after those two low budget shockers, he moved onto this high profile TV production and would then helm the big-budget Poltergeist, before it all began to fall apart for him. Here, he is still at his peak, and his restraint in showing gore in Chain Saw stood him in good stead for working within TV censorship rules – this was a director who knew how to elicit terror without being graphic, and it’s only the odd moment where you feel aware that an unwanted level of restraint is being shown, usually in the dialogue (when Ben states he was “sweating scared”, you kinda know what he should have been saying).
For the most part, there is little here that immediately makes you think of Hooper (who would later prove not to have any sort of obviously recognisable signature style anyway), but once we enter the Marsten House – the ‘haunted house’ that is the real main character of the film – it’s impossible not to think of Chain Saw. In fact, he makes a blatant reference to his masterpiece with the death of one character, who is impaled on a wall of deer horns in a scene that could have come straight from his earlier film (he also visually references Hitchcock’s Psycho at one point, giving a nod to the other famous Ed Gein inspired film). But the house as a whole – dilapidated, filthy, rat-infested – seems very much like the home in Chain Saw. All it needs are a few bone chairs. Spook houses in films often disappoint – this one is more frightening than you feared it would be.
The cast was headed by David Soul, then fresh from Starsky and Hutch and still a major star at the time, and James Mason, who brings a certain gravitas and bleak humour to proceedings as Straker, Barlow’s human familiar – he gets all the best lines and many of the best scenes. Soul has little to do for much of the story apart from fret about the Marsten House, which he sees as malevolent for no real reason beyond childhood fears (he’s a novelist who has returned to his home town to write about the house). He’s right, of course, but that’s by the by. As the hero, he gets stuck with the worst of the dialogue, which is a shame. But the actor is a solid enough presence, and the film is packed with decent supporting players, lifting it considerably above much of the US TV of the era, where duff acting and shoddy dialogue was often the order of the day.
These supporting characters are allowed to be fleshed out in the story, but writer Paul Monash thankfully trims King’s excesses down. When reading Salem’s Lot recently, I was struck by two things: one, how great the story was, and two, how much better it might have been if King hadn’t gone off on tangents – often for several pages at a time – about minor characters who have little to no involvement in the main story. King likes to build up a fully populated small town, which is fine, but his asides about the private peccadillos of unimportant players – most of whom are the sort of folksy, no-nonsense, aggressively ignorant people that the author seems to both admire and despise in equal measure – really slow things down. At its very worst, you start to wonder if he was being paid by the word, but this is King’s style – semi-autobiographical ‘outsider’ characters (novelists, kids into horror) and the conservative blue-collar types he grew up surrounded by are the mainstays of his work. Monash keeps some of this stuff but combines characters and chops the narrative down so that nothing is entirely superfluous in the end, even if it feels as though it is at times.
Given that Barlow is such a genuinely shocking creation – and as cinematic vampires go, he’s arguably the most grotesque, even ghastlier than stills from the movie suggest – the film sets itself a challenge with its other vampires. We might not see Barlow until well into the second half of the story, but his presence could easily overwhelm all that comes before and after. Thankfully, Salem’s Lot features some of the creepiest moments ever captured in a horror film. Much imitated now, and so losing some of their impact, these scenes nevertheless still feel creepy even after several viewings; at the time, they were genuinely unsettling. The scenes of the vampirised Glick boys, floating eerily at the window with golden, glowing eyes, are hard to forget (Ronnie Scribner as Ralphie Glick is genuinely terrifying), while the shot of a vampirised Geoffrey Lewis simply sitting in a chair will send shivers down your back. These are not shock scenes or jump scares – they are darkly insidious moments that linger far longer in your mind.
Salem’s Lot was a ratings success at the time of broadcast (it took two years to reach the UK, finally being broadcast by the BBC at the end of 1981), though many genre critics were predictably snotty – if only they knew how many lacklustre King adaptations were just around the corner. There was a feature version aimed at a European theatrical release that never happened, though for a while, this was the only version available for home viewing – it has a bit more gore, a lot less plot and a few alternative scenes, and no one but Stephen King seems to have a lot of time for it, though if the film ever gets the much-campaigned for blu-ray release, you would hope that both versions could be included (the current UK DVD is shamefully bare bones and sourced from a less than pristine print). In the wake of the original broadcast, a full TV series was announced (the ending essentially sets up an Invaders style ‘wandering from place to place encountering vampires and disbelievers’ story) – the idea fizzled out, which I think we can be all feel relieved about. US TV at the time would not have been able to do this remotely well. A Salem’s Lot series now, however, could be interesting.
Salem’s Lot is a far from perfect mini-series, but it holds up rather well and certainly deserves better treatment than it has received. The film has gone from initial popularity, though a period of being seen as embarrassingly cheesy (what can I say? People are stupid) to now being recognized as one of the best Stephen King adaptations out there. The dismal 2004 remake and Larry Cohen’s excruciating Return to Salem’s Lot have helped to show just how good this actually is. And its influence has been notable – the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer owes a great deal to this show, effectively lifting the character of Barlow – albeit with more dialogue – as The Master… a name that Straker uses for Barlow here. At a time when vampires are hugely popular but almost entirely neutered as horror characters, we need this series to remind us that once upon a time, the vampire was actually a figure of fear, with good reason. The campaign to Bring Back Barlow starts now!
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