Salem’s Lot (1979) – Tobe Hooper

So since I recently reread Stephen King’s 1975 novel, ‘Salem’s Lot, I thought I would watch the 1979 television miniseries that was directed by Tobe Hooper. Broken into two parts, the three-hour story was broadcast on two consecutive Saturdays, 17 and 24 November, 1979.

Even at three hours, the series doesn’t feel like it’s done justice. All the little ins and outs of Stephen King’s novel have been compressed, characters amalgamated and some arcs are completely rewritten or dropped.

There are some recognizable beats and dialogue lifts from the novel but yet it doesn’t feel like it’s complete (which makes me worry about the forthcoming new theatrical version).

Ben Mears, played by David Soul, comes back to Salem’s Lot (they dropped the apostrophe and the whole name of Jerusalem’s Lot, the town residents apparently decided to keep the shortened version) to work on his new book, which is inspired in part by the horrifying encounter he had in the old Marsten house on the hill at the edge of town when he was a boy.

He tells this story over drinks, but it would have worked so much better had they shot it. And while he’s settling in, someone has settled into the old house. Straker (James Mason) is one half of an antiquing team that is setting up shop in Salem’s Lot, though he hints at the eventual arrival of his business partner Barlow.

Very soon bodies begin to pile up (faster than in the novel), and some people are fleeing town. But not Ben, and not his new girlfriend, Susan (Bonnie Bedelia), and a young horror fan, Mark (Lance Kerwin).

Pretty soon we and they learn that the town is infested with vampires, and they may be the only ones able to stop Barlow (played with menace by Reggie Nalder). This version of Barlow looks completely different than the way he’s imagined in the book, embracing a more Nosferatu and terrifying look.

And speaking of terrifying there are some legitimate jump scares (Barlow popping up out of nowhere), and creepy moments (kids floating through windows), which all work really well despite the fact that the production LOOKS like a television production.

It doesn’t feel like Maine, the sets are a little too generic and not down-home enough, and the lighting, framing, and more all speak to television. But the cast and crew worked with what they had, and it’s not a bad rendering of the tale, though there is so much missing, and it really could have been spread out over more episodes (a limited series like the kind we get to today would have been perfect).

But considering how some of King’s work fares on screen. This one isn’t so bad and was very fun to rewatch. And check out the guest cast, Geoffrey Lewis, Joshua Bryant, Marie Windsor, George Dzunda, Fred Willard, and Elisha Cook Jr. You may not know all the names, but you’d recognize their faces.

Small town terror with sharp teeth. Salem’s Lot is still a classic, and its images impacted a generation.


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