There are few of Stephen King’s books I’ve read more often than “Salem’s Lot”. There’s something so perfect about the mix of the gothic sexual horror of vampire lore and the petty intrigues of small-town American life and King balances both aspects perfectly through a blend of tight plotting and great characterisation. He even manages to stick the landing on this one.
Ben Mears (David Soul), a now successful author, returns to his home town of Jerusalem’s Lot with plans to write a book about the Marston House, a local landmark reputed to be haunted and the site of a childhood trauma of Ben’s but finds the property has already been rented out. Haunted by the history of the house, Ben begins to investigate the house’s new occupants: Mr Straker (James Mason) and his elusive business partner Mr Barlow. When people start dying in mysterious circumstances, the local police grow suspicious of the author’s recent arrival in town but Ben begins to suspect that something much, much worse than ghosts of the past has taken up residence in the Marston House.
Made for TV in the late seventies, it was something of a gutsy move for Warner Brothers to tap infamously gore-happy horror director Tobe Hooper, to helm their prime-time horror showpiece (they’d originally courted George A Romero but he bailed when Warners moved it from a theatrical release to a TV miniseries to avoid competing with “Dracula” and “Nosferatu The Vampyre”) but it’s a gamble that pays off handsomely. Robbed of the cinematic licence to splatter the screen with blood and gore, Hooper rises to meet the challenging constraints of network television by suffusing his adaptation of Stephen King’s novel with a rich, heady atmosphere of dread and rising tension as the situation becomes more and more desperate.
He’s helped by a classy cast, with James Mason an obvious standout and some artful filmmaking techniques to make the most of the small-screen setting and budget. Mason oozes a menacing charm as the deceptively civilised antique dealer and loyal servant to the eldritch vampire Kurt Barlow who, much like the shark in “Jaws”, only fleetingly appears throughout most of the run time. Played by Reggie Nadler, Barlow is a cadaverous, Nosferatu-esque figure, yet iconic in his own right. It’s remarkable given this was a TV special – or maybe it’s because it was a TV special and reached a wider audience than horror movies could hope to – that there are so many iconic images from this show etched into the subconsciousness of a generation.
While not 100% faithful to the novel, it’s still an excellent adaptation which doesn’t stray unnecessarily from the source material while still making the changes to better suit the medium. Not everyone may enjoy the biggest change – Barlow becoming a mute, almost feral creature of the night instead of the conversational monster of the novel but it really works for this version of the story, making him much more a figure of terror and keeping the focus on the leading characters. David Soul makes for a decent leading man, bringing a much-needed vulnerability to the character of Mears and developing good chemistry with the rest of the cast, particularly a young Bonnie Bedelia and Lance Kerwin as Mark Petrie, one of the few lucky enough to survive the vampire’s arrival.
It’s a top-quality chiller which focusses on gnawing fear more than quick fright and while it may be a little dated and abrupt in its editing – a legacy of its network TV roots – it’s still one of the best vampire ‘movies’ and vampire stories around.