Sometimes old houses are just empty shells,
Still mourning their past occupier’s farewells,
But sometimes you feel something sinister dwells
In ramshackle relics and haunted hotels.
The dust and mistrust of these dark citadels
We try to ignore, but their menace compels.
Who knows what nightmares and nefarious spells
Can lurk in old homes with their own private hells?
MPAA rating: PG
Halloween is almost upon us yet again, and since I don’t really celebrate it (except with more candy than usual), I haven’t done much this month in honor of everyone’s favorite scary holiday. However, I think I’ll change that and do what I did last year, four horror reviews in a row leading up to the big day, when I will no doubt contribute to the great November candy shortage of 2017. As with last year (when I reviewed Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, The House That Dripped Blood, Poltergeist, and The Babadook), each of my picks will fit roughly into a different era of horror and will try to buck my wussy aversion to the genre.
First off is the 1979 television adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, something my VC urged me not to see because she recalls it with such terror (probably like me and that clown scene in Poltergeist). I still did, of course, and found it to be quite the credible frightfest, although in a dated way. There are scenes that I could see causing nightmares, but compared with modern horrors like The Babadook, I don’t expect Salem’s Lot to keep me up at night. Still, as far as vampire flicks go, this one hits all the right beats, and I could see how it has influenced the genre since, particularly the glowing eyes and the antler scene in The Lost Boys.
Salem’s Lot is set in Maine and the main character Ben Mears (David Soul) is a writer, which is so unlike Stephen King’s work that I don’t know where to begin! In all seriousness, though, Salem’s Lot is very King-y, from those trademarks of his I mentioned to the idea of a dark evil lurking in a sleepy small town. In fact, it’s very much like It, with Pennywise being replaced by incoming vampires as the protagonists wise up to what’s going on and set out to stop it.
Directed by Tobe Hooper of Poltergeist and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, the three-hour miniseries does a fine job at establishing its large cast of suckable characters: the visiting writer who used to live in Salem’s Lot, the girl who falls for him after one date (Bonnie Bedelia), her doctor father (Ed Flanders), the sinister old man who just bought the local mansion of evil (James Mason), the realtor (Fred Willard), his mistress (Julie Cobb), her jealous husband (George Dzundza), the boy who loves scary stuff (Lance Kerwin), the cemetery keeper (Geoffrey Lewis), and quite a few more besides. It was rather fun playing “Spot the Familiar Face” as I watched, such as recognizing the constable as Kenneth McMillan, who played the gross Harkonnen villain in Dune. It was also good to see Ed Flanders from St. Elsewhere, and his co-star Bonnie Bartlett playing his wife, though she was William Daniels’ wife on the show. James Mason is particularly well-cast as Straker, the forboding newcomer to Salem’s Lot, who you just know has a vampire tucked away somewhere, like maybe in that moving box.
As I said, the horror is a bit dated but still effective, pervaded by a nicely creepy atmosphere and punctuated by periodic jump scares. As with horror in general, it also has its fair share of supernatural foolishness, like allowing inside a fanged loved one floating outside your window or waiting till late afternoon to storm a vampire’s fortress. I thought too that there would be more to Mears’ backstory and his distrust of the Marston house, but that’s never elucidated. There were also a few lapses in the storytelling, or at least questions. Some excellent early tension is wrung from the cheating realtor’s subplot, but when one character is killed, the other two just drop out of the story entirely. The fates of several other characters are left vague as well, as are the circumstances behind the love story’s “resolution.” I’m sure these details are probably better explained in the book, but the miniseries could have clarified them better. I also don’t think it should have started with a flash-forward because that immediately let me know which characters would survive.
Even so, Salem’s Lot is a compelling King story that may not have a lot of story surprises but still spooks with its vampire mythos and general creepiness. The appearance of the main vampire is particularly menacing, clearly inspired by Nosferatu, though I understand that’s a departure from King’s book. I’m by no means an expert on Stephen King adaptations, but Salem’s Lot seemed to do him justice.
Best line: (Straker) “You’ll enjoy Mr. Barlow. And he’ll enjoy you.”
Rank: List Runner-Up
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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