Movies & TV / Columns

Nether Regions 01.19.10: Salem’s Lot (1979)

January 19, 2010 | Posted by Chad Webb

Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask “Why should I care about a film I have no access to?” My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.


Salem’s Lot

Starring: David Soul, James Mason, and Lance Kerwin
Directed By: Tobe Hooper
Written By: Paul Monash
Theatrical Release Date: November 17, 1979
Missing Since: 1994
Existing Formats: DVD
Netflix Status: Not Available
Availability: Only available through Amazon used sellers, and it is expensive

Salem’s Lot was Stephen King’s second novel and the second adaptation of his work following the immensely successful Carrie from 1976 directed by Brian DePalma. This is a mini-series, but that was not always the case. Initially, it was discussed as to whether or not it would be a theatrical film with George A. Romero at the helm, but ultimately that fell through. It was due to the vampire revival of the late 70’s with Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht and John Badham’s Dracula that the decision was made to tackle the material as a mini-series. Eventually, Tobe Hooper stood at the helm after Producer Richard Korbitz caught a screening of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Romero dropped out because he felt that the constraints of television would not allow him to make the film he wanted to.

As gory and gritty as Romero’s version likely would have been, Hooper was the right choice. It would be the first positive project he was involved in after creative differences, disagreements, and replacements for Eaten Alive in 1977 and The Dark in 1979, which was finished by John “Bud” Cardos. Hooper has been known for his quarrels with producers and such during his career. Poltergeist was another example, but he is not afraid to walk away from the set to stand up for what he believes in. Although it received positive reviews, and has gained a significant cult following over the years, Salem’s Lot continues to divide fans. King purists have some issues that will be addressed later. For me, Salem’s Lot represents a gripping 3 hour saga because it spends more time on the town and the characters than it does on vampire horror.

This is a Vampire Soil Pendant Set.
It should be on your Christmas
list for December.

The story begins and ends in Ximico, Guatemala where two characters are seen inside a church, evidently hiding from something. One is collecting holy water. We then go back 2 years in time where writer Ben Mears (David Soul) has returned to his New England hometown of Salem’s Lot in Maine, formerly Jerusalem’s Lot. His purpose for returning is to pen a novel about the Marsten house that overlooks the town, and is visible from all areas. It is a house plagued by a history of death, murder, and mystery. When Ben’s attempt to rent the house fails due to the recent purchase by another person, he stays at a boarding house run by Eva Miller (Marie Windsor). The new owner is a man named Straker (James Mason), who is opening an antique shop with his business partner Kurt Barlow. The reception Ben meets in this town is not exactly warm. His wife died in a motorcycle accident where Ben was the driver, resulting in some leery attitudes. Plus, his city lifestyle is obvious to these small town residents.

Ben reconnects with an old teacher named Jason Burke (Lew Ayres), who influenced his career as a writer. Ben also meets Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia), a young schoolteacher, and the two become fond of each other quickly. Unfortunately, Susan has an off and on boyfriend named Ned Tebbets (Barney McFadden), who does not appreciate her new romance with Ben. Meanwhile, when Ben first visits his former teacher, he catches a rehearsal of a play featuring Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin), a young boy who enjoys horror, magic, and monsters. All seems relatively normal in this quiet town until one night Mark’s friends are separated and attacked after leaving his house from a visit. Strange things continue to occur, and Ben believes that they involve the Marsten house. Before long, Ben uncovers the secret that the house is keeping.

David Soul and
James Mason.

Well, it’s not really a secret if you read my first paragraph. The appearance of the lead vampire, Kurt Barlow, was modeled after Max Schreck in Nosferatu. He also does not have many lines, aside from some grunting, and this is where most loyal fans of the book become upset. Not only was the look of Barlow changed, but he apparently spoke at length about his origin in the novel. In addition, other characters and sub-plots were changed, combined, or cut completely.

There are reasons for this. For starters, as this is “based” on the novel, that does not mean it will be an exact replica of it. Secondly, Producer Richard Korbitz and Director Tobe Hooper wanted to avoid the romantic concept of the vampire that was so overused at the time. They also felt strongly that he should not speak due to the difficulty of accomplishing this. Here is a quote from Korbitz: “You can’t do Bela Lugosi, or you’re going to get a laugh. You can’t do Regan in The Exorcist, or you’re going to get something that’s unintelligible, and besides, you’ve been there before. That’s why I think the James Mason role of Straker became more important.” It was the wise and unique slant as the film focused more on the man controlling the vampires instead of on the vampires themselves.

The biggest problem with Salem’s Lot is probably the make-up department comprised of Ben Lane and Jack H. Young. The closer we get to the faces of our fanged friends, the more unconvincing they look. Still, the performances from the vampires are all solid, which definitely helps. The make-up looks too obvious, and this becomes clearer and somewhat distracting during the close-ups. The fact that Barlow resembles Max Schreck so much prevents him from going down as one of the best vampire villains. Regardless, he is still intimidating and eerie in many ways, and the mediocre make-up effects are overshadowed by the competent and capable direction from Tobe Hooper, who constructs some lingering set pieces. As technology evolves further, Barlow will grow more dated.

What makes Salem’s Lot so wonderfully enthralling is that Hooper and company managed to weave a profound, engaging, and creepy tale without the ability to show excessive blood, violence, or gore. It is a great example of what to do when the red stuff cannot be employed for scares. The triumph lies in the suspense more so than the horror. The famous and heavily parodied sequence where the little boy floats in a misty cloud to his friend’s window and begins scratching the glass to get inside is stirring and unforgettable. Another superb moment has a gravedigger trapped in that grave when he is surprised by a vampire rising from the coffin. Both instances keep the vampires at a distance, conveying a truly haunting aura.

A close-up of
Nosferatu version 3.0.

Salem’s Lot has a multifaceted method of storytelling, and this helps in having the audience connect with the entire town and not just one hero. We meet Ned Tebbets, the plumber, Cully Sawyer, the trashman/mover, and Mike Ryerson, the grave digger. Seeing them interact and proceed with their daily lives causes us to be more familiar with them, that way the horror aspects resonate stronger when they unravel. Many of the sub-plots could have carried their own movies, and it is a testament to the first-rate filmmaking that viewers are so immersed in every person’s life. Hooper’s sense of pacing and timing is acute and aware so the action related sequences are balanced flawlessly with the drama between the characters. It is not necessarily a slowly moving film, but certainly a deliberately spaced one, which progresses steadily at its own normal speed. It is the tension and dread that escalates slowly, but like Hitchcock, it pulls us in and never lets go.

The Marsten house alone exudes an eerie ambiance, much like the home from The Amityville Horror, only in this case it doesn’t have powers. Just hearing the insane history of the home plants the seeds that will sends shivers up our spines later. Ben declares it “a monument to evil.” The beginning of the film concentrates mostly on character development, and anything chilling that happens occurs off screen. Take Ryerson’s dog being killed for example. I enjoyed the relationship between Ben and his teacher, which seamlessly led into the actual story. Furthermore, Ben’s romantic involvement with Susan is anything but sappy. The manner in which they grow close is common, not clichĂ©, and it has a ring of authenticity. As the bizarre events unfold, Ben is eyed rather suspiciously by Constable Parkins Gillespie, but thankfully he does not track Ben as a cartoonishly villainous cop. The events began when Ben came to town, so naturally he questions the potential connection.

Ben is the main character, and he is portrayed remarkably well by David Soul, then a heartthrob from Starsky and Hutch. Upon accompanying Ben as he returns to Salem’s Lot, he stares upward at the Marsten house, and is sweating profusely. He is a man who evades questions about his personal life due to the tragic nature of what he recently experienced. His positioning from the boarding house to the Marsten home is particularly intriguing as it is always directly in front of him while he is typing. Ben takes his time in asking the various townspeople about the wicked house, especially Straker, who responds very nonchalantly each time. And because the thrills are so carefully staged, Ben never shifts into an exaggerated savior. His frustration with the doctor, whose diagnosis to every weird victim is “pernicious anemia”, is genuine and real. Ben wants to solve this mystery, and Soul’s performance never falters. It is a controlled and passionate turn.

James Mason is just having a blast as Straker. He shakes off every inquisitive comment and reacts as if the person is losing it with a tinge of absent-mindedness. Ben talks about an “evil house attracting evil men”, but Straker acts like a basic ordinary and boring antique dealer. Mason’s effort here reminds me of Vincent Price in the way that his every appearance is entertaining. Mason is so transfixing and determined as the innocent Straker that figuring out how he will let his guard down adds to the enjoyment of the depiction. Mason is a puppeteer in every sense of the word. After unveiling Barlow, their startling true intentions exhibit that together, they are the embodiment of a merciless and calculated enemy. Reggie Nalder is Kurt Barlow, and he is menacing enough, but he is merely the soldier to Straker in many respects. Nalder’s finest scene is at the dinner table with Mark and his family.

The supporting performances are all uniformly grounded and organic. Lance Kerwin is marvelous as Mark, the young boy who first witnesses the strange encounter with his friend at the window. Everyone assumes that his interest in magic and monsters has gone too far, but Kerwin maintains the youthful person splendidly. Bonnie Bedelia is excellent as Susan Norton, the woman who falls for Ben shortly after his arrival. Their private moment by the lake shows how solid the chemistry was between Bedelia and Soul. Fred Willard is funny as the bumbling real-estate dealer that is having an affair with Cully Sawyer’s wife Boom-Boom Bonnie. The sequence where Cully catches them in the act is hilarious and saturated with “edge of your seat” suspense. Julie Cobb is delightfully clueless as Bonnie, and George Dzundza is equal parts crafty and crazy as Cully the jealous husband.

One of my favorite scenes in Salem’s Lot has Geoffrey Lewis’ Mike Ryerson and Barney McFadden’s Ned Tebbets taking Cully’s moving truck to pick up a crate for Straker. They are given strict and specific instructions to take the package, deliver it to the basement, and pad lock 4 different doors when they are done. The crate is bigger than they anticipated, it’s cold to the touch, and it begins moving as they are driving down the road. This segment had everything from gripping character exchanges to undeniable trepidation and even a smidgen of humor.

One of the Spanish
versions of the poster.

The film editing by Tom Pryor and Carrol Sax was fantastic, and causes the three hours to fly by with ease. Hooper and his editing team integrate a conditioned and measured technique with the daily routines of the town eventually yielding to the urgency of the deadly obstacles. Cinematographer Jules Brenner works with Hooper favorably as the tightly knit shots are just as purposeful as the sweeping ones. Their framing is a lot more impressive than you might think. Harry Sukman’s score is evocative and poignant as it swells during all the vital scenes. The soundtrack also utilizes a handful of classical selections that can be beautifully heard in the background, and they compliment the substance on numerous occasions.

The main detractors you’ll stumble across are those that love the book and wanted this to be a line by line recreation of that, but in my mind this is totally unfair. While it is true that the film is dated in many respects, when it comes to horror, this can add a layer of fun to it all. The fact that Tobe Hooper did not allow himself to be burdened by the novel, and did not resort to ridiculous twists or pretention speaks volumes for his leadership qualities and assurance in his vision of Paul Monash’s adept script. I found Salem’s Lot to be a hypnotizing three hour ride. I probably wouldn’t praise the scares first to those who have not seen it, but the construction of the tale is proficient and absorbing to the point where the dated traits do not make you cringe, but smile.

Compared to the terrible attempts at adapting Stephen King’s work to a mini-series nowadays, Salem’s Lot is easily the best. Stephen King has been a bit equivocal about Hooper’s film, but he did like Monash’s screenplay. It is worth noting that a 112 minute version was released on home video first, and had a bunch of altered scenes. I have never seen it, but it was commended in some circles as well. I had planned to dive right into A Return to Salem’s Lot, but in watching the first Salem’s Lot for preparation, I noticed that it too was out of print. The sequel is the rarer of the two, but I figured back-to-back trips to this town wouldn’t hurt anyone. Stay tuned…

Final Rating = 8.5/10.0

The Heartbreak Kid – Still Out of Print
Homicide – Now Available
The Taking of Pelham 123 (1998-TV) – Still Out of Print
The Stepfather – Now Available
The Stepfather 2 – Now Available
Phantasm II – Now Available
Red Cliff Part 1 and Part 2 – Both Available on 3/30/10
America, America – Still Out of Print
Looking for Mr. Goodbar – Still Out Of Print

Closing Thoughts

The Golden Globes were interesting as always. William Hurt had a bad ass beard going on, Harrison Ford was mighty drunk, and Mariah Carey had the greatest dress ever. As for the awards, I was surprised to see Avatar win two big ones, or as Arnold calls it, “Avada.” It was annoying that they let some people ramble like fools for too long, while they cut off others by playing the orchestral music. Ricky Gervais was funny. He basically said whatever he wanted, proving he could care less if they ask him back again. Christoph Waltz and Michael C. Hall both had excellent speeches. Overall, the Globes are silly, but fun to watch nonetheless.

By the way, for updates on all the movies I am seeing that I have not written full reviews of, you can consult my blog, which should soon be lighting 411 on fire with hits. View it by clicking here. I plan on adding other random thoughts on CDs, plays, and other topics that float into my head as well.

-Thanks to Jeremy Thomas for my banner.

“The plural of Chad is Chad?”
–From the movie Recount


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Nether Regions, Chad Webb

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