Tuesday, October 11, 2016

SALEM'S LOT (1979)

(November 1979, U.S.)

Halloween is almost here and it's always a good thing if I can post at least one horror film (or in this particular case, a television mini-series) during the month of October. It's even better if I can write my post for a horror film on October 31st, but this year, it just ain't happening, people. Still, horror films based on the work of Stephen King are more often than not, a good thing. SALEM'S LOT, as it originally aired on CBS-TV over two consecutive nights, was only the second film ever made based on King's novels, the first being CARRIE (1976) and THE SHINING following only six months later in 1980. It's not only one of the best King adaptations, but also one of the best vampire films I've ever seen, with a subgenre added to the classic haunted house.

I never watched very much Starsky & Hutch in the 1970s, so I knew very little of the acting style of David Soul. It's quite safe to say that he own's this film with his outstanding performance as Ben Mears. He's the hero, to be sure, but he knows how to be real scared of his situation, too (note the scene with his make-shift crucifix and the "undead" awakening of a woman on the table near him as he prays for his life and repeated shouts, "Bill!"). From the moment he arrives in the small town of Salem's Lot, it's very clear that he's the outsider worthy of suspicion by all the locals, despite the fact that he grew up in that town as a child. He's newly-arrived to write a book (Stephen King's main protagonist of his novels is often a writer) about the infamous Marsten house; a site with a long history of mystery, murder and death and a house that can easily be physically associated with or inspired by the legendary Victorian house in Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO. Look for yourself...

Pretty damn close it, isn't it. This is not a problem, in my opinion, and I would hardly waste any energy in claiming any copy-cat issues here. The house itself and its isolation effectively works in the telling of a vampire tale, in which citizens of this small town are dying off, one by one, and then returning as the undead to serve the master vampire whom we're not meant to see too early on in the film. We know only that there's a mysterious Mr. Kurt Barlow who no one in the town has actually seen before. He's only described and discussed by his business partner, Mr. Richard Straker (played by the James Mason). Straker is an odd sort, to be sure, even as a simple and quiet man who's preparing to open up the town's new antique shop. His involvement in the vampire's reign of terror is no mystery because we see early on in the film that he's responsible for the kidnapping and murder of small child, presumably a sacrifice for his vampire master. Even as we're made aware of the vampire's arrival in Salem's Lot, there is a true creepiness about it the form of a large crate being delivered to the Marsten house; a crate that moves by itself and creates a climate of cold to anyone near it. When the vampire's presence and existence is finally revealed in the kitchen of a family he's come to attack, he is, without a doubt, the most hideous and frightening creature in the vampire genre I've ever seen, no doubt a throwback and homage to Max Schreck in the black and white silent vampire classic NOSFERATU (1922)...

Unlike Schreck, though, I have to say that actor Reggie Nalder's make-up work as Barlow is far more terrifying in its own way. While both men are fashioned with teeth that resemble rat claws rather than the traditional fangs, Nalder's entire vampire persona - a creature more monster than man who does not speak but rather shrieks like a hideous ghoul eliminates any of the previous charm and grace that the many faces of Dracula has given us over the decades. In other words, the vampire tale of SALEM'S LOT is not some TWILIGHT story! The monster is destroyed in the classic sense at the end with the traditional wooden stake, but even after the Marsten house is burned to the ground and the town of Salem's Lot is presumably burned with it by the spreading fire, we're left with the notion that the vampire threat originating from Barlow is now global and that the hero Ben Mears, and his teenage sidekick Mark Petrie, will be fighting the remaining ones that continue to hunt them down.

I've never been a fan of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974) because I don't like horror films that involve any kind of torture. POLTERGEIST (1982) is, of course, a classic but has often been the subject of controversy as to whether or not Steven Spielberg did most of the directing himself. So if I'm to give director Tobe Hooper credit for his true talent, than surely SALEM'S LOT is it. His influence from NOSFERATU and PSYCHO is clear enough, but I credit him for using his inspirations in his own fashion for the modern television hellraiser of the time with his creepy atmospheres and lurid camera work. I remember watching this on TV as a twelve year-old kid during a year when vampire material was all over the big and small screen, including that of Frank Langella and George Hamilton, and being very freaked out by its material. A few years later, I managed to tape a copy of the film off of HBO (or was it Cinemax?), but it was a condensed down to a 112 minute version. By the time I finally purchased it on DVD, it was finally restored to its complete version, including the prologue and epilogue with Ben and Mark in Guatemala, as well as the fate of Ben's girlfriend Susan, who has become - you guessed it - a vampire!

Favorite line or dialogue:

Ben Mears (shouting in fear): "Bill! Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Bill!"

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