IIt’s a mystery that will haunt me for the rest of my life: how a CBS miniseries starring the guy who had just finished playing Hutch of Starsky and Hutch turn out to be so traumatic?
Tobe Hooper is perhaps best known for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Fighting spirit, but his 1979 Lot of Salem adaptation deserves a greater share of its heritage. The miniseries is downright tame alongside the director’s other works – a nod to the television conventions of the time. But even from within the constraints, Hooper not only brings the plot of Stephen King’s work to the screen, but also the demons that make it so haunting in the first place.
Perhaps the most unlikely aspect of this production is its star, David Soul, the former “Hutch”. As Ben Mears, a horror writer who has returned to his sleepy Maine hometown to write about a spooky local mansion called the Marsten House, Soul delivers a serious, no-frills performance. He’s a good guy, perfectly capable and totally forgettable. Another actor could have done more with the role, but Soul’s performance is simpler than incompetent.
On the other hand, James Mason – who by 1979 had already played everyone from Captain Nemo to Joseph of Arimathea – was perfectly chosen. Here he plays Richard Straker, the dignified but shady antique dealer who has just bought the Marsten House in hopes of opening an antique shop with his elusive companion, Kurt Barlow. (Barlow, we eventually find out, is our big bad vamp; Richard is his Crypt Keeper.) The English actor imbues every scene with equal amounts of creep and gravity, his commitment never succumbing to awkwardness.
And then there’s the supporting cast that embodies all the local townspeople – an accomplished group of character cast and industry veterans that includes Fred Willard, George Dzundza, Marie Windsor, Geoffrey Lewis and Elisha Cook Jr. props to the film’s main plot, these performers carry the brunt of the narrative tension in the first half of the miniseries – lighting up all the shadows where Salem’s Lot’s worst secrets lie.
Romantic affairs, misery, abusive husbands, and other non-supernatural afflictions plague the Lot of Salem even before Ben Mears shows up to write about House Marsten. It’s a themed game that King plays in most of his stories, drawing parallels between the paranormal experiences his characters go through and their own checkered stories.
But that said, it’s a vampire movie – and there’s a lot vampire scares wrapped up in the show’s last episode, in particular.
In one of the most memorable flourishes, Ralphie Glick, the first of Barlow’s victims, floats past his older brother Danny’s window surrounded by a cloud of smoke, paw to glass and begs to be let in. Her eyes shine and her little fangs stick out mouths as the music swells and dulls with the mist. The scratching is unbearable.
Hooper repeats the gambit later after Danny followed his brother’s path – and the nightmare-inducing visuals later inspired a similar scene in The lost boys. Even though the effects have started to show their seams, the stages still hold up thanks to their spooky lighting and sound design.
Once the whole town starts to crave blood, it’s up to the supporting actors to make their vampire selves monstrous enough. Lewis, in particular, proves one of the miniseries’ most compelling sources of gradual terror as his character slowly transforms into a vampire – a slow transformation that culminates in one of the miniseries most nightmarish scenes. series. Brad Savage, who plays Danny, also put those bright eyes and sharp fangs to a particularly gruesome use.
Lot of SalemThe practical effects and production editing tips might make the production outdated. Freeze frames and sudden orchestral explosions are scattered to produce jump alerts, and the Nosferatu-type makeup used on Reggie Nalder’s boss vampire character might seem less compelling to generations accustomed to computer animation. (And that ignores textual loyalists who wish the miniseries to let Barlow appear human, as he does in the novel.) But in retrospect, that’s why Hooper’s involvement was so crucial to the miniseries’ place in the horror story.
Beyond demonic children and deer antler impalements, Hooper Lot of Salem with nods to countless horror classics. He threw a from north to north-west alum in one of the film’s most important roles and summons the Hitchcock films in a number of locations. Barlow, sometimes introduced by his long claw-like fingers, is a Nosferatu look alike. Against this background, the miniseries feels like an interesting snapshot of the horror conventions of the era and their place in the history of the genre as a whole.
“In an age when so many “ high-profile ” televisions praise it for singing the conventions of cinema, there is something delicious about watching horror television that was explicitly, unabashedly, made for television.“
Now, however, production is due for another update. After a reinterpretation in 2004 with Rob Lowe, Lot of Salem is now set to receive its first feature adaptation – although it’s unclear when that will debut, in light of the pandemic. In April Deadline reported that Annabelle comes home Director Gary Dauberman is expected to direct.
As exciting as the prospect may be for some, it will be difficult for the new production to match the heights of the old one – and not just because of all that Hooper’s interpretation has accomplished. Moving that story to the big screen could also waste the most endearing aspect of the original – the fact that it’s actually made for TV.
Brian de Palma set the bar high by adapting King’s debut novel, Carrie, in 1976. But Hooper’s miniseries beautifully illustrates what King’s worlds can feel at home on the small screen. In an age when so many “high-profile” televisions praise for singing the conventions of cinema, there is something delightful about watching horror television that was explicitly, shamelessly, made for television.
That’s not to say that all of King’s works have looked better on the small screen. After Lot of Salem became a huge hit for CBS, ABC started their own series of King miniseries adaptations (It, The Stand, The Langoliers) in 1990 – the same year he made his debut Twin peaks from another American-obsessed horror aficonado, David Lynch. As often happens, the latest mini-series never lived up to the original.
But even put together as a movie rather than a two-part series, something just feels right to watch Lot of Salem as interpreted for television – always from my couch, always under a huge blanket. After all, what better way to enjoy an author whose work primarily encompasses sleepy little towns and everyday heroes than from the hallowed space of your own living room?
Salem’s Lot is available on Cinemax and for rent on Amazon.
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