Salem's Lot (1979)

MAY 21, 2009


I’m a big Stephen King fan, and despite almost constant disappointment, I’m always game to see what Tobe Hooper’s up to. So why haven’t I watched Salem’s Lot until now? Hell, the main reason I finally rented it is just so I can watch the sequel, which stars my beloved Michael Moriarty. Also, I watch a Horror Movie A Day.

Anyway, it’s not that great of a movie. The production value is above what one would expect from a TV movie (this is back in the 70s, when a TV movie could easily be mistaken for a real movie), and the acting is good. The main problem is that they were perhaps a bit TOO faithful to the book, resulting in a fairly mechanical film. There’s little narrative flow for large sections of the film, we just see things happen because they were in the book. Someone will drive by another character, and that will be the entire scene. In the book, this was probably accompanied by some interior monologue, but on film, it’s just a guy driving by another guy. Then the scene will quickly cut to another one with little narrative consequence.

They also spend far too much time on the subplots before getting to the goddamn vampires. Like, fine, Crockett is sleeping with Cully’s wife. Do we need like 20 minutes’ worth of scenes about it? And that’s actually a deviation from the book! In the book she was just fucking around with some random dude. Now it’s Crockett, which has some benefit to the plot (he sends Cully out to get Straker's package, thus getting him out of town for a few hours so he can nail the wife), but we don’t need so much setup for a globally understood issue.

Now, I have seen the other adaptation, the TNT one from 2004. Strangely, I saw it in a theater (projected on a DVD! It was like all three mediums colliding), and I have to say it was a more successful version. It wasn’t as faithful to the novel, but it gelled better than this film does, and actually delivered some nice scares (it also got into Mears’ obsession with the house, which this version brings up early on and then more or less drops).

One thing they didn’t change which this one DID is the fact that Barlowis supposed to be a human-looking vampire. Here, he looks like the Hari-Krishna zombie from Dawn of the Dead dressed up as Nosferatu. It’s an odd choice, because a. the makeup sucks and therefore he just looks goofy instead of scary, and b. it makes Straker seem like he’s in charge, when in reality he’s more like the Renfield of the story. Luckily, James Mason (as Straker) delivers a wonderful performance (“Chow.”), which helps even things out a bit.

I can’t remember, but is the novel bookended by scenes in Guatemala? Seemed new to me. Either way, on film it doesn’t work, and the time should have been spent on a better resolution to the Susan Norton subplot, rather than have Mears randomly kill her in some other country two years later, without any buildup.

One thing I did like is the cast. David Soul was great as Mears (better than Rob Lowe, that’s for sure), as was Lance Kerwin as Mark (who has a Dracula model much like the one I just built!). And the supporting roles are filled with familiar faces, such as Fred Willard as Crockett and George Dzundza as Cully. Father Callahan kind of gets short-changed though; I think he has like three scenes. That’s no way to treat a character who will eventually travel into another series and cause everyone to hate Stephen King!

Oh, the film casts both Geoffrey Lewis and Elisha Cook Jr, which is good because it finally proves to me that they are not the same guy. Though... now that I think about it, they never share a scene....

So I dunno, it’s got some good stuff, but it’s just overlong and weightless. King has said that the edited version (which chops over an hour out!) is actually better, as it improves the pace and such. I don’t doubt it, but I also doubt I’ll take the time to watch it anytime soon (is that cut even available anymore?). Oh well, can’t win em all. And in Hooper’s case, it seems you can’t win any unless Leatherface or Steven Spielberg are involved.

What say you?

HorrorBlips: vote it up!


  1. I like Salem's Lot, probably more than you, your points are valid, I just happen to overlook them. Maybe it's because this is the first movie that ever scared me when I was a kid (scene with the boy floating outside window). Dunno.

  2. If I remember correctly, the book ended with a return trip to Maine and made reference to "Los Zapatos"--not sure about Guatemala. This was among my earliest King reads, so I need to revisit it. I may even watch this movie one day, though I tend to agree with you when you say "almost constant disappointment." There are very few (3) exceptions. Thanks for the review, as always!

  3. Yeah Warfreak, there were definitely some cool, isolated moments (I liked the two vamps crawling up behind Mark near the end). I just wish they were supporting a better constructed narrative.

  4. I am with Warfreak as well, I think you need to take this for a product of the time. As a kid watching, over two nights if I remember, you knew the build was for something good. For years, everybody in my neighborhood would creep up to your bedroom and scratch on the window, which always became a fight because even the bully in the neighborhood was soo freaked by the movie that you had to come flying out of your house to punish the guy who freaked you out so much. I never read the book, so I had no idea the vamp was not supposed to be all blue and creepy, but again, scared the crap out of me!

  5. Hey BC.. i agree with the others..I remember renting this at blockbuster with my mom when i was like 6 and i own it on dvd...I dunno it has something special to it..I like the fact the vamp looks like mom always said that vampire look always scared her as a child so i think thats why this movie is so near and dear to when i watched the 04 version and it was the same head vampire from kristy swansons buffy the vampire slayer i was kinda pissed off haha...but ya...good review..

  6. I have to agree with the masses, BC. You should really think better of this movie since everyone else grew up with it and likes it. That's really the only true gauge of a movie's worth. Either way, I will say that the one scene with the kid at the window was quite freaky, so it had that going for it. Haven't read the book in awhile, but I might revisit it some day.

    Oh, and Kristian, one should never be pissed off at the appearance of Rutger Hauer.

  7. Although, now that I think about it, there is a sort of neat coincidence to both Sutherland and Hauer being in the '04 version of 'Salem's Lot as Straker and Barlow, having both been in the original Buffy film.

  8. Yeah, this was definitely a movie that left an indelible impression on me, primarily because the age I was when I saw it.

    In simpliest terms, it must be weird to watch it as an adult now, because as a kid, it scared the sh*t out of me! The kid scracting on the window still gets me, just from thinking of it.

    Plus, I don't recall if the make-up was bad, but I LOVED the Nosferatu look back then. (Before I knew who the hell Nosferatu was!)

  9. Chet i will have to revisit the 04 version now just for your comments cuz i forgot sutherland was in the 04 version...thanks! got the dvd in now actually lol

  10. I hated this movie so much, you can't imagine. I was a big Stephen King fan when I was a kid, and Salem's Lot was my favourite novel. I had read it about 5 times before I got 11. And when the movie was on TV, I watched it, and ...hatred. The vampire was not supposed to be a freaking blue monster. Thank you, Reggie Nalder, for ruining one of the few Stephen King adaptions that one could actually watch without having to vomit constantly. Or whoever came up with the idea of blue Nosferatu-make-up.

  11. I'm a huge fan of Stephen King's writing, but the movies based on his full-length novels aren't usually that good. There's just so much stuff - much of it in the character's heads - in the novels that it's not possible to capture it all in one movie. For that reason, I haven't seen Salem's Lot, but I have read and love the book.

  12. freaky, scary shit. ESPECIALLY the floating boy outside the window. I had nightmares for months after seeing that.

  13. The original version is not without flaws, some of which you've outlined here. But the 2004 version? Totally inferior in just about every way imaginable. Whether it's Rob Lowe acting way beyond his abilities or Rutger Hauer as Barlow, the recent version just plain stinks. It'd be nice if somebody could make this story into a movie and actually get it right.

    Side note - never realized how many other vampire movies borrowed from the '79 film. The impalement on animal horns (Lost Boys), the stair case showdown in the Marsten House (the original Fright Night takes this entire sequence shot for shot), etc.


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