Revisiting the film of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot

Our trek through the screen adaptations of Stephen King's writing lands at the town of Salem's Lot...

The film: Ben Mears (David Soul) arrives in the town of Salem’s Lot to work on his next novel. He’s drawn to a spooky house, but finds out another newcomer, Richard Straker (James Mason) has already purchased it. As the two new arrivals to the town start to settle in, it becomes clear that something more menacing has arrived with them. And it has teeth. Up until now, I’ve focused solely on the film output that has been based on the works of Stephen King. We’ve also gone in chronological release order so you may be wondering why the 1979 Salem’s Lot miniseries is popping up after 1987’s Creepshow 2. First of all, the next film, chronologically speaking, is its sequel, A Return To Salem’s Lot, and it would make little sense in watching a sequel without the first instalment. Second, it’s brilliant and influential. Rules should be flexible in such instances. Salem’s Lot wasn’t originally intended as a miniseries and Warner Bros. initially had the rights to produce it as a feature. As the novel relies on the slow-burn effect of Ben slowly coming to understand the evil affecting the town, compressing King’s lengthy tale of suspense into a film’s runtime proved difficult. Eventually, Paul Monash (who had previously produced Carrie) was given the chance to write a miniseries for the Warner Bros. television division, with Tobe Hooper brought in to direct. Hooper adopts a spooky, understated style that works beautifully for King’s story, mining it for a constant feeling of menace underneath the blue Maine sky. Even during the sundrenched days and before people start disappearing, it’s clear that all is not right in Salem’s Lot after the arrival of Straker and Mears. Hooper achieves this by shining a spotlight on the town’s darker elements, literally so in the case of the notorious Marsten house. Its American gothic style evokes Edward Hopper and Alfred Hitchcock and with it, that feeling of impending danger. 

James Mason’s is easily the brightest performance, revelling in that special kind of macabre that suits the gothic elements of the story so well. David Soul is a solid centre to it as well, slotting into the stoic King everyman hero. That casting helps to place that contrast between the two newcomers: Mason’s older European sophisticate versus Soul’s all-American ruggedness. Taking a subtle approach provides the strong contrast for the more overly scary and supernatural scenes that slowly start to infiltrate the story as the vampires infiltrate the town. The attack on the Glick boys has a great jump scare in it and the transportation of a seemingly innocuous crate becomes steadily more nerve-wracking as the box begins to move. In the first episode, it all comes to a head when Ralphie Glick appears at his brother’s window (gleefully homaged in The Lost Boys), levitating, surrounded by smoke, and possessing a mean set of canines. The sound design has great fun here making you squirm with the sound of fingernails scraping on glass. Yeesh. 

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With everything established in the first episode, the second instalment can go straight into the big stuff as Ben and his allies work out what is happening in the town and why everyone’s suddenly started to turn pale and interesting. Kurt Barlow, the ancient Nosferatu-like vampire that Straker brings with him, becomes bolder in his approach to taking victims in another cracking jump scare. It ramps up the pace, but Hooper still knows when to pull back, such as in the brilliantly tense scene where Mark and Susan head into the Marsten house. It’s a stunning piece of set design too and Hooper’s wider shots allow for moments in which to take in the decaying house, transformed by the evil that has taken place within. Ending with Ben and Mark still on the run from the vampires in Guatemala, Salem’s Lot carries the horror through to even its final moments. Hooper’s low key approach suits the material and he’s aided at all times by some terrific production design work. Solid on atmosphere and scares, it’s easy to see why Salem’s Lot is regarded as one of the finer Stephen King adaptations. Scariest moment: It has to be Ralphie Glick at the window, doesn’t it? Although, Kurt Barlow’s initial entrance is a very close second. Musicality: Harry Sukman’s music for the opening credits is wonderfully bombastic and unnerving in the way it builds up into a huge barrage of sound as the night passes. A King thing: Writers finding themselves caught up in terrible circumstances. From Jack Torrance to Ben Mears, King likes putting creative people into his tales of horror, all of whom are either more ready to accept the supernatural or find themselves susceptible to it. Join me next time, Constant Reader, as we, er, Return To Salem’s Lot.