Friday, October 28, 2016

SALEM'S LOT 1979


Classic 70's Stephen King TV Terror !!




      One of the true milestones of small screen terror, this Stephen King adaption remains to this day one of the most frightening examples of TV horror and stands (both theatrical and TV) as one of the best King screen tranlslations ever filmed. Premiering on Nov. 17 1979, it's 181 minute running time was spread over two nights with the conclusion airing on Nov. 24. Directed by Tobe Hopper (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE) and right in between his work on EATEN ALIVE and 1980's FUNHOUSE his choice as a director for a TV movie was unusual in that a horror director (arguably at the height of his powers) would be chosen to helm a TV project.
     King's sprawling novel mixing vampires & small town corruption from within into a Peyton Place like setting (in fact SALEM'S LOT screenwriter was Paul Monash who worked on PEYTON PLACE) and was the first of his novels to show the beginnings of the King universe with some characters and references that would pop up in later works. Warner Bros. has been wrestling for several years on a theatrical version of the novel before finally turning it over to its TV division which could better handle its needed lengthy running time.




     Dealing with a small Maine town and the creeping terror of a vampire colony integrating itself into everyday life, the movie features a mix of then familiar TV faces along with bit of classic Hollywood in the form of James Mason (THE DESERT FOX) and Lew Ayres (ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT) along with a host of character faces including a reunited Marie Windsor and Elisha Cook Jr. from Stanley Kubrick's THE KILLING. Filmed in the northern Calif. town of Ferndale (with its pine trees making a reasonable facsimile of Maine) it was budgeted at a pretty hefty $4,000,000 and later spawned a sequel with Larry Cohen's bizarre RETURN TO SALEM'S LOT and a remake of the original in 2004 which falls short of this version.
     David Soul (just finishing the last season of STARSKY AND HUTCH) plays novelist Ben Mears who returns to his childhood home of Salem's Lot (although called Salem's Lot in the film the actual name in the book was Jerusalem's Lot with the shortened Salem's Lot being used for the book title) in order to write a new book and hopefully  exercise some past demons related to a local haunted-type house (ominously referred to as "The "Marsten House" throughout the film). Once there he hooks up with pretty local girl Susan Norton (Bonnie Belinda DIE HARD) and becomes involved in a deepening mysteries about town involving missing children and an increasingly evil atmosphere.
    The events seemed to be tied into the arrival of another new person in town in the form of the mysterious Mr. Straker (Mason) and his unseen antiques business partner "Mr. Barlow" with Straker taking up residence in the mysterious Marsten house. Also becoming involved is monster kid Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin JAMES AT 15) whose bedroom is a treasure trove of monster kid stuff that will have you consonantly reaching for the pause button on the remote.




     As mentioned King's book had his first small town with multiple intertwined characters plot lines and the screenplay by Monash takes multiple characters from the book and merges them into a single one, that while cutting down on the number of personalities (budget and time frame wise) does give the town a rather under-populated feel to it. The Father Callaghan figure whose a strong secondary character in the book is regulated to couple of short scenes here and with the exception of Susan's jealous ex-boyfriend and the adulteress wife of menacing George Dzundza (who at times seems creepier then the vampires lurking about) most of the secondary plot lines are jettisoned.
    For a TV movie the film has some truly horrific sequences including the now famous floating vampire kid sequences (although by the third time it gets a bit repetitive - which is one of a couple of reasons why this works best when its spread out over two viewing nights like the original broadcast). The makeup by Ben Lane and Jack Young is excellent as for one of the first times on TV (with maybe THE NIGHT STALKER  also) vampires were shown as horrific and malevolent force of evil with a feral/animalistic like appearance. Reggie Nalder (MARK OF THE DEVIL) plays the gruesome head vampire Barlow appearing almost like a huge repellent insect and with a look that recalls both F.W. Murnau and Werner Herzog's versions of NOSFERATU. Entirely a creature of horror, there's no romantic overtones or suave evening clothes going on here.




     Hooper seems a bit shackled here as with most TV movies there's an almost endless procession of talking heads in order to advance the plot, but he does stage several excellent sequences including the above mentioned "window" scenes (with fingernails scrapping lightly on the glass) and the morgue resurrection of a female vampire being standouts (plus the sight of Fred Willard in red satin boxers is pretty unnerving). Sadly one of the books standouts, the attack on the school bus, was not used - although it does show up in the highly flawed 2004 remake. David Soul is a bit flat in the lead (in his dialogue scene with James Mason he almost seems to fade into the background). Things are helped along quite a bit however by the cast of seasoned old pros with Elisha Cook Jr. playing the role that become a staple of his for the latter part of his career (grizzled old drunk) and Mari Windsopr still looking incredibly sexy at 60 years old.
     As mentioned, when watching it now it does help immensely to spread it out over two viewing nights as with most of the horror elements back loaded into the second half it helps sustain some suspense by not wadding through the entire thing all at once. To be fair it would be extremely difficult to bring the books atmosphere of slowly encroaching horror to the screen as the plot here gets a bit bogged down with investigating and explaining.
     Warner's new blu-ray also gives us a much better appreciation of the films excellent set design in particular the interior of the Marsten with its moldy green tinged look to everything and the clouds of floating dust and cobwebs drifting about throughout.
    It was edited to 112 min for release to theaters in Europe where added scenes and longer/re-cut sequences were added. Although a harder version with added blood (and even a bit of supposed nudity) was rumored to exist except for the death of Bill Norton (which lingered on his antler impaling for a few seconds and is now restored on the current 184 min blu-ray) and the shotgun being placed directly in Fred Willard's mouth rather than just in front the current Warner blu is the complete version as originally aired. As with the book the film gives us a hankering for a prequel as the story of Hubie Marsten and his relationship to Barlow is something I'd really like to see King tackle one day.







All The Above Screen Caps Are From The Warner Blu-Ray





7 comments:

  1. For all its (TV format related) shortcomings, Salem's Lot remains one of the better King adaptations.

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    1. It's probably my favorite King adaptation. Your right, in spite of its TV origins its still a great effort.

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    2. It might be mine as well. I adore the source novel, too.

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    3. The novel is one of my favorite King books too. Up till recently his newer books have left me a bit cold, but I REALLY enjoyed Revival and 11/22/63.

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  2. One of the all time greatest movie monsters. I cannot think of a single vampire since that has come close to how frighting Barlow was.

    And Callahan goes on to be a major player in the Dark Tower series, soon to be destroyed by Hollywood.

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    1. Hi Rob- I agree Barlow is one of the best movie vampires ever ! He was sure ingrained in my mind. I was kind of excited about the Dark Tower series being adapted at first, but the more I think about its got train wreck written all over it.

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  3. I've been following the Dark Tower movie since the earliest J.J. Abbrams days. But it just gets worse and worse. From the characters and plot details, it barely resembles the story anymore.

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