Saturday, July 01, 2006

‘Salem’s Lot (1979) - review


Director: Tobe Hooper

Release Date: 1979

Contains spoilers

‘Salem’s Lot is a classic vampire story for the pen of Stephen King and with a director like Tobe Hooper at the helm, this made for TV mini series, presented as a film, really could not go wrong. The DVD cut of the film comes in at some 183 minutes and precludes a blow by blow account of the film and its story and we shall concentrate on some of the highlight scenes.

First it needs saying that the film takes some liberties with the book, though that is to be expected. The film can seem slow in places as it looks into the minutia of small time life in ‘Salem’s Lot and how the vampiric plague effects the residents and, if the film had not taken liberties, then that minutia would have gone on for many more hours. Thus some key parts of the film are cut or altered (we shall look at this in more detail later) and some of the characters are changed or left out all together. The town doctor is lost and becomes Susan Norton’s (Bonnie Bedelia) father Bill (Ed Flanders) and Matt Burke, the schoolteacher, becomes Jason Berk (Lew Ayres) and is seriously underused in the movie compared to the book. It also needs saying that the pace can sometimes feel stilted and that is a shame as the joy, in the book, of the minutia is that it makes the horror all the more real.

The film begins in Ximico, Guatemala and we see two men, one younger and one older, in a church. These two, we later discover, are Ben Mears (David Soul) and Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin). They fill a bottle with holy water and the bottle glows. “They've found us again... Another has found us.” Says Ben.

We cut back to ‘Salem’s Lot (a shortening of Jerusalem’s Lot) two years earlier and Ben Mears is driving along the road. He stops and looks up at a grand rambling, and yet ramshackle, house – the Marsten House. Ben is a writer who was born (slightly out with book) and raised in the Lot and has returned to write his next novel. His novel is about the Marsten House and the legacy of evil it has spawned. At that time he is unaware that the house has just been bought by a pair who are also opening an antiques store in town. These two are Straker (James Mason) and Barlow (Reggie Nalder). As the film progresses we discover that Barlow is a vampire and Straker his daylight servant.

It was interesting to see how the filmmakers went with Barlow. In the book he is an erudite German gentleman but in this he is a blue/grey skinned devil with burning yellow eyes and two front-pointed fangs. His image owes much to the image created in Nosferatu (1922). As such they also have Barlow silent, and his lines (from the only scene that remains from book to film that should have dialogue) are spoken by Straker for him.

The incursion of the vampire in ‘Salem’s Lot is not one of feed and murder; it is the total vampirism of the population. This leads to several fantastic vampiric scenes, the first being absolutely iconic. Barlow infects a young boy, Ralphie Glick (Ronnie Scribner) and he returns for his brother, Danny (Brad Savage), floating before the window and scratching on the pane, we see this twice – once at home and the second time at the hospital. His brother, when he turns, comes after Mark and we have a similar window scratching scene. As this is the third time that this device has been used it should be stale but it is not, it is the use of dialogue that makes this scene so good. “Open the window. Open the window, Mark. Open the window, Mark. Please! Let me in! It's OK, Mark, I'm your friend. *He* commands it!” Mark does open the window but thrusts a cross, from a model set, at his erstwhile friend as a tear courses his cheek.

Another great scene is in a funeral home when Ben and Bill Norton keep watch to see if Marjorie Glick (Clarissa Kaye-Mason) will rise from the dead. I love this scene because Ben makes a, in all fairness very effective, makeshift cross from a couple of tongue depressors and some surgical tape. Do it yourself Van Helsing in action. The cross sears Marjorie’s forehead and she vanishes.

The final scene I want to mention, in great vampiric moments, is when Mike Ryerson (Geoffrey Lewis) returns to Jason Berk’s house, the house in which he died, to continue the passing of the plague. The scene is creepy to begin with as Mike rocks backwards and forwards upon a rocking chair – I don’t know what it is but rocking chairs are inherently sinister. Jason holds up a cross and revokes his invitation to Mike which sends the vampire flying backwards through Berk’s window.

Some scenes, however, fall short. The scene with Father Callahan (James Gallery) talking to Mark’s parents as they are attacked by Barlow is the scene that sees Straker speaking Barlow’s lines and should be great. What makes it fall flat for me is how the priest is underused. In the book he is a complex character whilst in this he, we assume, is killed. In the book his fate is much darker and yet left unexplored. Incidentally, in the 2004 mini series Callahan’s fate is revealed, though that is an invention of the filmmakers.

I was also unhappy with how the film ended. Whilst the ending is fine it does not fit the book that well. Straker, in the book, is defeated by Mark. Having Ben shoot him seems less, well, impressive. Also the final scenes all take place in the Marsten House, in the book Barlow has been forced to decamp and he is eventually found in the cellar of Eva Miller’s guesthouse. This feels, however, like me being picky as the ending does work in the main.

The effects in the film are functional enough, though they seem dated now but then the whole film seems a little dated. The acting, generally, is very good but I am not too sure about Mason’s performance as Straker. Whilst there is nothing inherently wrong with it, Mason was of course a fine performer, there doesn’t seem to be the air of menace and insanity one would expect.

Be that as it may, this is a fine addition to the canon of vampiric lore and a must have for all fans of the genre. The scene of Danny at the window was terrifying when I was a kid and it is still creepy now, giving an air of menace that is unforgettable. The film certainly deserves a good 7.5 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

6 comments:

Mark said...

Great review. Oddly enough, when this first came out as a TV series, I wasn't that impressed. It grew on me, though, and now I get great enjoyment from it.

I own both the TV series and the movie made from the series. Once you've viewed the entire series, the movie version seems hopelessly chopped up.

This is a creepy movie, and fun, too. Monster fans will relate to Mark, the boy obsessed with monsters and magic. I have a feeling Mr. King put a lot of himself into that character.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Your probably not wrong with that observation, Mark. In fact, to a degree I think that both Mark and Ben have a lot of Mr King between them.

I intend, when I have another spare three hours, to rewatch the 2004 remake and do a comparator

Anonymous said...

This is the best version and i dont agree with your rating.However each to thier own.I am not bothered that Barlow does not speak as he does not need to.I think the make up is excellent and Mr Nalder made the part his own.I also do not agree with you on the scene in the Petrie's kitchen which i think works a lot better than the 2004 version with the windows smashing and a small speck on the floor slowly moving to a cloak then rising to kill both his parents before capturing Mark.In the new version we have contact lenses wow scary (not) and mr Rutger on the ceiling.This is easily the best version and my all time favourite vampire film
Mr Barlow

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Fair cmment, everything is opinion and we will beg to differ, but I am glad that you posted.

The T said...

In this case it was almost impossible to please me. I have read Salem's Lot 4 times (just as Dracula) and it's, next to Stoker's my favorite novel ever, so I still want a version that TRULY does the book justice.

In the book, Barlow appears just about five times, but he makes an impact. He speaks, he has presence, he commands all scenes when he appears. Here he's a Max Schrek's look-alike with all the character of a big ferocious cat (and I love cats lol). He looks angry, but he's just an animal.

Straker's too short. The iconic scene in the window is decently done but it fails to be what it could be. I don't dislike the whole "Guatemala" intro that much, but the ending (the epilogue) is not as effective as Susan dying mas in the book. The elimination of some characters from the book also hurt. The whole introduction of Barlow to Jerusalem's Lot, that night when they carry the big box, it's so scary in the book. it's not perfectly translated to the book.

In the end, my major problem is the barlow character (or lack thereof) and some changes. But there are some positives: Soul as Ben Mears was an excellent choice. Mark Petrie's cast was also good (though the character fails to have the relevance he has in the book). The Marsten house and the town have atmosphere and have all the necessary looks.

There will probably never be a film that does the book justice. It would have to be a 4 hour film. And none makes 4-hour vampire films anymore (ever?). But it's a decent version. With some good points.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

The T, Salem's lot is always going to be difficult and (as Chick Young would point out) I'm probably the only person who appreciated the new version and liked it more than this. I'll respond to both your comments here if that is okay...

In many respects we have to abandon the book because books do not get made as films (in their entirity). Don't get me wrong, I love the book but... the reason it workd so well as a horror is because it loses itself in the minutea of small town life and thus the horror is all the more horrific. To be honest, that wouldn't necessarily work in a film.

The new version, to me, developed more atmosphere in some respects and some of the changes made story sense for the cut down story necessary to bring the story to the screen. Also this version, in my honest opinion, hasn't aged too well. It is still good but very much looks like a product of its time.

Horror wise, however, this was horrific... for those of us who watched it when it first aired (I don't know if you did) this scared the bejezus out of us... the fact that it doesn't anymore is more testament to how it hasn't aged well (and the fact that the audience I speak of where considerably younger at the time.

I would suggest you search out the radio dramatisation done by the BBC (with Doug Bradley as Barlow) - it does the rounds on the net from time to time.

thanks, as always, for your comments.