"Barlow! He's a vampire! He must be destroyed!" -- David Soul, Salem's Lot
That's an actual line of dialogue from the deliciously cheesy and absolutely fun 1979 mini series, Salem's Lot. While it comes nowhere near the elegance and terror of the Stephen King novel, it totally avoids the cynicism and emptiness of the 2004 remake with Rob Lowe and Donald Sutherland.
This was created as a CBS mini-series in 1979 at a time when such television events were reserved for epic romances like The Thorn Birds, The Winds of War or spanning dramas like Roots or Holocaust. CBS took a risk in devoting two nights to a horror theme but Stephen King was on his way to being the greatest horror writer since ever and the suits at the Eye thought it was worth the risk.
King's novel is one of the finest examinations of the death of small town America with the exception of Peter Straub's Ghost Story (see our take on the film HERE). The novel deftly handles a wide list of characters and weaves their stories into coherent and interesting plot lines. Both Salem's Lot and Ghost Story are shining examples to new writers on how to handle large numbers of characters.
Salem's Lot: The Movie is a quirky and mild adaptation of the book. And yet, it works. And you know what? The vampires are really vampires. This was the day before Abercrombie, Nair-chested sparkly vampires and werewolves hijacked the genre and turned horror into a wussfest. Say what you will about Salem's Lot, the vampires are the real deal: nasty, blood thirsty and not looking like underwear models.
Is it straight up horror? There are some genuinely creepy and solid moments. Director Tobe Hooper (of the original Texas Chainsaw fame) efficiently pilots the film through the rough seas of network television. Until pay cable came along, network TV was not a good place for original horror films. CBS was also the same network that made the colossal stupid move to broadcast The Exorcist. There is no point in showing that film on TV. Once stripped of its vulgarity and truly demonic nightmarish context it is a bland drama. The programming director who came up with the idea to air that film shoulda been fired.
So when CBS announced it was adapting Stephen King's bestselling vampire novel into a two night mini-series, there were groans and low expectations. And some of them were well founded. Salem's Lot is not a great horror film, but is one fun as hell ride. King himself has a warm sport for it and an admiration for Paul Monash's streamlined script. The script ably handles the numerous characters of Salem's Lot and weaves them into a coherent and constantly advancing plotline.
Lance Kerwin in the grip of lead vampire, Barlow.
The problem is the film strips the book of its important religious and sexual context. Again, network TV is not the place for such things and these elements were sterilized and whitewashed. One of the best subplots of King's novel involved the story of sullied Father Callahan, a weak priest who lost his faith and his soul to the head vampire Barlow. In the televised version Callahan is reduced to a one scene cameo and nothing more.
David Soul trying to be restrained in front of the always restrained James Mason in Salem's Lot
What works about Salem's Lot is its gung ho cast. Holy hell do we have a sweet menu of TV and film greats all together for this bash. David Soul (Yep, Starsky and Hutch and one hit wonder "Don't Give Up On Us, Baby" David Soul) headlines with his blonde feathered hair and really takes the role of writer Ben Mears seriously. This guy means business and he burns into every scene with his presence.
James Mason was an acting treasure but terribly miscast as the Daywalking assistant, Straker. While the novel made him out to be a hulking man with cue ball shaved head and murder behind his eyes, CBS turned him into a preening, simpering gentleman that is suspected less of cavorting with vampires than being part of a homosexual couple. Of course no one out right says this because there are audiences that could be offended and censors to appease. Amazing though...it's perfectly OK to watch vampires slaughter victims but don't say "homosexual" in the same feature.
What you do got are vampires. Lots of them. Some of the effects are quite good and haunting. The always reliable character actor Geoffrey Lewis has a particularly good cemetery scene where he feels compelled to unearth the body of Danny Glick only to find Danny has been awaiting his arrival. Lewis does a good turn as a vampire against the solid Lew Ayres who takes on the Van Helsing style role.
Geoffrey Lewis gets transformed and Lew Ayres finds himself an updated Van Helsing in Salem's Lot
The real conundrum is the lead vampire, Barlow. The 2004 remake (and they still didn't get it right) was more faithful to Barlow's portrayal in the book. In King's novel, Kort Barlow is a refined gentleman, an eloquent talker and master strategist. However in the TV mini series he is reduced to a squealing, grunting icon that clearly emulates Max Schreck from Nosferatu. Played by Reggie Nalder, the CBS Barlow is bluish with buck tooth type fangs and blazing yellow eyes.
No confusing Twilight with this vampire.
And yet it works. By going so far to the other extreme the series made Barlow into a true monster and doesn't mess around with trying to give him dialogue. James Mason takes up the chores and speaks for his master and provides the cool elegance that came through in the book. Barlow's first appearance in the town jail is downright startling and his death at the hands of David soul is one of the best vampire killings ever put on film.
The cast is what makes this delicious cheese. Fred Willard, Ed Flanders, Bonnie Bedelia stand alongside George Dzunzda, Geoffrey Lewis, Lew Ayres, Julie Cobb and A-Number One character actor, Kenneth McKillen (Baron Harkonen from 1984's Dune). Add in some superb no name character actors and the teen heartthrob (turned religious purveyor) Lance Kerwin (fresh off James At 16, the brief hit teen angst show) and you got yourself a tidy little horror flick that pushed the boundaries of network TV.
Bonnie Bedelia Ed Flanders Fred Willard Lance Kerwin
Again, this is not a classic. Nor is it the best vampire film ever made, but hot damn is this is a hoot. Such wonderful scenery chewing by Mason tempers David Soul's burning desire to go full Shatner and overact into a frenzy. You can see Soul trying with everything he has to keep it together. He just wants to shout and scream and flip out and tell everyone "The vampires are coming! The vampires are coming!" And you see what he can do in the morgue scene as he blesses a home made cross as a dead Mrs. Glick slowly reanimates on the table before him.
Soul readies to give William Shatner a run for his money.
They shot most of the film in Oregon and the Marsten House is an obvious mock up, robbing it of some of its true eerieness. But that's OK. We got James Mason teaching a local cop Italian and the meaning of the word, "ciao." We got Fred Willard in silk, hot red boxers putting a double barrel shotgun in his mouth while on his knees begging for his life. There's David Soul feathering his hair and staring heavily at everyone he looks at while his eyes scream: "sonofabitch what I gotta say is important!"
And we have Barlow, a Vulcan ear-tipped, blue meanie who screws everything up for this little town. It's a shame to miss some of the other characters from the book, including that wonderful school bus scene, but all is forgiven. Lance Kerwin has a great moment when he looks at his dead parents on their kitchen floor, slain by the evil Barlow and tells him "I'm gonna kill you!"
And we believe him.
Floating, hissing vampires, holy water flying all over, stakes in hearts, David Soul...this is what a vampire movie should be and despite all of its flaws, I'd rather sit in hell and have to watch this back to back for eternity than spend 2 hours in any one of the Twilight films.
Fangs for the memories, Salem's Lot.