[Stephen King Day] Salem’s Lot (1979)

Director: Tobe Hooper

Cast: David Soul, James Mason, Lance Kerwin, Bonnie Bedelia, Lew Ayres

Screenplay: Paul Monash

184 mins. Rated PG.

 

Today, we look at the second official adaptation of Stephen King’s work in Salem’s Lot, from director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist). Salem’s Lot premiered in a 2-part miniseries back in the late 1970s, and I watched the complete cut of the film in order to best collect my thoughts. Let me be clear, this review is for the 184-minute cut of the film as opposed to the shortened European cut released to cinemas after its US release.

Salem’s Lot is the story of Ben Mears (David Soul, Filth, TV’s Starsky and Hutch), successful novelist, who returns to his hometown of Jerusalem’s Lot in Maine to write a book on the Marsten House, a creepy old house on the hilltop at the edge of town. Mears discovers that the house has already been rented out to Richard K. Straker (James Mason, North by Northwest, Lolita), a mysterious new resident who is planning on opening an antiques store in town with his absent partner, Kurt Barlow. After moving into a boarding house, Mears quickly becomes acquainted with the townspeople, especially the attractive Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia, Die Hard, TV’s Parenthood). Mears also strikes up a friendship with a former teacher, Jason Burke (Lew Ayres, All Quiet on the Western Front, Battle for the Planet of the Apes). But all is not well in Salem’s Lot. People start going missing while others come down with a mysterious illness. Mears and company suspect the true cause is something far more horrific when victims appear with two puncture wounds on their necks and the truth behind the small town makes itself known.

Now, I thoroughly enjoyed the original Stephen King novel on which this movie is based, and while I enjoyed the adaptation, you can easily tell the budget is not where it should be. This being fairly early in Tobe Hooper’s career, it is pretty obvious that he doesn’t have the tools in place to make this film what it needs to be. I liked David Soul’s portrayal of Ben Mears, and the chemistry with Bonnie Bedelia’s Susan Norton works well enough. I even enjoyed James Mason’s take on Straker. Fred Willard even appears in a small role as the slimy real estate agent who resides in Salem’s Lot.

The losses in the film comes from the tone and the excitement. Hooper seems to be checking off important scenes that build narrative but the actual fear and horror are so few and far between that the film just doesn’t have that…uh, bite.

There’s also a decision in the design of our main vampire (okay, he’s on the cover, deal with it) as a Nosferatu-type misses the mark of the character and becomes fairly flat and without villainy. He’s creepy to be true, but it seeks to remind viewers that this has been done before, and better.

Salem’s Lot appears to appeal to fans of the source novel in more ways that a general audience, but it is missing that classic Stephen King feeling in favor of exposition overload. It’s just missing that fear and horror, so much so that the PG rating becomes a slap in the face. This is one I would only recommend to fans of the novel. All others need not apply.

 

2.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, click here.

 

 

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