The King of Summer: Salem's Lot (1979)
Salem’s Lot is a funny entry in the long line of Stephen King screen adaptations - it was spearheaded by premiere horror director Tobe Hooper, and for all of the author's trademarks and director's flare for creating dark atmospheres this 1979 miniseries treatment is a wholly memorable chiller from two mainstays of American horror.
The setting is prototypical of the author’s modus operandi in contemporary American gothic literature. King’s Salem’s Lot, another northeastern Rockwell inspired small town is, of course teeming with vampires, and those who aren’t demons of the night are well, pretty damn stupid. Perhaps it’s the broadened mechanics of late seventies television, or the genre itself - after all, doesn’t every horror movie need a boob to wander up a spiral staircase, or follow what goes bump in the night? Despite the local airheads and the sluggish presence of its leading cast member David Soul (“don’t give up on us baby”), Salem’s Lot has a solid cast that includes Ed Flanders, Bonnie Bedelia, Lew Ayres, and the iconic James Mason.
Since this is based on the work of Stephen King, the protagonist Ben Mears is a famous author (gasp) who returns to his hometown. With the help of Mark, a plucky young outsider and fan of the macabre (another shock) fights a growing army of marauding vampires in their town brought about thanks to a sinister antique shop owner.
Part Scooby-Doo mystery, part Saturday morning serial, and part EC comic strip, the more you think about Salem’s Lot, the dumber it seems. In lieu of the gawky narrative and sometimes transparent performances this number still offers a plethora of iconic scares, and Hooper’s eye and ear for suspense and atmosphere are what to look for in this enjoyably imperfect outing. Hooper is an interesting case in horror, with his hit and miss output it’s difficult to feel the pulse of his creative stride. But working with King, who also values the mechanics of matinee style genre furnishings seem to operate with respect for the material which might the major redemptive quality of Lot.
The picture spends its time with a lot of supporting characters; colorful locals, small town mechanics, and much of this doesn’t pay off too much aside from establishing some atmosphere and diversionary b stories. Given the whittling down that happens when King's mammoth novels are adapted to the screen, it feels like some ends of this script had more threads that were left on the cutting room floor. You could say it feels padded but how often do you hear about plot elements that were omitted from King's material, in contrast to what’s added?
The best creative decision guiding Salem’s Lot is the design of the vampire and Hooper’s natural aptitude for horror. Reverting to the German expressionist route of creature make-up the “head” vampire is inspired by the Nosferatu style of ghoulish monster rather than a romanticized Baron. The film gives the monster a wider sense of motion and activity; the gaunt posing of Max Schreck is unforgettable, but this critter emits an animalistic sense of danger and is capable of dealing out some damage.
The spread of vampirism consists of some enduringly moody sequences like the floating vampire kid scratching his brother's window and the creepy climactic showdown at the proverbial spooky house/secret lair. Salem’s Lot is fun and functionally scary. Despite the lack of depth, this miniseries is a solid feature in a long line of Stephen King adaptations.