My expectations for this production of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot was a rollercoaster at first. I had seen the 2004 production narrated by a dour and bored-sounding Rob Lowe. Rather than ratcheting up the suspense, it just made me want to hate small towns and small town people. Rutger Hauer was an effective baddie but the typical King characters with their petty ways just depressed me. I learned that the original production was directed by Tobe Hooper (the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Poltergeist) and my heart soared. Then I realized that it too was a TV miniseries shot first televised in 1979 and my heart sank. I thought of the limits allowed on 1970’s TV and was expecting a kid gloves Disneyland experience. I’m happy to say I was wrong. Okay, I’ll say it, (only because it’s currently close to Halloween at the time of this writing). Dead wrong.
I have to say, I’m just not a fan of Stephen King’s writing. I like his ideas, sure, but he is sooooooo self indulgent writing characterizations to death and then just killing off the character he spent 20 pages describing. Taking a break from the imminent danger and suspense (literally when a calamity is bearing down on the protagonists) to have a cozy chat about how things were in the old days by some old-timer or some awfully tangential anecdote by a main character which we force ourselves to read with rapt attention inferring logically that it will have some immediate significant bearing on aforesaid calamity. Maybe King had a coffee break while typing the situation and remembered some insignificant memory from his childhood and decided to shove the triangular block in the circular hole to appease his whim. I don’t know. I do know that it weakens the story, suspense, and my bowels. Filmed Stephen King, however, is quite a different shade of green. All that chaff, fluff, fat, skin, and horsecrap is done away with to give us a story which any editor with a work ethic should have wrung out of King by now. They can be taunt, atmospherically ghoulish like Kubrick’s landmark The Shining which King himself hated or the stately 90’s TV miniseries of The Tommyknockers and The Langoliers not to mention The Storm of the Century, which, apparently, King wrote specifically for television. But the big one, the one that began them all was Tobe Hooper and Paul Monash’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot.
The miniseries begins with a writer Ben Mears (David Soul) returning home to the town he lived until he was 11 years old: Salem’s Lot formerly Jerusalem’s Lot. On the outside, everyone seems pretty pleasant. Even a young Fred Willard plays a friendly Realtor Larry Crockett with a hot buxom redhead for a secretary Bonnie(Julie Cobb) who calls him “Honey” a bit much. There’s a town constable Parkins Gillespie (Kenneth McMillan) with his eye on everyone, and an aloof gravedigger Mike (Geoffrey Lewis).
Ben is hoping to write a book while back and hopes to rent the Marsten House, a mansion on the hill with the writer definitely has some history. He spends the first few minutes of his arrival staring with terror at it in silence. The house has been newly purchased by a Mr. Barlow whose posh assistant, Mr. Straker (James Mason) is simultaneously opening up an antique store in town with a subtle bat skeleton on display in the window already. Ben sets up shop in a boarding house with a rather nosy yet charming high class Madam Eva Miller (Marie Windsor). Madam Miller freely enters Ben’s room and reads what he’s typed so far and lets a local vagrant do the same.
As with all small towns, everyone is more than mildly interested in the new faces in town e.g. Mr. Straker, Ben, and the yet unseen Mr. Barlow. When a young boy goes missing, the local Constable is appropriately interested in the whereabouts of the two newcomers at the time.
Next is one of the the most impressive and classically creepy scenes ever. The absence of voices or any dialogue whatsoever make it all the more unnerving. Just the scratching on the window of a ghostly specter. It’s much more effective than the rest of the film, however. More and more members of the town “get tired” and “have strange dreams.” When Barlow finally reveals himself, it is pretty terrifyng, well, at least at first. Much is made over Ben Mears’ instant relationship Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia 10 years younger and even hotter than her Holly McClane depiction in Die Hard) but it’s actually quite boring.
We get the typical Stephen King tripe about small towns (well, this was the first and probably the least venomous production. By modern standards, it’s a pretty conversative horror movie but it has its moments. David Soul gives a solid performance as does Bedelia, and Mason’s Mr. Straker. Watching this miniseries made me realize just how influential Salem’s Lot was on almost all the horror films of the 80’s. Fright Night, my must see Halloween flick is basically a funnier, campier, carbon copy of the same story. This production has its moments and a nice steady build up…if nothing else. Set-ups are something Stephen King is great at. Endings…however, are not quite his strong suit.