Stephen King Horror-Thon: Salem’s Lot (1979)
What would happen if Stephen King had written Dracula? It’d probably look a lot like Salem’s Lot. Following the massive success of Stephen King’s original film adaptation in 1976, Carrie, came Salem’s Lot, which seamlessly weaves through imagery, plot devices, and themes of both the vampire horror sub-genre and the haunted house sub-genre.
King’s second film adaptation wasn’t really a film adaptation at all. In 1979, Salem’s Lot was released as a mini-series on CBS– a television adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novel that was published in 1975. The mini-series was released in two separate 2-hour segments, then a single 3-hour segment aired on CBS the next year. Later the mini-series was re-edited into a 112-minute film that received theatrical release in Europe. The theatrical release contained graphic violent footage not released for the mini-series but was criticized for omitting key scenes.
For this review, I’m taking a look at the 2016 blu-ray release of Salem’s Lot, which came out in November alongside other Stephen King adaptations like Cat’s Eye and It and clocks in at 183 minutes. This cut of the film, which manages a PG-rating, combines some of the focus of the theatrical release without sacrificing some of the lingering moments that made the original television release so moody.
Salem’s Lot follows Mears, an author (like so many of King’s novels do), who comes back to his hometown of Salem’s Lot, Maine and slowly discovers that many of its town folks are disappearing and/or becoming vampires. Mears originally comes to Salem’s Lot intending to rent a now-stereotypical-looking haunted house atop a hill in order to write about its haunted past, but he’s disappointed to discover that the house has already been purchased by a shady newcomer. As the rate of spreading vampirism escalates, Mears must team up with his former school teacher and a local doctor in order to investigate and put an end to the disappearances.
Tobe Hooper took the helm as director on Salem’s Lot– five years after the release of his most associated release, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and three years before his release of Poltergeist. Tonally, Salem’s Lot does not contain any of the in-your-face horror that you might expect for Hooper’s filmography. In contrast to the atmosphere of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (which helped land Hooper the job as director), Hooper describes Salem’s Lot as more “soft-shelled.” The horror is built through atmosphere, rather than blood or violence. This is of course due, in part, to the television format, which limited the amount of graphic violence Hooper was permitted to show.
The eerie mood of the film owes a great deal of debt to its haunting setting– the small town of Salem’s Lot. In a 1987 interview with The Highway Patrolman magazine, King noted his special affection for his vampire novel. “In a way it is my favorite story, mostly because of what it says about small towns. They are kind of a dying organism right now. The story seems sort of down home to me. I have a special cold spot in my heart for it.” King fills the narrative with numerous subplot with various Salem’s Lot residents, which gives more life to the town.
By today’s horror standards, Salem’s Lot is rather tame– even by network television standards. Much of terror comes from exploration of the town’s sinister forces and the impact it has on its town people. The film challenges its viewers to imagine how you’d feel living in a town as its people disappear and you can feel this intense insidiousness in the air. The scariest scene is the film’s most iconic– a vampire boy levitating by the windowsill and asking to be let in. Totally bereft of CGI or special effects, this scene is utterly nightmare-inducing and helps further establish important vampire tropes.
Since its 1979 release, Salem’s Lot has gained a reputation for being one of King’s finer mini series. And its impact on the vampire film genre is undeniable– as it’s paved the way to films like The Lost Boys, Fright Night, and Let The Right One In, as well as Joss Whedon’s television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you’re looking to sit down for a longer horror viewing and are open to letting yourself to be fully-immersed in this little town in Maine, Salem’s Lot is a chilling, finely-acted film that pays homage to slow-burning classics like Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu.