November 17, 1979
Stephen King (novel), Paul Monash (screenplay)
David Soul as Ben Mears
James Mason as Richard K. Straker
Lance Kerwin as Mark Petrie
Bonnie Bedelia as Susan Norton
By The Baron
Tobe Hooper’s TV miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, “Salem’s Lot”, despite the constraints inherent in any television production, is actually a very effective and creepy vampire film. I saw this as a child and have never forgotten it. Watching it now, I am immediately transported back to those days when I was an impressionable youth and a vampire might be lurking anywhere… even in my own basement.
The film tells the tale of Ben Mears, a writer who has returned to his hometown to write a novel about the local “haunted house,” the Marsten House. Unfortunately for him and the rest of the populace of the Lot, vampire king Barlow and his human servant Straker have chosen the town as their newest hunting ground.
David Soul of Starsky & Hutch fame is decent, if a bit flat, as Ben Mears. Bonnie Bedelia plays the love interest, Susan Norton. Her performance is a bit livelier than the one given by Soul, but it’s still nothing to get overly excited about. It is James Mason who steals the show here as Straker. He oozes smarmy malevolence as he greets the townspeople, who will very soon become vampire food. When asked about Barlow’s whereabouts, just listen to how he delivers the line, “You shall be meeting him soon, very soon. And, I am sure he will find it a pleasure.” Positively bone chilling!
Hooper generates some genuine chills in several scenes: Danny Glick floating outside Mark Petrie’s window, begging to be let in because the Master commands it, Mike Ryerson promising Jason Burke that he will “sleep like the dead”, Marjorie Glick rising from the dead and calling for her long dead son and Straker showing Dr. Bill Norton the gentle way he greets visitors to the Marsten House.
Better than all that is Barlow himself, a hideous fiend that bears more than a passing resemblance to Count Orlock in the 1922 Nosferatu. The scene where he appears in the Petrie home is still terrifying. He is all the more frightening because he does not utter a single word in any of his scenes, much like Christopher Lee in Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966). Some have voiced complaints because this conflicts with the very Dracula-like Barlow of the source novel. Being a huge fan of the novel, I can definitely sympathize. However, Reggie Nalder’s performance as Barlow is so evocative and the make-up so chilling, that I can forgive any creative liberties taken by the filmmakers.
Anyone tired of seeing vampires as hyped up karate experts or mopey emo types will appreciate these old school vamps. It’s not a thrill-a-minute Hollywood CGI fest, to be sure. That is probably why I still love it so much.