Salem's Lot (1979)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 9/17/17
Director: Tobe Hooper
Cast: David Soul, James Mason, Lance Kerwin, Bonnie Bedelia, Ed Flanders, Lew Ayres, Elisha Cook, Geoffrey Lewis

"Salem's Lot" scared the shit out of me as a child, and its imagery is permanently etched into my memory. I was eleven years old when it first aired on TV, and I had trouble sleeping for weeks afterwards. The scene of Ralphie Glick scratching on the window still gives me chills and induces panic. It was the first horror movie I recall ever seeing, and I'm surprised my parents let my sister and me watch it.

Ben Mears (David Soul) is a writer who returns to his home town of Salem's Lot to write a new novel and come to grips with a childhood trauma that he experienced at a creepy old mansion that overlooks town. Shortly after he arrives, people start disappearing and turning up dead. Or undead. Mears suspects vampires are involved and that the old Marsten house is a conduit of evil. It doesn't take long for the whole town to turn into vampires, which forces Ben to take the law into his own hands and drive a wooden stake into Straker and Barlow's reign of terror.

Straker and Barlow. Those two words alone send a shiver down my spine, which speaks to the intensity and efficacy of the movie as well as Stephen King's original novel. As a made-for-TV movie, it's completely devoid of violence and bloodshed, and relies entirely on music, ambience, and performance to create an atmosphere of pervasive dread and fear. The soundtrack is bold, urgent, and spooky, and reminds me of John Barry's work as well as some other composer whose name I can't recall. It does an excellent job of setting and maintaining the terrifying tone of the film. Director Tobe Hooper does a fantastic job of creating tension and dread, whether it's about concerned parents, a jealous boyfriend, a mysterious package, a childhood memory, a creepy antiques shop, an open grave, or a drunk trucker dealing with his cheating wife. The glowing yellow eyes of the vampires are supremely spooky, and it's that imagery that still haunts me. Ralphie Glick's wide-eyed maniacal grin as he floats outside the window, Danny Glick's soulless stare as he lies in his coffin, Mike Ryerson's hypnotic gaze as he rocks back and forth in a creaky rocking chair, and Susan's alluring invitation to eternal damnation all evoke a subconscious uneasiness within me.

The film definitely has a made-for-TV vibe, and the characters feel like they were pulled from an episode of "The Love Boat." The caricatures of citizens living in a small town are laughable, as is the extremely unlikely whirlwind romance between Ben and Susan (Bonnie Bedelia). David Soul delivers a convincing and admirable performance as a tortured writer, and the venerable James Mason gives a delightful turn as the sinister Mr. Straker. Bonnie Bedelia is wonderful as the smart, beautiful, and talented love interest, while a dour looking Geoffrey Lewis makes one of the creepiest vampires I've ever seen. Veteran actors Lew Ayres, Elisha Cook, and Ed Flanders round out the cast and are a welcomed sight. Stephen King's themes of religion, evil, childhood trauma, alcoholism, and abandonment resonate throughout the movie, even though it radically deviates from the source material on several occasions. It was initially aired as a two-part miniseries and is over three hours long, but the pacing is surprisingly brisk and steady, and I managed to remain engaged the entire time. "Salem's Lot" is by no means a masterpiece, but it's a solid and entertaining contemporary horror film that made a significant cultural impression and inspired numerous films that followed.