Even though the 1976 movie adaptation of horror novelist Stephen King’s first book, Carrie, was a solid success, it took Hollywood a few years to dip back into the King well—and the follow-up project appeared on the small screen rather than in theaters. After attempts to turn King’s book Salem’s Lot into a feature ran aground, the piece was reconceived as a two-part miniseries that would allow for the narrative sprawl that gives King’s stories their folksy texture. The shift worked, because the Salem’s Lot miniseries was an Emmy-nominated hit. Then, after its November 1979 TV run, the movie was chopped down to feature length and issued to theaters outside the United States. But here’s the twist—King stated at the time he preferred the shorter version, even though it excised nearly half the plot. Go figure.
Watched as a stand-alone feature, Salem’s Lot: The Movie is underwhelming, and not just because of the choppy edits that appear wherever a big chunk of material was removed—even the unbroken scenes feel ordinary, with a few noteworthy exceptions. The story, of course, is a typical King lark about good people confronting a bad place. Ben Mears (David Soul) is a novelist who returns to his hometown of Salem’s Lot, Maine, to write about the Marsten House, an imposing edifice just outside town where horrible things are rumored to have happened in the past. Mears wants to explore the notion of whether houses can truly be haunted. However, someone else got to the Marsten House first—elegant Englishman Richard Straker (James Mason), who plans to open an antique shop in town, recently bought the place. It turns out Straker is the accomplice to an ancient vampire who plans to feast on the people of Salem’s Lot, converting them to an army of bloodsuckers. Once a trail of bodies and a series of supernatural confrontations reveals what’s happening, Mears endeavors to defeat the monsters with help from unlikely sidekicks including a little boy and an old man.
Viewed in the 112-minute version, the story feels contrived and overwrought, because useful elements including a prologue/epilogue device and various subplots aren’t there to buttress the outlandish narrative twists. Director Tobe Hooper stages several fun shock scenes—the best bits involve a ghostly vampire kid floating in fog outside a bedroom window while calling to a young friend on the other side of the glass—but Salem’s Lot merely seems like a classier version of the supernatural escapism that producer/director Dan Curtis made for TV throughout the ’70s, in projects such as the spooky 1972 telefilm The Night Stalker. Still, there’s a lot of nihilistic bloodshed here for a small-screen project, even though Salem’s Lot isn’t gory, and Mason is terrific as the charmingly evil Straker. (By contrast, leading man Soul, of Starsky & Hutch fame, is hopelessly bland.) Still, it’s a head-scratcher why King fancied this version over the three-hour mother lode.
Salem’s Lot: The Movie: FUNKY