(If you missed my last October Horror series essay check it out HERE)
Tobe Hooper’s (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Poltergeist) 1979 miniseries, Salem’s Lot, was based on a rather long novel by Stephen King. Many screenwriters grappled with the text in an attempt to condense it down to a feature run-time of around two hours, but a smart studio figured it would be better suited to the miniseries format and the resultant script and film generated over three hours of vampire-movie nostalgia ala Nosferatu, beautiful and striking atmospheric moments, and paranoia.
The film focuses on the town of Salem’s Lot (nee Jerusalem;s Lot), Maine. In the town, an ancient manor known as the Marsten house has been connected for generations with the supernatural and the eerie. It is the town’s haunted space, but until the arrival of novel writer (see Misery and The Shining to carry on King’s metanarrative theme) and a British antique dealer, it has been fairly innocuous. The writer Ben Mears was a one-time native of the town who has returned to write a novel about his own traumatic experiences as a youth near the Marsten house when he becomes absorbed in an even deadlier plot. People are falling ill with what the local doctor Bill Norton is calling pernicious anemia. And then they disappear. As more and more of the town’s population go missing or die, others flee, and others fight back against the dark forces brought to the town by the antiques dealer Richard Straker and his master vampire accomplice Kurt Barlow.
The tale mirrors Nosferatu in a number a ways. First, the evil master vampire is ghoulish and based on the model of Mas Schrek’s character Count Olaf in the original Murnau classic. Second, he resides in a manor known to be haunted or the source of evil, that locals do their best to avoid. Third, a young man slowly learns of the vampire’s evil plans and works with a doctor and other townsfolk to find dispense with his guardian and destroy him while he rests in his coffin.
The film contains many interesting and even beautiful scenes throughout. There are the shots of young boys who have turned into vampires scratching at the windows of their peers in the night. The fog and deep-focus cinematography, the darkness and the red light of their eyes paint the scene just as eerily as it would have been in the real life as a child awakens, unsure of whether the site of their dead friend at the window is reality or merely the product of their overactive imaginations and dreams. None of these levitating shots were created with the use of wires, but instead used cranes placed just so as to make the floating apparitions particularly eerie and realistic. Of all the vampiric scenes in the film, these are the most effective and hold up best today.
Later, we find a local laborer who has been turned into one of the undead sitting in a chair in his former teacher’s abode. His teacher invited him in as he thought him to be merely sick. Later, he would find he was sorely mistaken as the man rocks in a chair in his guest bedroom, eyes alight with demonic fire, and voice seething with hatred and bloodlust.
In the manor, the antique dealer lackey Straker displays a near-inhuman strength against the Dr. bill Norton. He grabs him by the throat and carries him along a corridor toward a wall of antlers where he impales the man with ease. (This scene would later be recycled to great effect in the Lost Boys and in that film’s sequel).
In the film’s penultimate scenes, when the writer Mears burns down the manor, the deep reds and blacks proliferate and spread across the screen as the screams of the undead erupt from the smoldering timbers and reverberate through the open space of the cold cold night.
Finally, the element of paranoia is ever-present. In this film, by virtue of its extended length, Tobe Hooper had an opportunity to introduce characters and develop them more fully than most any feature-length film ever could. We find a young boy, obsessed with horror films, whose parents chide him for his macabre interests. But those very same interests will save his ass time and again, while their lack of knowledge of the occult puts them into severe danger. The writer, Mears, is extremely skeptical of the whole situation at the beginning, but his fear of the Marsten house and his belief that evil emanates from within it, leads him more easily than his fellow citizens to the right conclusions, and this keeps him alive.
As the film progresses and more and more citizens die, it seems like most of the townspeople are either suspicious of Mears or of Straker and both are advised by the police to stay in town. The paranoia is so thick at times you could poke a hole in it with a wooden stake.
I would definitely recommend the film to any fan of horror films and hope to hear your responses about your favorite parts of the film!
In memorium Tobe Hooper (1943-2017)
Postscript: As my last October Horror essay of the month, I would like to say thank you to everyone who has given me support through likes and comments during this time. The last month and a half have been my most productive period on WordPress yet and that productivity has seen its analogue in views and correspondence with many readers. You’re continued support has emboldened me to work harder and present a new series of film essays every month. With next month’s theme being Science Fiction films. Its been a heck of a ride and I hope you’ve enjoyed it as well!