Two horror titans joined forces on TV screens across America on the night of November 17, 1979 when CBS aired SALEM’S LOT. Tobe Hooper, who helmed the blood curdling THE TEXAS CHINSAW MASSACRE (‘74) and Stephen King, the mind responsible for the horror juggernaut CARRIE, were a powerful combination few could prepare themselves for. As if having their living rooms invaded by sights guaranteed to rob them of peaceful slumber wasn’t diabolical enough, viewers would have to wait a full week until November 24 for the miniseries’ jaw-dropping conclusion. At the time both horror masters were playing outside of their comfort zones. King’s novel was more expansive than anything he’d attempted before, juggling an entire town of characters as he scrutinized a vampire infested PEYTON PLACE as it careened toward Hell, while Hooper pointedly steered his trademark manic, ultra violence toward the eerie and uncanny.
Novelist Ben Mears (David Soul) returns to his hometown of Salem’s Lot determined to confront and ultimately be inspired by a childhood fear. Once upon a time, he broke into the town’s notoriously haunted Marsten House and he has been forever unable to shake what he encountered within.
As it turns out, Ben finds that the ominous mansion has been recently purchased for one Kurt Barlow by his shady henchman Richard Straker (James Mason). Strange happenings, disappearances and murders begin to contaminate the town and we come to understand that Barlow is actually a hideous vampire bent on devouring all in his path. As the town buckles under Barlow’s menacing will, Ben finds allies in love interest Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia) and teenage horror movie fan Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin) who has witnessed his family and friends meeting horrific fates firsthand.
Although created for broadcast television, in the hands of Hooper, SALEM’S LOT offers a plethora of unforgettable nightmare inducing imagery. Taking liberties from King’s novel, Barlow is presented as a silent ghoul unnervingly inspired by Max Schreck’s Count Orlok in NOSFERATU (‘22). No matter how brief it may be, his every appearance stuns with the power of a lightening bolt. Even his possessed undead victims (Mike Yerson as played by Geoffrey Lewis for example) are horrifically demonic in appearance complete with otherworldly glowing eyes and serpentine, hissing voices.
As much as SALEM’S LOT offers a chocolate box assortment in the indelible scares department (did I mention the death by antler impalement or Mark’s parent’s heads being knocked together?), there’s one sublimely pitch perfect moment of abject terror that stands (or floats, rather) above the rest. After a frightening abduction in the woods, a young boy named Ralphie Glick goes missing while his older brother Danny escapes stunned. Later as Danny prepares for sleep, Ralphie appears before him in his bedroom widow smiling deviously, scratching on the glass and hovering about in an eerie fog that appears to roll in reverse. Everything about the scene strikes a cord of discomfort. Devilishly, the mortifying set up is returned to again when an infected Danny mirrors the same routine upon his pal Mark (who is fortunately versed in horror cinema and makes wise use of a handy cross).
Viewership for SALEM’S LOT was so great that there was talk of using the miniseries as a springboard for a weekly series. Reviews were mostly glowing (in fact, Blu-rays feature a blurb on the back from yours truly declaring it, “One of the last truly great gothic vampire films”) and the success further solidified Hooper and King’s reputations as masters of the genre. The productions’ portrayal of vampirism proved influential as well. Almost overnight the (then popular) image of vampires as darkly romantic love interests reverted to visions of them as soulless parasitic monsters associated with death and decay. In 1987, Larry Cohen delivered a half-hearted, tongue-in-cheek sequel called A RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT but it did little more than stoke nostalgia for the original and in 2004, a respectful remake was attempted for cable television that boasted a game cast but far less potent scares. As of this writing, yet another adaptation has been announced, this one destined for a theatrical release. It’s impossible to say what future visits to the fictional Maine town of Salem’s Lot will unearth but it’s quite clear you can’t keep a good vampire down for long.