— and director Tobe Hooper’s deadly mistake of showing and telling too much at all the wrong moments work together to make for an accurate but monochromatic adaptation.
Perhaps it’s a disservice to have read the novel before watching the miniseries. It was King’s second book — he was fresh from the critical and commercial appreciation of his 1974 debut, Carrie — and contained the sort of shivering, slithering terrors that crawled over the body like a radioactive millipede looking for a snack. Several pages rambled (King’s unparalleled in his liking of chapters-long zigzags of pure, esoteric style), but the triumphs of ‘Salem’s Lot were its feelings of infestation, its declarations that the most extraordinary of evils could manifest themselves into even the most picturesque of American towns.
The TV remodeling sticks closely to King’s plot — only a couple names are changed for reasons unknown — but fans of the novel, and maybe even fans of 1970s horror in general, will notice that 1979’s ‘Salem’s Lot moves about almost mechanically, mostly devoid of tension and, because of Hooper’s unembellished and obvious direction, mostly without surprise or genuine evocation of terror.
But on the whole the picture flies; though a viewing could reasonably be split, given that two 90 minute parts were released a week apart on CBS, the pacing is lean. Like a lot of theatrical events released on television four decades ago, there’s a sense that all must be told succinctly and efficiently, and that works to the piece’s benefit as much as it doesn’t.
It’s advantageous in that it never bores or loses its focus (as King’s novel so frequently did), but it’s detrimental in that more attention is put onto telling a cohesive, followable story than the languid, enigmatic atmospherics from which the feature might have benefitted.
‘Salem’s Lot concerns itself with the residents of the eponymous town, itself an idyllic New England vision where every member of the populace knows the other’s business and where we imagine tourists stop and gawk at the inviting simplicity.
But the miniseries is most invested in author Ben Mears (David Soul), an old resident returning to “the Lot” to write a novel. And that’s because his arrival unfortunately coincides with the arrival of a pair of vampires (James Mason, Reggie Nalder) and their intention to transform all residents in bloodthirsty beasts before the end of the year.
The development of this storyline presents a multitude of opportunities for real journeys into fear, and a couple do really shake us. The final confrontation is a strained, sweating face-off against two-dimensional good and evil, and there’s a horrifying scene toward the miniseries’ middle wherein the more Nosferatu-reminiscent of the vampires crashes in through a window and terrorizes a family somehow both ravenously and passively.
But ‘Salem’s Lot is so obviously made for a television audience that we consider how much more attention could have been put onto a feverish, nightmarish set of stylistics had it been a work of cinema. The miniseries is spooky in an adult version of a ‘50s Vincent Price movie kind of way, but we figure that it could have mimicked Black Sunday’s (1960) malevolence if it had been made for the silver screen instead.
Hooper had shown a knack for bringing a hint of naturalism to the macabre with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) before directing ‘Salem’s Lot. But here are his unsurpassable talents buried under the needs of the plot and the need to please a wider, more impressionable audience. (Though scenes set in the ghoulish Marsten house briefly remind us why Hooper might have been chosen to helm the project.) There’s a certain restraint that keeps the work from seeping into our pores, and that lacking of urgency swells the more we recall the thrills and chills of the novel.
‘Salem’s Lot is worth a look for Mason’s creepy performance — it’s fittingly mysterious and robotic — and for the truth that it’s one of the few King adaptations that at least tries to capture the essence of the source material. It’s spasmodically thrilling and doesn’t really scare. But it’s competently made and performed — we’re always admiring it even when we aren’t openly reacting to it. C+
Elisha Cook, Jr.
3 Hrs., 4 Mins.
'Salem's Lot October 16, 2017
alem’s Lot (1979), based upon the 1975 novel of the same name by Stephen King, can strangely be faulted for being too faithful to the book from which it’s adapted. More a three-hour feature split in two than it is the miniseries it’s touted as, it keeps most of the storyline unblemished (a feat, considering how winding King’s prose tends to be). But in its dedication to staying true to its author’s original vision does it fail to stand tall as its own separate, spellbinding entity. The static cinematography — the kind of chintzy television Gothic perfected by Dark Shadows (1966-71)