“Throw away your cross. Face the master.”
If you grew up between the late 1970s and early 1980s and loved horror, you saw the Salem’s Lot (1979) TV miniseries. And if you saw Salem’s Lot, you and your friends talked about it constantly and scared the bejeezus out of each other, convincing one another that Mr. Barlow was hiding behind the next tree.
The Salem’s Lot TV miniseries was based on the classic Stephen King vampire novel of the same name. Unlike The Shining, the movie version of Salem’s Lot stayed true to the novel. Sure, a few scenes were changed, and a few characters were combined or omitted altogether. But the main characters and story line closely followed King’s novel.
With one exception.
The vampire, Mr. Barlow, is depicted in King’s book as a devious monster, but human-looking. Perhaps even handsome. The television version of Barlow is considerably different…something straight out of a nightmare. The closest comparison I can draw to other famous vampires is Nosferatu, but Barlow is far more hideous. In my opinion, the 1979 television version of Mr. Barlow is the most frightening vampire in movie history. Towering at over seven feet tall, with demon’s eyes and two humongous fangs for central incisors, Mr. Barlow is horrifying. He does not woo, talk, or connive. He kills, and he feasts.
Like in the original novel, the story follows a writer named Ben Mears (David Soul) who has returned to Salem’s Lot after many years. Part ghost story, part monster movie, the Salem’s Lot story keeps coming back to the Marsten house, a haunted-looking house where Mears claimed to have seen the ghost of Hubie Marsten hanging from a noose years after his death.
Can a house be inherently evil? This question is on the mind of Mears and some of the townsfolk.
The Marsten house is abandoned for decades before a dark man named Richard Straker, elegantly portrayed by James Mason, purchases the home with his business partner, Kurt Barlow. Straker explains away Barlow’s initial absence, claiming his partner is on business overseas. Then Straker has a huge crate delivered to the Marsten house, and the children of Salem’s Lot begin to vanish.
One of Salem’s Lot’s greatest traits is its believable portrayal of small town New England in the 1970s. Salem’s Lot is small enough that we may learn its history and get to know all of its characters, from the slippery real estate maven, Larry Crocket (Fred Willard), to venerable teacher, Jason Burke (Lew Ayres), and Parkins Gillespie (Kenneth McMillian), a constable clearly in over his head.
Because we know the characters and believe in them, the horror that eventually unfolds is more effective. But even without our sympathetic compassion, the scares generated in Salem’s Lot are top notch and often unique. One very effective scene involves the aforementioned crate, which seems to move on its own in the back of the truck as the movers deliver it to the Marsten house. The temperature drops precipitously inside the cab, as the crate appears to lurch toward the delivery men.
Perhaps the scariest scenes involve the vampire Glick brothers floating in a fog outside bedroom windows, scratching their nails against the glass. These are bona fide classic moments in horror history, scenes which scared a generation of movie watchers and influenced future movies. Like most classic vampire tales, eventually the hero and his friends must venture deep into the vampire’s lair, in this case, the Marsten house. The climactic scenes are tense and frightening.
Salem’s Lot is a slow-brooding masterpiece that creeps up on you. Once the horror begins, it is relentless. I cannot think of a more effective vampire effort during the 1970s and 1980s, though plenty of great ones came out of this era.
Salem’s Lot has an annoying habit of going out of print for short periods of time. As of this review, you can purchase the DVD version of Salem’s Lot on Amazon, and I recommend picking it up before it disappears again.