To all my all Gen-X peeps, where were you the night of November 17th, 1979?
You can only answer this one of two ways. You were either watching Part 1 of Salem’s Lot or you weren’t. I sadly was not. That’s because I was ten years old and not yet fully on board with the horror genre, and my parents saw it that way too whether I liked it or not. When Salem’s Lot started my brother and I were promptly put to bed, but our bedroom was next to the living room, the same living room my mother and my grandmother were watching Salem’s Lot in.
I may not have seen the mini-series, but I certainly heard it and it terrified the living fuck out of me! I don’t remember if this happened during Part One or Part Two, which aired on the 24th, but I crept out into the hall (a very short hall; six feet total) and pressed myself up against the doorway to the living room, just out of sight on the other side and tried to see the television. I was not at all at a decent enough angle to see the picture. I stayed there for a while and experienced some of the more tense moments through sound alone, the mounting screams and the expertly created musical score (by Harry Sulkman) eventually sent me bounding back to my bedroom and hollering to my mother to turn the TV down because I could hear it and it was preventing me from getting to sleep. That was a half-truth. It was mainly scaring the fuck out of me.
I don’t know where this fits in but I have a memory of standing in the living room and watching a scene, some random, innoxious scene taking place in the day and still feeling tense about the whole thing. Like I could feel the tension of the characters and didn’t want to see anymore. I don’t know why I was in that living room for that short amount of time, but I have that memory and for a long time it added to the growing myth I had in my head of this mini-series.
In 1979 there were only thirteen channels and only three major networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) in existence, when a TV movie came on, especially a horror or science fiction related one, it was a big deal in school the next day. I was in fourth grade then and sitting next to a girl I had a crush (her name was Lisa), and she was very interested in vampires. Her mother let her and her sister watch Salem’s Lot and I remember asking her if they had shown the vampire yet, and she said it looked like a “gore monster.” I remember thinking what the hell is a gore monster? Maybe I wasn’t hearing her properly, a gory monster is, perhaps, what she meant. That girl and that mini-series are so tightly linked in my mind that every time I think of one the other pops up.
Below are various ads from TV Guide at the time of it’s airing.
I didn’t end up seeing Salem’s Lot until many years later when they re-ran the series in a three-hour one night event and even then I was terrified by what I eventually saw. The eyes! I have a thing for eye trauma in movies. It bothers the fuck out of me. Horror Express (1972) traumatized me, just to give you an example of a movie with “eye trauma.” The eyes of the vampires in this particular show were terrifying to behold! And that was only a small portion of what terrified me. The child at the window, the caretaker back from the grave in the rocking chair, the attack on the family in the kitchen, the resurrection of the mother in the morgue, that unholy building-up of the music as she sits up and Ben Mears starts to lose his shit! Yeah, I lost my shit right along with him. Glimpses of Barlow; finally seeing Barlow; encountering Barlow in the basement of that goddamn house! Oh, yeah, I cannot forget to mention the Marsten house! The first house in movie history that terrified me. From the outside and from the inside. That memorable staircase that Fright Night (1985) homaged so perfectly. All the scenes in that house scared the fuck out of me too as well as Bill Norton’s impalement on the antlers!
By the time Ben and Mark were in that epilogue down in Mexico I was emotionally spent, much like the characters themselves. Interestingly I don’t recall Ben’s encounter with vampirized Susan to be especially scary. It could be because I was all scared out by that point.
I didn’t read the novel until the late 90s and became an instant fan of it. I think I’ve re-read it twice now.
Salem’s Lot (aka Jerusalem’s Lot) is a small town in New England that once housed a very evil man. His name was Hubert “Hubie” Marsten and he may or may not have been connected to a rash of child disappearances at the time. He eventually hung himself in his house. Around the time of his suicide a young boy broke in and was traumatized to see Hubie’s hanging corpse, a corpse he swears opened it’s eyes and looked at him. If I can remember Stephen King’s novel was more detailed about how truly evil Marsten was. The 1979 mini-series just gives you the light version, but what’s presented is still effective enough to set the tone.
A lifetime later two men coincidentally arrive in Salem’s Lot—Ben Mears (David Soul) and a Richard K. Straker (the late James Mason). Mears was that kid who broke into the Marsten house on a dare. He’s a novelist now who’s come back home to get some closure on this traumatic event and write a novel about the house. Mears has been so traumatized by seeing dead Hubie swinging in the breeze that merely being close to the house brings on uncontrollable sweating and terror within him. To the eyes of everyone else Staker is the public half of a pair of antique dealers who have chosen to open up their new store in the Lot. Kurt Barlow (the late Reggie Nalder) is the unseen half. In reality Barlow is a centuries old vampire and Straker is his “watch dog.” They’ve bought the old Marsten place and a store downtown. The novel depicts a more blatant connection between Marsten and Barlow, which explains why his old house was chosen as their new home. In Hooper’s mini-series it’s merely theorized that, perhaps, evil houses simply attract evil men, which is the more condensed version of King’s concept, but again still widely effective, because it’s vague enough to leave the door open for all kinds of weird, horrible ideas to occur to viewers as they watch.
Barlow hasn’t arrived yet, but he will. Straker keeps telling curious townsfolk, and Constable Parkins Gillespie (Kenneth McMillan), who wonder into their store that they will eventually meet him, he’s just on a buying trip in Europe. That night Straker has realtor Larry Crockett (Fred Willard) arrange for the delivery of a large crate to the house. Cover story he gives Crockett is it’s a headboard. In reality it’s Barlow in his coffin. Crockett enlists the aid of Ned Tibbets (Barney McFadden ) and Cully Sawyer (George Dzundza). Not the nicest guys around. Douchebags, you might call them. They deliver the crate to the Marsten house and it’s not without “incident.” The crate is uncannily cold, like freezing, and while in the back of the truck it mysteriously moves on it’s own.
They are given explicit orders to deliver it into the basement, which there’s access to from the outside, and then padlock those storm doors shut. They are so freaked out by being in the house they simply toss the chain and locks down into the basement after dumping the crate off and fleeing.
Now the vampirism begins, and it begins with two kids—Danny (Brad Savage) and Ralphie Glick (Ronnie Scribner,) who are visiting fellow classmate, Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin) at his home this night. They live not too far away and cut through the woods, but only one of them makes it back home. Someone, or something, finds them and takes the younger sibling. Later we find out who kidnapped and killed the kid—Straker! A shocking moment it is, especially in a 1979 TV mini-series when we see Straker enter the basement of the Marsten house carrying a small object wrapped tightly in black plastic. He sets it on a table and partially unwraps it. We see Ralphie Glick! An offering to Barlow! Pay attention to the surroundings as Straker enters the basement. That crate is now in pieces, like a bomb exploded from the inside.
Danny stumbled home and collapsed in his father’s arms. In the hospital he’s suffering from blood loss and shock. Now it officially begins to sweep through the town. Death, I mean. Ralphie comes back from the dead and visits his brother in the hospital. He’s killed, then buried by caretaker Mike Ryerson (Geoffrey Lewis), who is then killed and vampirized by Glick. He comes back and tries to take on local schoolteacher, Jason Burke (Lew Ayres), but fails! These particular vampire visits are, as I mentioned earlier, all filmed in terrifying fashion, and still hold up powerfully these days.
Larry Crocket turns up dead too, and now the Constable is forced to look at their new visitors, Mears and Straker, as possible suspects. Our heroine of this horror show is Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia), who fancies Mears . . . they get together, but never get to really explore their relationship before all the death and disappearances begin. Her vampirization and subsequent staking actually occurs in the middle of King’s novel, but for the ’79 mini-series it’s shoved at the very end, during the epilogue in Mexico. Personally, it plays better in the middle of the novel if you ask me.
Straker’s end, I think, is ironically at the hands of his master in the novel, or something else within the house, I can’t remember, but ends up being at the hands of Mears himself at the very end of the mini-series in the Marsten House. A scene that was also homaged in Fright Night. Mears shoots him several times as he comes down the stairs after him. In Fright Night, the “watch dog” is shot several times as he’s coming up the stairs.
In the final act it’s only Ben and Mark taking on Barlow, who is discovered to be hidden in a root cellar in the basement, a perfect place for his coffin and his undead entourage who awaken once Ben and Mark find him slumbering inside. In the novel, Barlow was a more clever and hid his coffin in Eva Miller’s (Marie Windsor) boarding house; the same boarding house Ben was staying at since he arrived. He knew when the shit hit the fan and they came looking for him the first place they’d assume he would be holing up is in the Marsten House. I’ll admit the whole final act in the novel is infinitely more terrifying and weirder, but nonetheless Hooper and his screenwriters did a fantastic job showing us how Ben and Mark battle Barlow in those final moments, staking him and then burning the house down, knowing the winds would eventually sweep the fire into town and burn all the vampires out of hiding and hopefully into death.
The epilogue is tied in perfectly with the prologue as both show Ben and Mark in Mexico fleeing and hunting the undead, when another one finds them and this time it’s Susan! This is where Ben has to tragically stake his former love.
There are two versions of Hooper’s Salem’s Lot in existence, the mini-series and a movie, which played in Europe and was a two-hour edit, but supposedly there were tidbits added that weren’t in the mini-series from what I understand. I remember Salem’s Lot: The Movie playing on cable. I didn’t have cable then, but I saw it listed in the TV guide and mentioned it to Lisa in class the next day. She didn’t seem to know what that version was either. Warner Brothers put out the 183-minute cut on DVD back in 1999 when snapper cases were all the rage, they’ve re-released it and repackaged it since then, but they’ve never released the movie version on disc. Come September 20th Warner finally decided to give the 183-minute cut it’s first ever blu-ray release with a new high definition remaster!
Buy it here on Amazon!
Video/Audio/Subtitles: 1080p 1.33:1 high definition widescreen—2.0 English DTS-HD Master Audio, 2.0 French Dolby Digital Mono, 2.0 Spanish Dolby Digital Mono, 2.0 Spanish Dolby Digital Mono, 2.0 Portuguese Dolby Digital Mono, 2.0 German Dolby Digital Mono—English SDH, French, German SDH, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish, Czech, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Polish, Swedish, Thai subs
This new remaster is phenomenal! There’s a dark sports coat Soul wears to dinner in the beginning that on the DVD never looked that striking. Here you can see the texture and it had me thinking, ‘so, that’s what it’s supposed to really look like,’ but where this remaster truly flexes it’s muscles are with all the scenes inside the Marsten House. It makes this impressively creepy abode even more so because of all the new detail now on display.
Extras included . . .
- Audio Commentary With Director Tobe Hooper
- International Theatrical Trailer
Hooper doesn’t mention any kind of “longer cut,” only mentioning, when the scene comes up, of the shotgun being placed in front of Larry Crockett’s face that for the movie version he filmed Crockett putting it in his mouth. He also mentioned some bits being cut out after Mears and Bill Norton enter the Marsten House, cut for pacing so there’d be room for commercials, but they weren’t snippets that impacted the story as a whole. He was stunned to see the graphic (for its time) impaling of Norton restored. He said it wasn’t originally aired that way either.
If you want to see what Salem’s Lot might look like if they had widescreened it, check out the International Trailer. It doesn’t look bad in that form actually.
I’m not sure how well known this 1979 version is to Millennials and younger. I get the feeling you guys might be more familiar with the 2004 mini-series remake, which was a bit more faithful to the novel, but failed utterly to capture the dread and fear of Tobe Hooper’s version. All the scenes that should have been creepy and unsettling weren’t, which was a big letdown for me. On the other hand they did construct a Marsten House that was just as creepy and unsettling as the ’79 one. My hats off to them for that. Barlow’s depiction was more in tune with the book too, and more characters made it into this version, but the prologue and epilogues were entirely original and not to my liking one bit. If they ever do a third version they should try doing a limited series, which would allow, I think, for a very faithful adaptation, but instead of being faithful to King’s Barlow, they should bring back the Nosferatu monster Hooper mentally crippled a lot of us kids with.
It’s interesting to realize both Salem’s Lot and The Shining were remade, but the remakes despite being more like their respective books fail to elicit the dread Hooper’s mini-series and Stanley Kubrick’s film embodied, both of which deviated heavily from what King wrote. Rare examples, I say, of deviation working for the novels rather than against it.
Finally, as an added treat, here’s the full coverage Cinefantastique did for the mini-series back in 1979. Click on the pages to zoom in and read!