Salem’s Lot Will Grip Your (David) Soul

One of my favorite shows when I was a kid was Starsky and Hutch. While most people fell for Paul Michael Glaser, I was a David Soul fan all the way, so naturally when he ended up in a TV miniseries based on a novel by Stephen King I was in heaven!

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It is widely known that Stephen King’s works don’t translate all that well on the big screen (Misery, Stand By Me and The Green Mile being exceptions in my book).  Many would argue his work doesn’t hold up well on the small screen either. In the case of Salem’s Lot (1979), what started out as a big screen treatment turned into a small screen miniseries after two other films involving vampires (Dracula, starring James Langella, Sir Laurence Olivier and Donald Pleasance) and Werner Herzog’s German remake of NosferatuNosferatu the Vampyre – hit the big screen the same year.

The miniseries drew a big name for the director – Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and boasted a set of actors that all had widely successful careers before, during, and after the miniseries including Bonnie Bedelia (Die Hard), Lew Ayres (All Quiet on the Western Front), Kenneth McMillan (Dune) and my personal favorite James Mason (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea).

James Mason’s portrayal of Mr. Straker, Mr. Barlow’s companion and bodyguard, is deliciously arrogant and chilling.  Mr. Mason’s natural British dialect serves the character well – Mr. Straker comes across as completely unfazed and in control of the situation at all times, even in those moments when he knows he is being hunted by the vampire slayers.

A wonderful dialogue exchange between Mason and McMillan (the town cop) occurs when Mason has to turn over two black suits to be examined by the FBI as possible evidence in the disappearance of one of the school children. After Mason chides McMillan to dry clean the suits before returning them he turns to leave:

Mason:  Ciao

McMillan: Ciao?

Mason (turning back to face McMillan): Ciao.  It’s Italian. It means… goodbye.

McMillan: I didn’t realize you were Italian Mr. Straker.

Mason: I’m not. The word is.

Classic! Mason’s delivery of the lines are impeccable, and make me giggle every time I see it.

For a TV movie, the cinematography and soundtrack are above board in my opinion. It feels like a big screen movie, and, in a bit of trivia, the miniseries was eventually released in Europe as one – albeit a shortened version.  The TV movie/miniseries clocks in at 3 hours and 4 minutes or thereabout. The European big screen treatment chops off about an hour, including the ending!  The translations also were a bit suspect – in some countries the movie was called Phantasm II and billed as a sequel to Phantasm even though the two films weren’t connected at all.

I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it, but if you ever watch Salem’s Lot on video and it doesn’t start with a scene in Guatemala, you are watching the shortened European theatrical release and not the TV miniseries.

I still find many of the vampire scenes themselves quite chilling, although I was never impressed with Mr. Barlow (the head vampire). I didn’t care for his makeup at all. He looked fake, and frankly, a Nosferatu knock off. I always thought the townspeople who became vampires were more realistic… more creepy/chilling.  The night scenes with the Glick boys always sends a chill down my spine, and even now if I hear a scraping or tapping outside my window I bury my head under the covers and pray for sunlight!

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I always try to watch this one in October – puts me in the perfect mood for Halloween.  Some may find it hokey, but I’ve always enjoyed a good vampire flick, and I think this one fits the bill, especially in the classic horror group.

One thing to note – devoted Stephen King fans may not appreciate the miniseries as it does deviate quite a bit from the novel. I say enjoy it for what it is.

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