Adaptation of Stephen King’s novel has a small town gradually destroyed by vampires. Its deterioration is watched by typical King heroes: a successful novelist and a teenage horror fan. Central is the old Madsen house with a gruesome, haunted reputation and the arrival of antique dealer Straker and his employer Barlow. Overnight, the vampire is delivered to the quiet town in a crate and the deaths begin.
With two genre heavyweights at the helm with Stephen King and director Tobe Hooper, expectations were high for this adaptation. The general consensus amongst critics appears to be that King’s novel suffered from the limitations of television, but the novel was never particularly explicit in its horrors. It was more interested in the menace and weakening community. In this way, the TV film format seems ideal for King’s picket fence society threatened by the supernatural. The wide cast of secondary yet vividly drawn characters that populate King’s fiction often offer a soap-like backdrop, yet there may be something to Peter Nicholls’ accusation of David Soul being a “predictably wet bit of television casting.”1 It is up to James Mason to deliver the acting delights in a nicely ambiguous turn as Straker. And it is also true that the moments that crescendo to a freeze-frame might hint at CBS censorship more than subtlety. The same year, John Carpenter’s ‘The Fog’ created a similar community under supernatural threat horror, yet also demonstrated how a film may be both bloodless without compromising its violence too far.
Hooper’s ‘Salem’s Lot’, as Kim Newman has written, is a “respectable rather than devastating” adaptation that lives under the “baleful shadow of ‘Psycho’.”2 He identifies the more typically Hooperesque moment as that when a husband catches his wife and her lover and humiliates them with a shotgun. The feel here, with the over-boiled facial distress and violence implied by editing rather than by outcome, is certainly more akin to ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ than the rather plain direction elsewhere (don’t forget that ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ was relatively bloodless too). Nevertheless, there is enjoyment in its long running time and slow build-up of character and incident that is closer to the novel than the 112 minute film that was subsequently edited from the miniseries.
‘Salem Lot’s greatest improvement upon the novel is in its use of the Glick brother vampires. In the novel, what mostly happens off-stage and is known through dialogue exposition is here given an unforgettable visual rendition. The vampire boys float outside windows, scraping on the glass, demanding to be let in. It is perhaps the film’s most memorable and chilling image, although certainly not it’s only one. I remember as a young teenager watching ‘Salem’s Lot’ and being terrified, not only by the vampires-at-the-window moments, but also at the graveyard cliffhanger and the Mr Barlow reveal. I remember watching it a second time from behind a cushion because I knew it was going to be scary. Its ambience and shock moments certainly worked on me and I am sure this particular mini-series traumatised a generation of horror fans.
The film’s greatest deviation from the novel is in its conception of Barlow the vampire. Hooper has opted to make Barlow a homage to Max Shreck’s ‘Nosferatu’; he is no longer the pretentious, condescending orator of the book: Straker is now his mouthpiece. Barlow’s entrance is another unexpected shocker, but his appearance gains the story little more than monster-make up, but nevertheless a strong defining image. It is at its best when Barlow invades an ordinary domestic dinner scene.
In many ways, ‘Salem’s Lot’ is a successful King adaptation. Despite its TV conventions, ‘Salem’s Lot’ manages some rawness, black humour and shocks; it is at least scary and atmospheric and has aged better than the televised and fondly remembered version of ‘It’. It is a long way down from here to ‘The Lost Boys’. There is no vampire sub-genre deconstruction as in Romero’s ‘Martin’, but ‘Salem’s Lot’s greatest strength is in allowing the vampires the greater visual set-ups and juxtapositioning them against the otherwise naturalistic framing. Vampires sitting in rocking chairs and coming to life on autopsy tables will still provide the delights for genre fans.
· - Larry Cohen made A Return to Salem’s Lot, another television horror in 1987, but its relationship to the original novel and film was highly tenuous.
· - Stephen King’s anthology ‘Night Shift’ contains a short story that vaguely follows up ‘Salem’s Lot’ called ‘One for the Road’. Typical of the collection, it is a slight, only mildly satisfying short.
 Peter Nicholls, Fantastic Cinema: an illustrated survey, (Ebury Press, London, 1984) pg. 145.
2 Kim Newman, Nightmare Movies: a critical guide to contemporary horror films, (Harmony Books, New York, 1988) pg. 54.