Halloween Stream: Revisiting Tobe Hooper’s Terrifying ‘Salem’s Lot’

Laura Bradley
·6-min read
Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy
Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy

It’s a mystery that will haunt me until the end of my days: How did a CBS miniseries starring the guy who’d just wrapped up playing Hutch of Starsky & Hutch turn out so goddamn traumatizing?

Tobe Hooper might be best known for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist, but his 1979 Salem’s Lot adaptation deserves a greater share of his legacy. The miniseries is downright tame next to the director’s other work—an acquiescence to the broadcast television conventions of the time. But even from within constraints, Hooper brings not only the plot of Stephen King’s work to screen, but also the demons that make it so haunting in the first place.

Perhaps the most improbable aspect of this production is its star, David Soul—the erstwhile “Hutch.” As Ben Mears, a horror author who’s returned to his sleepy Maine hometown to write about a creepy local mansion called the Marsten house, Soul delivers an earnest, no-frills performance. He’s a perfectly capable, totally forgettable good guy. Another actor could have done more with the role, but Soul’s performance is more straightforward than incapable.

On the other hand James Mason—who by 1979 had already played everyone from Captain Nemo, to Joseph of Arimathea—was perfectly cast. Here he plays Richard Straker, the dignified but shady antiques dealer who just bought the Marsten house in the hopes of opening an antiques shop with his elusive companion, Kurt Barlow. (Barlow, we eventually find out, is our big bad vamp; Richard is his crypt-keeper.) The English actor imbues each scene with equal amounts of creepiness and gravitas, his commitment never giving way to goofiness.

And then there’s the supporting cast that embodies all the local townies—an accomplished bunch of character actors and industry vets that includes Fred Willard, George Dzundza, Marie Windsor, Geoffrey Lewis, and Elisha Cook Jr. Far from accessories to the film’s main plot, these performers shoulder the brunt of the narrative tension in the miniseries’ first half—illuminating all of the shadows where Salem’s Lot’s worst secrets hide.

Romantic affairs, destitution, abusive husbands, and other non-supernatural afflictions run rampant in Salem’s Lot even before Ben Mears shows up to write about the Marsten house. It’s a thematic game King plays in most of his stories, drawing parallels between the paranormal experiences his characters incur and their own checkered histories.

But that said, this is a vampire flick—and there are a lot of vampire scares packed into the broadcast’s latter installment, especially.

In one of the most memorable flourishes Ralphie Glick, the first of Barlow’s victims, floats outside his older brother Danny’s window surrounded by a cloud of smoke, pawing at the glass and begging to be let in. His eyes glow and little fangs protrude from his mouth as the music billows and lilts with the mist. The scratching is unbearable.

Hooper repeats the gambit later after Danny goes the way of his brother—and the nightmare-inducing visuals later inspired a similar scene in The Lost Boys. Even if the effects have begun to show their seams, the scenes still hold up thanks to their chilling lighting and sound design.

Once the entire town starts craving blood, it’s up to the supporting cast to make their vampire selves sufficiently monstrous. Lewis, especially, proves one of the miniseries’ most compelling sources of gradual dread as his character slowly transitions into a vampire—a slow-burning transformation that culminates in one of the miniseries’ most nightmare-inducing scenes. Brad Savage, who plays Danny, also put those glowing eyes and pointy fangs to especially horrifying use.

Salem’s Lot’s practical effects and editing tricks could make the production feel dated. Freeze frames and sudden orchestral blasts are scattered throughout to produce jump scares, and the Nosferatu-like makeup used on Reggie Nalder’s boss vampire character might feel less convincing to generations accustomed to computer animation. (And that’s ignoring the textual loyalists who wish the miniseries had let Barlow appear human, as he does in the novel.) But retrospectively, that’s why Hooper’s involvement was so crucial to the miniseries’ place in horror history.

Beyond the demonic children and deer antler impalements, Hooper grounds Salem’s Lot with nods to countless horror classics. He cast a North by Northwest alum in one of the film’s most pivotal roles, and invokes Hitchcock films in a number of places. Barlow, introduced at times by his long, claw-like fingers, is an intentionally obvious Nosferatu lookalike. In this context, the miniseries feels like an interesting snapshot of horror conventions of the time and where they fit in the genre’s history as a whole.

Now, though, the production is due for another update. After a 2004 reinterpretation starring Rob Lowe, Salem’s Lot is now set to receive its first feature adaptation—although it’s unclear when that will debut, in light of the pandemic. In April Deadline reported that Annabelle Comes Home director Gary Dauberman is set to direct.

As exciting as the prospect might be to some, it will be hard for the new production to match the heights of the old—and not just because of all that Hooper’s interpretation accomplished. Moving this story to the big screen might also squander the most endearing aspect of the original—the fact that it was, in fact, made for television.

Brian de Palma set the bar high when he adapted King’s first novel, Carrie, in 1976. But Hooper’s miniseries beautifully illustrates how at home King’s worlds can feel on the small screen. At a time when so much “prestigious” television garners praise for aping the conventions of cinema, there’s something delightful about watching horror television that was explicitly, unabashedly made for TV.

That’s not to say that all of King’s works have turned out best on the small screen. After Salem’s Lot became a huge hit for CBS, ABC began its own string of King mini-series adaptations (It, The Stand, The Langoliers) in 1990—the same year it debuted Twin Peaks from another Americana-obsessed horror aficonado, David Lynch. As so often happens, the later miniseries never lived up to the original.

But even stitched together as a movie rather than a two-part series, something just feels right about watching Salem’s Lot as interpreted for television—always from my couch, always under a huge blanket. After all, what better way to enjoy an author whose work, above all, embraces small, sleepy towns and everyman heroes than from the sacred space of your own living room?

Salem’s Lot is available on Cinemax, and for rental on Amazon.

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