Salem’s Lot (1979)


You Can Do Nothing Against The Master.

Main Cast: David Soul, James Mason

Director: Tobe Hooper

While only the second filmed adaptation of a Stephen King novel–and probably one of the most forgotten so many years later–the original television movie version of the novel ‘Salem’s Lot also contains one of the most memorable horror film moments ever made.  The window scene.

But which window scene?  I have a feeling most fans don’t remember there was more than just one window scene in SALEM’S LOT.  For years and years, I had been under that impression, too, that it was just one.  After all, the original version of this movie aired in November 1979–I was only 7–and the first time I saw it, probably the only time I saw it until recently, was so long ago that I remember almost nothing about it myself.  But I remembered that window scene. 

Or, rather, I remembered A window scene.  I can’t tell you which one it was, because honestly, none of them played out quite the way I remembered it, but I THINK it was probably the Mark Petrie/Danny Glick scene (in the previous two window scenes, it’s Ralphie Glick visiting his brother Danny, first at home and then in the hospital, just in case you didn’t remember.  I know I didn’t), with the newly-dead Danny scratching at the window and calling to Mark to let him in.  That’s creepy stuff.

But that scene is probably two minutes, leaving the other 181 minutes of ‘SALEM’S LOT almost completely forgotten.  And that’s a shame, because having just finished it for only the second time in my life, I see now just what a good movie this was.

SALEM’S LOT is the story of writer Ben Mears (David Soul, Starsky and Hutch) returning to his hometown of ‘Salem’s Lot, Maine after many years away.  He’s still haunted by memories of something that happened to him in the local haunted house, The Marsten House, and he’s using that fear to fuel his next novel.

Also new in town are Mr. Barlow (Reggie Nalder, MARK OF THE DEVIL) and Mr. Straker (James Mason, LOLITA), antique dealers who have bought the Marsten House and are opening a shop in town.  Unbeknownst to the rest of the town Barlow is a vampire, Straker is his manservant, and the beast is slowly making his way through the citizens.

‘SALEM’S LOT has always been one of my favorite King novels.  I love the subtlety with which King decimates an entire town.  He shows us just enough that it’s not a surprise when it happens, but he does it so quietly, piece by piece, with such a gradual, soft execution that by the time it happens, even though we, the readers, watched it take place, it still comes as a huge shock when we see it in its totality.  And that was something I always feared the movie version would lose.

I was wrong.  Director Tobe Hooper (THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE) and screenwriter Paul Monash (Peyton Place) apply that same skill to this movie that made the book work so well, taking this small, happy and well-populated town and, three hours later we’re living in a ghost town with Ben and only a couple others lucky enough to have escaped the bite of the vampires.

The movie deals very well with the novel’s large cast–deleting and combining here and there, but still maintaining a fairly large cast of characters–without the story feeling bogged down or confusing, which is also a testament to the strength of King’s original novel and his skill with building characters a reader can not only identify with but also make them unique enough the reader–or in this case, viewer–doesn’t become confused when we switch scenes and subplots.

Speaking of the large cast, there are some great talents here, a who’s who of Hollywood from the 1970s and 80s, including Geoffrey Lewis as Mike Ryerson, Bonnie Bedelia as Susan Norton, Fred Willard as Larry Crockett, Julie Cobb as Bonnie Sawyer, and Kenneth McMillan as Constable Gillespie.

After having seen Hooper’s TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, I was expecting a more visceral, hyperactive movie, but ‘SALEM’S LOT is built like a ghost story, and as such is much more patient in establishing the mood and building toward the scares.  This slower pace works well, because when the scares come, they really come, and there are a few seriously suspenseful moments here, and some downright creepy shots as a result of it.

The most notable change from book to movie is the character of Barlow who, in the book, is a normal-looking person who speaks and could pass for human, whereas producers of the movie changed him to a Nosferatu-like hissing creature that never utters a word.  When I first saw the movie, I had read and loved the book, and was disappointed in this change to the character, but having seen it again I think the alteration works.  The movie itself is so full of atmosphere and suspense, seeing the bald, blue-skinned creature with the yellow rat-like fangs doesn’t just add to it, it sends it over the top and is the perfect payoff for everything else that leads up to it.

King’s novel has been filmed twice now, and both times it was adapted for TV in order to deal with the novel’s length and the complexity of its plot.  We’ll get to the 2004 remake eventually, but for now I’m focusing on the original 1979 version and for my money, this is a case of a movie getting it right, despite all the changes that have been made to the source material.  In the end, none of those changes effect the heart of the novel and the story it tells, all of which is very much intact in this version.  It’s a hell of a commitment sitting through a 3-hour movie and I’m not often up to that task, but ‘SALEM’S LOT was worth the effort.

King on Film

Carrie (1976)

The Dark Half (1993)

The Tommyknockers (1993)

Needful Things (1993)

The Stand (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995)

The Mangler (1995)

Dolores Claiborne (1995)

The Langoliers (1995)

Sometimes They Comes Back … Again (1996)

Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering (1996)

Thinner (1996)

The Shining (1997)

Ghosts (1997)

Chattery Teeth (1997)

The Revelations of ‘Becka Paulson (1997)


The Night Flier (1997)

Chinga (1997)

Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (1998)

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