Tobe Hooper's Dark Vacation to "Salem's Lot"

I did it. I finally tackled Salem's Lot. I can't think of another popular fiction property that I've known about for so long and yet…avoided reading. And Salem’s Lot isn't the only Stephen King book I've neglected. Read my mea culpa here.

After finishing my dark vacation to the Lot, I decided to remedy another ill. I'd never seen Tobe Hooper's 1979 adaptation of Salem’s Lot. I’d seen Dane Cook movies, but no Salem’s Lot. Disgusting, right?

(PS: Dane Cook’s been cast in American Gods, based on the Neil Gaiman novel. It could work. Cook was actually great in Dan in Real Life)

So, why should I watch Salem’s Lot? Because it’s not just based on a Stephen King book; it was directed by Tobe Hooper.

The Tobe-ster - 1970s Edition

The Tobe-ster - 1970s Edition

Hooper is a legend in horror cinema. In the early 1970s, he rewrote horror history with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a brutal and visceral film that gutpunched the sensibilities of 1970s moviegoers - and sixteen-year-old me. It now stands alongside Psycho, Halloween and The Exorcist as one of the most original films of all time. And I don’t have to mention Poltergeist, The Funhouse, Lifeforce and Invaders From Mars. The dude has made his mark, and he did it even before he directed this film.

So, it’s required viewing. For me. For you. For everyone.

(Beware Ye, of spoilers below)

Artwork that famously adorned VHS copies at Blockbuster (R.I.P.)

Artwork that famously adorned VHS copies at Blockbuster (R.I.P.)

The ’79 adaptation of Salem's Lot differs significantly from King’s novel. Even with a runtime of more than three hours, characters had to be combined and plot details rearrange. Some of the books most memorable scenes have been greatly condensed, sanitized for television, or omitted completely. And you have to expect that when the source material is as sprawling and detailed as this.

Although the movie is greatly constrained by its budget and the demands of 1970s broadcast television, it still worked for me to a great extent. The story’s roots as a small-town soap opera are evident (King was reportedly inspired by a super successful novel and tv series called Peyton Place), but when the film’s horror works, it really works.

What Worked for Me

You can fly, You can fly, You can fly

And you can’t beat Ralphie Glick floating up to scratch on his brother’s window. It’s a scene that’s haunted many childhoods. Even though I’ve seen the image before, floating around on the internet, it was still effective. Hooper draws out the scene, allowing you to really look at the kid, and it’s terrifying. It was clearly shot on a stage, and there’s minimal set decorations, but that lends to the scene’s effectiveness. There are no distractions. The audience is drawn into the dream-like visage as if we, too, are being bewitched by the vampire.

"Scratch, scratch"

"Scratch, scratch"

The Make-Up Design of Barlow

Kurt Barlow is transformed from a smooth, elegant, European gentleman into an outright monster. Though the look is clearly inspired by Nosferatu’s design, Barlow’s glowing eyes, spiked rabbit teeth and aging makeup really differentiate this vampire as something iconic in its own right.

The way Barlow operates in the movie is very different than in the novel. Hooper is definitely painting in broader strokes than King, and I don't blame him. Even though the runtime of Salem's Lot is over three hours, the space Hooper has to work within pales in comparison to the many pages King had. It makes sense that Hooper would have to condense, simplify and magnify certain aspects of the novel. And the most dramatic simplification was Barlow. Hooper took away his power to speak, which was used in the novel to great effect to seduce and psychologically capture victims. Now Straker speaks for Barlow, which is a perfectly fine adjustment to make. If you have the right actor as Straker.

Bonnie Bedelia

Susan Norton isn’t given much to work with in the novel. She’s the love interest of our leading man, Ben Mears. I didn’t get enough time with her to really care about her. She’s turned into a vampire pretty early, staked, and her body disposed of - all in a way that felt so unfinished, I expected her to return in some capacity at the novel’s conclusion.

Casting Bonnie Bedelia as Sue was a great decision. She has the accessible beauty of a small town girl. Her performance is so gentle and sweet. It’s easy to see why anyone would fall in love with her. And Hooper really improves Sue’s character arc. It was brilliant to bring her back at the end for one final shot at seducing Ben Mears, only to have him stake her brutally in the heart. It’s a great stinger. I’m not sure Sue would have worked had a lesser actress been cast. It’s easy to see why she would later become Ms. John McClain in Die Hard.

Bonnie Bedelia was a smokeshow

Bonnie Bedelia was a smokeshow

What Didn’t Work for Me

Straker
James Mason was a fine actor. The man earned three Oscar nominations and also appeared in one of my favorite films, North by Northwest. But I think he was miscast as Straker.

In King’s novel, Straker arrives as a scary, ominous presence that portends the many horrors to come. His dialogue is some of the most compelling, and I found him even more terrifying than Barlow. Those early scenes between Straker and Crockett are mesmerizing.

Although Mason gives the role his all, he comes off as prissy and aloof. He doesn't portray the strong, stiff-backed and short-tongued Straker of the novel. This is even more problematic when you consider the major changes to Barlow. Rather than the dapper, quiet, bald gentleman that we find on the page, Hooper’s Barlow is a silent monster. And it is Mason who must speak for him. The result is that the misplaced performance of one actor is multiplied by two.

Sorry, buddy.

Sorry, buddy.

Hutch’s Mad Game
Ben Mears, played by Starsky & Hutch star David Soul, finds Sue reading his book in the park. And proceeds to creep on her with some of the worst pickup lines I’ve ever heard. I’m sure this scene made much more sense in the ‘70s, when David Soul was motorcycling through the hearts of every woman in America. But now it’s just bad. I did laugh at this scene. So, there’s that.

There’s also another television miniseries adaptation of Salem’s Lot, done for TNT in 2004. That version stars Rob Lowe as Ben Mears, Rutger Hauer as Barlow and Donald Sutherland as Straker. Might be worth a watch, but first I’ve got to time-travel back in time to 2004 to find it.

Next Week: The Shining. The book.