Salem’s Lot

Salem’s Lot (1979)
Warner Home Video
Cast: David Soul, James Mason, Reggie Nalder
Extras: Trailer

Based on a novel by horror master Stephen King, "Salem’s Lot" is a dark vampire story, taking place in a Maine small town, as typical for King’s work. The novel is actually King’s second book, first published in 1975 and it shows much of his true talent, long before he became the routine-writer of overblown epics of late.
King knows quite well how to tell a story, how to build tension and make the evil tangible if he wants to and I have always felt that his take on the vampire genre in "Salem’s Lot" stood out among other releases. Not without reason is King repeatedly going back to this particular novel to lift distinctive elements off for his other stories. Plot devices and character templates from "Salem’s Lot" can be found in "Needful Things", "It", "Insomnia" "The Stand", "Storm Of The Century" and countless other books by the author, in an almost self-plagiarizingly obvious manner. Part of the reason why "Salem’s Lot" works so well is certainly because the story doesn’t really feel like a vampire story in its classic sense. It comes across more as a horrific tale of good and evil, fear and hope, that revolves around creatures as catalysts who happen to be vampires. In 1979 then Warner Brothers turned the highly successful novel into a TV mini series, which they now present on a great looking DVD.

Ben Mears (David Soul) is a writer who returns to his hometown "Salem’s Lot" after years of absence. He still has a fascination with the "Marsden House", a hilltop mansion that has given generations the chills and has been the fabric of their local haunted house stories. As a child, Ben had set foot in the house once, and ran away scared to death after seeing ghosts and apparitions there.

Upon his return to Salem’s Lot, Ben decides to write book about the Marsden House and learns that is now owned by a man called Straker (James Mason), a suave antiques dealer, and his partner, the elusive Mr. Barlow (Reggie Nalder). Soon after they moved to the mansion, strange things happen to the local townspeople. Children vanish mysteriously and re-appear at night, with ghoulishly disfigured grimaces at their loved ones’ bedroom windows. People are overcome by weakness in their ghastly dreams at night, eventually dying of supposed anemia.

Ben is the first to recognize the pattern and tries to find help from his former high-school teacher, and soon the two of them find themselves confronted with vampires. Living undead who attack every living being with ferocity. If they can’t stop the evil soon, the entire town of "Salem’s Lot" will be inhabited by the Undead in a matter of days. All the signs point towards the Marsden House and then, one day, Ben’s girlfriend Susan (Bonnie Bedelia) disappears in broad daylight. He has to take action in order to stop the disease that is spreading quickly and he will have to face his own demons by going back inside the Marsden House.

Director Tobe Hooper and screenwriter Paul Monash did a great job converting the lengthy Stephen King novel to this 3-hour movie, and much of the film’s appeal has to attributed to Hooper’s tasteful and delicate treatment of the subject manner. The filmmakers chose to use a rather interesting plot point to get the film going, while the actual story is slowly unfolding. Usually in a 3-hour film you have a lengthy setup during the first act, then another lengthy second act and finally the resolution during the film’s final 20 minutes or so. It is part of the reason why so many TV miniseries just don’t manage to convince. Everything is slowly developing and there is no real payoff for the viewer during the first two-and-a-half hours of the film. "Salem’s Lot" is somewhat different, quickly establishing a good pace by introducing a subplot on the side that has nothing to do with the actual drama unfolding in the overall picture, but helps immensely to get people hooked on the film. It is the story of the cheating wife and her husband who stages a supposed business trip, only to catch her and her boss in flagranti. After the movie you might first think, what was that for, they completely lost those characters halfway through the film, but in fact it is a highly efficient dramatic device that helps setting "Salem’s Lot" apart from the standard crop.

In the meanwhile we are witnessing the grotesque events unfolding in the town of Salem’s Lot, and there are quite a few good scenes in the film that will give you goosebumps. The film doesn’t use shocks a lot and is also not very graphic. Atmosphere is the modus operandi Tobe Hooper uses and builds a very unsettling feel for the community. After the first vampire shows up in the form of a little boy, you know that this is not a place you would want to be. By the time we finally witness the dead raise by the numbers and the master vampire appears for the first time, "Salem’s Lot" has long created a truly scary atmosphere that will rattle your nerves all the way to the final minutes.

David Soul is great as the torn and oftentimes timid Ben Mears, who has trouble overcoming his own nightmares and childhood impediments. Gradually he grows as he takes on more responsibility and eventually faces evil – although the change to become very dominant is occurring a bit too fast in the end. On the other hand, James Mason makes a great antagonist in this film. He establishes an aura of mysticism around his character that is never fully resolved and always keeps the viewer weary about his real plans. The two are supported by great additional cast who all manage to create dimensional characters with a believable feel of disbelief surrounding them as they first face the Undead.

"Salem’s Lot" is presented in its original <$PS,fullscreen> aspect ratio on this DVD from Warner Home Video. Although the film looks slightly dated, especially due to the color schemes used in the film and the use of overly dark shadows, the transfer on this DVD is a stunning presentation of the film. Without noise or grain, the video transfer captures every bit of information and faithfully reproduces it on your screen. A <$RSDL,dual-layer> disc has been used for this release and since there are no real extras and only a single audio track, most of that space has been efficiently used to improve the video quality. There are no signs of compression artifacts visible anywhere in the film, and the level of detail is impressive. Colors are faithfully rendered throughout from the most colorful scenes all the way to the very natural looking fleshtones.

"Salem’s Lot" contains only the film’s original English language track in its original monaural presentation. The quality of the track is very good throughout, although the mix sounds a bit aged and muffled at times, a problem that could only be resolved with a complete restoration of the movie however. Subtitles in English and French are also supplied on the disc, accessible through the disc’s menu. The only extra on the disc is a lengthy trailer. Interestingly it gives away many of the film’s key scenes, but at the same time manages to build an appetite for the movie. After seeing these ghastly and fiery images, I am sure every horror fan must have turned into the TV station to watch the show.

I loved "Salem’s Lot", the novel – in my eyes still one of King’s best books to date – and I loved this TV mini series when I first saw it many years ago. At the time, David Soul was better known as Hutch from the TV series "Starsky & Hutch" which hampered his part a little, but nonetheless I felt back then already that he put in a great performance. Seeing the film again now, so many years later, I am glad to see that he and the film itself still holds up exceedingly well. For fans of the horror genre, this movie is a treat that is just perfect for Halloween. Not too gory, not too graphic, but incredibly creepy!