First Time Watching Salem’s Lot (1979): Quick Bite Review

Julien Neaves, Editor

Now wait a minute. A horror review by Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves? Where’s Horror Head Writer Sommerleigh Pollonais? Well, Sommer is on a well deserved break this week so I am stepping in to give you your weekly dose of T&A, which obviously means Terror and Anxiety. What did you think it meant?

And for my guest spot I decided to review something that I have often heard talked about in glowing terms but had never seen, 1979 horror miniseries Salem’s Lot, which is based on the 1975 Stephen King horror novel of the same. The miniseries follows a writer returning to the titular sleepy hometown only to discover its citizens are turning into vampires. It was directed by horror aficionado Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and TCM 2, Poltergeist, Lifeforce, Invaders from Mars remake). The miniseries received a film sequel in 1987 (A Return to Salem’s Lot), a 2004 miniseries remake with Rob Lowe and a new film version announced (though when it will arrive is anybody’s guess). But before the Hollywood remake treatment let’s to take the time to bite into the classic miniseries. With a stake-shaped SPOILER ALERT I’m going to head down to Salem’s Lot, Maine and see what I can dig up with my First Time Watching Retro Review.

You smell like teen spirit

I usually start my reviews talking about the characters but they were not the main selling point for me here. No, it’s all about those undead bloodsuckers, and kudos to Hooper and co. for making them truly freaking and unnerving. They operate like traditional vampires—drinking blood, must be invited to come in, drinking blood, power of flight, shunning daylight, fear of crosses, the usual stuff. What makes them stand out is the bluish pallor to their skin and those hideous glowing eyes, like cat’s eyes when light reflects on it. The sight of little Ralphie Glick with those glowing eyes hovering outside his brother’s window has to be one of the scariest, most bone-chilling images ever put to film. Pure, unadulterated nightmare fuel.

The big bad Kurt Barlow looks like your typical Nosferatu-esque ancient vampire but the costume work is still very well done. The only vamp that didn’t really work for me was Geoffrey Lewis’ Mike Ryerson, as his attempts at being threatening came off kind of campy. But the Glick boys and Barlow? Those were scary dudes. I also liked how the vampires operate. Sure, they hide in daylight, but when night falls they are very aggressive in their feeding and truly do spread like a plague as our protagonist describes it.

If Starsky was here, he would help me

And what of the townsfolk of Salem’s Lot? Yeah, they were just okay and I didn’t really find myself getting too invested into them; I suspect the fleshing out King usually does in his novels was sorely lacking here. David Soul (best known as Detective Kenneth “Hutch” Hutchinson from 70s cop series Starsky & Hutch) makes for a decent enough lead in writer Ben Mears. After seeing a ghost at the creepy old Marsten House as a child (King does loves his childhood trauma) he returns on a mission to unearth its evil and destroy it. Soul is a bit too cool and aloof, and I never really get a man haunted and driven. On the positive side, he does have strong chemistry with Bonnie Bedelia’s Susan Norton, making the final scene of him having to stake her truly heartbreaking. Lance Kerwin is likeable as horror-loving Mark and Kenneth McMillan delivers as the blowhard Constable Gillespie. The best performance, however, is easily veteran actor James Mason as Barlow’s partner and servant Richard Straker. There is a mix of the genteel, the condescending and the menacing in every line and it is delightful.

Salem’s Lot was a TV miniseries so it is mostly a bloodless affair and the camera often cuts away from the vampire-on-human violence. Heck, Barlow kills Mark’s parents by bashing their heads together, which is kinda goofy. If this was a 2022 film he would have ripped either their throats out or their heads off and buckets of blood would have sprayed everywhere. The scene of poor Dr. Bill Norton getting skewered on the deer antlers was pretty intense, but was more exception than rule here. Despite not being a gore hound’s wet dream the miniseries is still effective at creating a foreboding atmosphere throughout and not relying too much on jump scares but on tension within the particular scene. And the downbeat ending of Mears and Mark continuing to be hunted by vampires, possibly for the rest of their days, felt like some classic King.

It’s a bit of a fixer upper

I think Salem’s Lot holds up relatively well for a more than 40-year-old horror miniseries made for the small screen. The practical effects are strong, the imagery striking, the theme music by Harry Sukman is unsettling, and there is no denying the impact it has had on some of the best of the vampire genre, like The Lost Boys (personal favourite), Fright Night and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

It may not be my all-time favourite vampire tale but it is very good one. So if, like me, you had never paid a visit to Salem’s Lot, then you are definitely missing out. Just don’t let any creepy floating kids in your window.

Score: 8 out of 10

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Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.

So are you a fan of the original Salem’s Lot? How would you rate it? And you can check out more classic vampire content below:

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