Falling For Tobe Hooper's SALEM'S LOT
Shudder is celebrating the master of the macabre, Stephen King, and has uploaded the wildly different but both entirely wonderful anthologies Creepshow and Cat's Eye. Alongside these films, they've also added two King mini series to their stable. One is the Tim Curry vehicle IT which was a staple of my childhood and has been watched numerous times, as recently as earlier this year before it's reboot's blu ray release. The second was a mini series that I had only ever seen glimpses of, mostly of the famously Nosferatu-esque vampire that haunted the film, and that was Tobe Hoopers 'Salem's Lot from 1979. So after double taking at a 3+ hour run time, and reminding myself that it was a mini series, I decided to dive in.
Now King is a tricky beast to tackle adaptation wise and I give a whole lot of credit to anyone who tries. Although the success rate is probably about 50-50, I would say a faithful adaptation of the work is an even more diminished percentage. This isn't to say that it lessens the film at all, because some directors (Kubrick, Muschietti) are able to still capture the feel of King's work while being able to cleave some of the source material but still keep it a faithful adaptation in tone. The man doesn't make it easy. He's well known for tomes of work, and even his slimmer novels are full of dense character building, little nuances and details that would be nigh-impossible to fully fit into feature length format.
Thus, the mini series.
'Salems Lot was a two night event for CBS in the fall of 1979. After nearly every horror director in Hollywood threw their hat in on the film, no one could come up with a script that King or the studio liked. They finally settled on a miniseries and tapped Paul Monash (of Carrie fame) to pen the adaptation, having had prior success with King and also small town life, having written for daytime soap Peyton's Place for years. After the wild success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper was sought after and landed.
As I settled in one evening to finally watch Hooper's vampiric adventure, I found myself a little bored. The movie seemed to be dragging, with little to no action, and not only that but not a vampire in sight. Instead I'm introduced to a myriad of characters and given backstory on the town, the strange new owner of the purportedly evil Marsten House, and get a feel for the blue collar vibe of Jerusalem's Lot.
God damn, Tobe, you genius. Hooper, realizing that having the film made for tv would call for restrictions, restrains himself and instead of giving us the full tilt mania of Texas instead spends a good amount of time detailing the town and building an incredible amount of atmosphere. Without even realizing it, you are suddenly part of 'Salems Lot. You understand the geography of the town, the relationships between characters, Hooper is able to do what King does so expertly and inserts us into the setting of the story. With the same supernatural powers of the reflective eyes of the undead, Hooper hypnotizes his audience.
Once Barlow finally arrives in town, Hooper eases into the gas and we are taken along for the ride as the movie steadily gains speed. After firmly baiting the viewer, we've already got the hook in before he starts the slow reel. Weird circumstances begin to occur and tapping into the best portions of 30's horror, Hooper uses mist and set design to his advantage. Creaking boards and creeping fog are used tactically to build an uneasy sense of dread before we are finally introduced to the undead.
In a scene of true terror, a billowing mystical fog of unearthly color envelops the window frame of Danny Glick when his freshly turned brother Ralphie floats up to invite him to the world of the undead. Using this same setting, Hooper is able to intensify the fear when a troupe of vampiric children come to the window of horror film fanatic Mark Petrie, who uses a model cross to repel the bloodsucking brood. The hissing, baring teeth and reverse fog effect of the dispelled vampires is one of the most entrancing scenes in the film.
As the movie continues and we are finally revealed to the Nosferatu-inspired Barlow, centuries undead with vermin like fangs and mirrored eyes, I realized exactly what this was. Hooper knew that the same kind of shocking brutality from Texas wouldn't pass for television standards so instead he reached back into the classic volumes of horror. From the soundtrack to the drama of the townsfolk, Hooper beautifully combines the intrinsic storytelling of King with the gothic poetry of thirties monster movies. Blood and violence are rare exports in this film but Hooper doesn't need it. Instead we have a haunting scene of a gravedigger returned, rocking quietly in a chair as his moonlit eyes stare down Jason Burke, a slow murmur of a heartbeat quietly rising, representing our own. Hooper finds terror in the quiet, static moments.
When I started 'Salems Lot, I messaged my staff and told them, "I don't know if I'll make it through." But I did. Not only that, while doing so, I fell in love with Hooper showcasing his chops as a director. In a direct 180 of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hooper relies on old school craft and atmospheric mood setting to create an ode to monster movies, a faithful King adaptation, and a damn fine movie.