Saturday, 8 December 2012

Salem's Lot

1979, US, Directed by Tobe Hooper
Colour, Running Time: 106 minutes
Review Source: VHS, PAL, Warner Home Video; Video: 1.33:1, Audio: Mono

Returning to the town of his upbringing, author Ben Mears intends to write a book about a solitary house that sits on the outskirts of town, a place that has intrigued him since breaking into it for a dare as a child and witnessing apparitions of some kind. Due to what he thinks he saw inside Mears has come to believe that the Marsten house is inherently evil and therefore attracts evil people; complying with his theory it has recently been purchased by the apparently malevolent Mr Straker, an outsider who is opening up an antiques shop in town. After a study session one night two schoolboys are walking home via a short cut through the woods. Becoming separated one of them manages to reach home but not before something has happened to him to result in hospitalisation. During his stay his missing brother makes a nocturnal visit to his room window where, upon entering, the deathly child bites his brother’s neck draining him of blood and life. Soon the town is in the grip of a vampire curse which begins multiplying and Mears reasons that it has something to do with Straker and his associate, Mr Barlow, a ominous man nobody has actually seen.
This is the theatrical cut of the original three hour made-for-TV version of Stephen King’s novel. They basically took the full version, removed a large portion of material (notably the vials that glow in the vicinity of the undead), inserted a couple of gorier shots and sent it out to cinemas. I always felt it was a tight and concise edit though the rapid pace of character introduction and development early on betrays the fact that footage has been excised - fans of the novel may be disappointed. 70s pop and TV icon David Soul (most famously Starsky & Hutch of course) plays the obsessive lead role well and the articulate presence of James Mason brings a touch of class. The vampires are suitably inhuman and remain a near definitive rendition of cinema’s extensively-used bloodsuckers, in particular Barlow himself, who might just be the most repulsive and frightening vampire on celluloid. All traces of the romanticism that often pervade the sub-genre have been eliminated resulting in creatures that are uncanny and unnerving because of their utter lack of humanity - rotting shells devoid of souls. Harry Sukman's brooding score is reminiscent of an earlier era and aptly supports the material; Salem’s Lot is innately an old-fashioned chiller that relies on atmosphere rather than shocks (although there are a few) and outright bloodshed (of which there is hardly any on screen). The fact that it was made for TV possibly worked in its favour - nowadays, because film-makers can show everything, they often do, sometimes forgetting about what else might make a horror project effective in the process. One of the better King adaptations, this is also one of Tobe Hooper’s finest hours, a man who perennially seems unable to repeat the success of his groundbreaking first movie (Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Surprisingly there was a ’sequel’ in 1987, A Return to Salem’s Lot: it’s elusive nowadays and, whilst obviously a cash-in, it wasn’t too bad if my memory serves me well.

Why hold on to this ailing video cassette? Well, Warner have been kind enough to digitally grant us with the full length TV version but there is no sign that the theatrical edit will ever make it to DVD or Blu. The ideal disc package would obviously contain both. While people often want the longest version of a film possible I believe that in this case the shorter version provides a satisfying way to experience the film. There was also ostensibly a European cut that incorporated a couple of slight differences. Full-frame picture quality on the UK tape leaves a lot to be desired as does the muffled sound, but until this becomes available on disc (whether it be SD or HD) I’ll be holding on to this tape.


  1. Hi Paul. I have fond memories of the original TV broadcast of this, and I have the DVD lined up for a rewatch over the upcoming holidays. I've been thinking of buying the book too.


  2. Hi Colin, hope you're doing okay. There are some really effective sequences and I quite like the retro feel of the atmosphere, plus I think the vampire Barlow is one of the best in cinema (particularly compared to some of today's pretty boy/girl teen vamps!).

    I was thinking about you and RTHC the other day btw as I watched a classic film noir on Blu-ray - Double Indemnity. I looked it up at your site as I thought, Colin's bound to have reviewed this, but was surprised when I couldn't find any sign of a review! I'm assuming you've seen it as it looks and feels like a great noir...? The Blu-ray is a really nice presentation too.

  3. Agreed, Barlow is a terrific vampire, streets ahead of some of the versions we've been offered lately.

    Double Indemnity is a fantastic film noir, perhaps the pinnacle. At the very least, I'd place it among the top three examples. I do have the Eureka BD too - a great transfer and much better than the old DVD editions.


  4. Well it certainly made me want to check out a few more (not that I haven't already got a ridiculous amount of films on my wishlist). I've seen Touch of Evil before, which I quite liked (particularly the opening camera sequence), and just ordered Rififi on Blu from Arrow, both of which I think are considered as noir. If you had to choose two others (out of your suggested top three), what would you suggest to someone? In fact, maybe a top ten over at RTHC could be in order...? :)

  5. I actually cobbled together a list of *Ithink* 50 at one point during a commentary back and forth.
    Two top ones? I'd go for Siodmak's The Killers - terrific use of the flashback structure - and either Tourneur's Out of the Past or another Siodmak, Criss Cross.

  6. Actually, I found that list of 50 I made. You can see it if you fancy trawling through the comments here:

    1. Thanks for that, Colin, this will be a good point of reference.

      Best wishes.


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