I can go all the way to childhood with my love of vampire movies; my folks were fans, and they kinda let me watch along with them (well, fine; if you wanna get technical, sometimes I was hiding behind the couch). As far back as I can recall, I’ve always watched the ol’ bloodsuckers; I remember the Count Yorga flicks on late night television, the original The Night Stalker telefilm, and of course, the old Hammer Dracula films with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. Growing up, it was these nasty, merciless stalkers of human blood that defined my image of what a vampire truly is. My chosen path as a horror fan intensified this, with films like The Vampyre and Nosferatu reinforcing my concept of these creatures of the night, even unto more recent flicks such as The Lost Boys and Let The Right One In. Since the time of Buffy, however, (even before, really; remember The Hunger?) the blood-drinking “Un-Dead” seem to have evolved into a perhaps more socially complex, but in my opinion less satisfying form as a “monster”. True, teenage girls (and lovestruck forty-year-old women, if I’m to be honest) might find more romantic fantasy in the bloodsuckers of The Vampire Diaries or the Twilight saga, but these modern takes just aren’t what I think of as vampires.
Given these facts, I suppose it’s no accident that the movie that is my go-to flick when it comes to vampire films is one from that age of sitting up in the evenings peeking through my fingers at the old Zenith floor-model TV: Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, directed by Tobe Hooper.
For those of you who have either not seen it or have only seen the less-than-stellar 2004 version, I’ll touch on the plot very briefly: Writer Ben Mears returns to his childhood home of Salem’s Lot many years after he left it; he feels drawn to the old house on the hill overlooking the town, the Marsten House. Childhood memories and local legends of the place still haunt his dreams, and he feels compelled to write his next story about the decrepit old home.
After arriving in the town and attempting to lease the property, he finds that the Marsten house has already been rented out to a quirky newcomer to town, a Mr. Straker, whom he learns is about to open an antiques business in Salem’s Lot with his as yet to arrive partner, Mr. Barlow. Determined, Mears takes up residence in the local boarding house in a room facing the hill where the old house sits, setting up his typewriter where he can look out at his dark muse. In his first day in town, he meets the local art teacher, Susan Norton, and the pair quickly develop feelings for one another. He also reaffirms his friendship with his English teacher from years ago, Mr. Burke, informing the older man that it was he who had inspired his writing career. Whilst Mears is busy getting to know his old hometown again, a young resident, Mark Petrie, is working with his friends on the school play. Mark is a bright and studious youngster with a fixation on the macabre, much to the dismay of his parents. His visiting friends, the Glick brothers Danny and Ralphie, are called home by their parents, but only the older Danny emerges from the shortcut they took through the woods, collapsing on his lawn as he appears; Ralphie is never found. Danny shows signs of exhaustion, but after a physical examination is allowed to go home. Little Ralphie, however, comes home as well; in one of the creepiest, most skin crawling scenes ever, he visits Danny, floating outside his second-story window, begging to come inside. Danny, happy to find his lost sibling, relents…and the following morn is in the hospital showing signs of pernicious anemia, with no memory of his brother’s nighttime calling. It’s not long before this “anemia” becomes an epidemic in the little town of Salem’s Lot, and Ben Mears finds himself confronted with the impossible…but whom can he trust? And how can he convince anyone else of the terror he’s found when he himself can scarcely believe it?
I honestly feel that, PG-rated late-1970s TV movie and all, this is one of the most frightening and faithful vampire tales ever committed to film. Hooper, showing his skills in a way that he sadly has only hit upon a few times thus far in his career, takes King’s story and weaves a building sense of dread that is positively grueling; this effect is amplified by the well-adapted screenplay and talented actors.
Even though time with the characters is relatively short, you feel like these are people you know. The “Our Town” vibe rings crystal-clear in the narrative; any of you that grew up in a small town (as I did) recognize the archetypes that exist in every one ever founded. Moreover, the script is peppered with little tidbits of gossip and lore that don’t directly pertain to the story, but still interweave throughout the building horror to make it all seem so much more real. In a very short span of time, this flick will make you feel at home in the little burg of Salem’s Lot, and very concerned for it’s future. I felt that the actors were spot-on in their portrayals; David Soul was sincere as the sensitve but rugged Ben Mears, his manly courage juxtaposed with his childhood fear, still held just below the surface. The lovely Bonnie Bedelia shone as the somewhat submissive yet strong-minded and progressive Susan, the character struggling with her puritanical New England upbringing conflicting with new (for the times) ideas of a woman’s place in society. Lance Kerwin showed some acting chops as Mark, what could be seen as a “nerd” for his time but mature beyond his years, bottled-up angst showing itself in times of tragedy. Reggie Nalder, with not a line of dialogue, brought one of the genre’s most menacing and terrifying vampires to life with his meticulous portrayal of Barlow, the Master Vampire of the tale. With his Nosferatu-inspired make up and dark, flowing movements, he’s easily one of the scariest vamps I’ve ever seen. Finally (saving my favorite for last), James Mason, playing a very different role than was his norm, positively stole the show as Straker, the mortal familiar of Barlow (the “Renfield” of our piece). With his charming banter and veiled sarcasm, he was often humorous, but always carried an air of something…dangerous. The rest of the cast, a who’s who of popular (and talented) character actors of the time, each contributed to that feeling of reality that I mentioned earlier; you’ll have no trouble believing in these people as they move through their day-to-day trials and tribulations, all the while unaware of the mortal danger imbedding itself amongst them.
When it comes to the “Un-Dead”, I have yet to find another film that affected me in the way this one did (and still does). I take nothing away from some of the other films I’ve mentioned, but Dracula and his lesser-known kin usually hung out in Europe, or at least New York or Los Angeles; this movie brings the terror home to the majority of us:
Salem’s Lot could easily be your town.