Salem’s Lot (1979)


“Salem’s Lot” presents a very humanistic approach toward vampire folklore. Ben Mears, filled with desperation and literally nothing left to lose in the face of a fantastic situation, finds himself in a local morgue prepared to face down one of the unholy walking dead by taping together two tongue depressors and scotch tape, supplying a makeshift crucifix. This little device ultimately aids him in the battle with a horrific vampire who slowly rises from her sheet in all her terrifying glory. It about sums up the whole of “Salem’s Lot,” a film wrapped around despair and tension where a small town’s unrest and inner turmoil of infidelity and abuse is brought to the surface when faced with a hidden menace in the shadows, in the form of a vampire striking down town residents one by one.

“Salem’s Lot” is a film that played often during my childhood, a movie that played on October and frequently entertained us and frightened us at the same time. While many may not appreciate its slow boil approach toward storytelling, “Salem’s Lot” pays off by being one of the most horrifying and haunting vampire films ever made. It’s a movie so hopeless and bleak, it’s more a testament to the relentlessness of evil than the power of good. The classic 1979 television mini-series is very much ahead of its time, a horrifying sometimes uneasy picture of a town slowly consumed by evil, and the two characters we meet at their wits end at a Guatemalen church filling their vials of holy water. Exhausted, worn, and despondent, the two gasp as the vials of holy water begin to glow a bright blue and they soon learn their time there is short lived as they’re being followed and hunted.

Rewind two years earlier to a mostly scenic Maine in the town of Salem’s Lot where Ben Mears just returned to his old town to write a book about the deserted Marsten house, a piece of property known for being haunted. Around this time, the town with an undercurrent of misery is visited by a local merchant Straker who has just shipped a large artifact in the town under the cloak of midnight. This is when the rash of dead bodies of the local residents begin to appear, and folks begin to experience night terrors from their loved ones they believed were dead. What begins as a murder mystery soon dissolves in to a fight for life as young townie Mark Petrie witnesses the carnage around him and struggles to face the evil before him. Especially when his two best friends suffer the cruel fate of Barlow.

Tobe Hooper’s direction is often masterful with scenes of pure nightmarish atmosphere and gloom that make some of the sequences absolutely mind-blowing and awe inducing at the same time. Hooper works within the parameters of the television movie and still manages to deliver a compelling horror film. One that invokes some shocking imagery including young Danny Glick appearing at his brother’s window and diving down on to his neck, Mark almost suffering a near fatal face to face with one of the brothers, and the demonic Barlow, the master vampire who claims the town within the dark infecting everyone gradually through his powers of hypnosis which he grants to his children.

This allows them to visit their loved ones inducing a sort of feverish waking dream that allows them to lurk in the shadows without anyone catching on. In spite of there being very little gore, “Salem’s Lot” works as a classic vampire film that dabbles with the undead and the concept of zombieism while slowly building to a terrifying finale where Mark is always standing eye to eye with the fangs of death and barely making it out. With a remarkable score, some twisted settings, and excellent performances by David Soul, James Mason, and Geoffrey Lewis, “Salem’s Lot” is a masterful vampire film barely aged that will keep you up nights, and away from your window during the midnight hours.