Friday, October 1, 2010

Movie Appraisal: Salem's Lot (1979)

So, I have a VHS copy of the 1979 television miniseries movie of Salem's Lot. I look at the box as I'm putting the movie in to watch it. The box tells me that this movie is:
The ultimate in terror!
Well, I'm excited. I've always wanted to see the ultimate in terror. Now, wait... I'm not entirely certain what that's supposed to mean though. "The ultimate in terror"? The "ultimate" what in terror? Ultimate is an adjective, not a noun, it literally makes no sense... I mean, ultimate can mean a lot of things too. Sure, it can mean something as simple as "the best", but more often than not it would mean something as simple as the highest, or the last... which absolutely makes no sense... maybe I'm just reading into it a little too much, but this movie makes me curious. Telling me that this movie is "The ultimate in terror!" is putting my expectations pretty high. If I watch this movie and am not rocking back and forth crying out of pure manly fear sucking my thumb and praying to whatever deity will hold me close to save me from the terrifying movie, then I think this movie wouldn't have lived up to expectations, I'll be disappointed.

So, I'll watch this movie and see what happens...

Well, this is interesting, I think, as I start watching this movie. I’ve seen it before, years and years ago, but years and years ago is not now. I barely remember it. As the competent horror movie score rises from the depths of my television and the nighttime shot of a mansion turns into a daytimes shot of a mansion, the credits role and I see that James Mason and Elisha Cook Jr. are in this production. Wow, I think, that’s pretty awesome. I've always gotten excited to see James Mason in anything... I'm really not sure why...

Anyway, the first thing I notice is the washed out color of the movie. I'm uncertain whether this is the movie itself and how it was filmed (I suspect that's what it is.) or maybe the VHS is old and faded... but I'll be watching this. I find it interesting that yellow in this movie doesn't look yellow, it looks... vaguely white kind of.

Well, the movie rolls, and if I didn't know the story of 'Salem's Lot I'd be very confused. Sure, I see that a lot of scenes from the novel by Stephen King are in here, but most of them make no sense and are very disjointed. The scenes fluctuate rapidly from our hero Ben Mears (played by David Soul) to other random people. I barely have time to figure out their names as the scenes keep changing from one group of people to another.

Mr. Straker (played by James Mason) is a particular oddity. His introductory scene makes absolutely no sense in context with Ben Mears randomly appearing in the dead of night at Mr. Straker's doorstep (at the Marsten House, which is the town of Salem's Lot's haunted house) and then they both kind of fade off. I'm very confused.

As the movie goes by the structure does seem to find a nice flow, but the beginning of the movie seems to have no real pacing at all, and it confuses and worries me. I wonder if an editor actually sat down to look at this mess. I wonder if he noticed how many plot threads are never tied up or how some characters are literally just forgotten about over the course of the movie.

One particularly glaring character that just kind of disappears less than halfway through the movie is Larry Crockett, the real estate agent. He has a role fairly early on, then has a... a really weird scene involving a shotgun in his mouth (Don't ask, it's all fairly disturbing and not in the "ULTIMATE IN TERROR!" kind of way, but rather in the, "Oh, man, I don't want to see this at all." kind of way.), and then he's gone and never to appear again to my knowledge in the whole film. I think he's attacked or something, but the rest of the characters who are attacked show up later, but I don't remember seeing him.

Also, and I do have to complain about this, two characters have earned my ire by being played by absolutely terrible actors. Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin), the teenage boy hero foil to Ben Mears' manly hero persona, and Ben Mears' love interest Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia). A scene of particular interest is their one scene together in which they seem to be very close to either forgetting their lines or bursting out laughing. I couldn't tell, but in such a supposed-to-be-tense scene, it was very disappointing.

Now, getting to the scary parts, which is what I'm in this for. Well, there aren't many I could even consider scary. Actually there aren't many scenes that a scared seven-year-old girl who is terrified of the dark would be afraid of, which is disappointing, but not unexpected, but the box did lie to me. This is not "THE ULTIMATE IN TERROR!" No, box... I don't care what definition you were using for ultimate, this will never be the ultimate of terror, not ever. I'm sorry, but you're wrong and you've lied to me. I would tell you off if I could, but I see you trying so hard and I just don't have the heart.

There are a few genuinely creepy parts, mostly involving the vampires coming after the main characters. Oh, I didn't mention this is a vampire movie? Well, the movie seems to have forgotten as well until the halfway point or so... So, I was in no rush to spoil the vampires if the movie was in no rush to spoil it either. This is actually and seriously a pacing point that I like. It is also in the original novel and I think it works nicely, although it was handled much better in the novel and the second television miniseries that came in 2004. The whole point is a bit of a bait-and-switch. 'Salem's Lot is supposed to start out kind of seeming like it's going to be a haunted house movie and then BAM, nope, vampires. I think it's an interesting way of doing things and if this film were competent it would have worked nicely, but the film isn't competent and it works about as well as being slapped in the face repeatedly by a refrigerator.

So, now I'm actually going to tell about the creepy parts rather than interrupting myself again. The teenage boy vampire hovering at Mark Petrie's window is a particularly poignant scene and works very well. It was creepy, but fits rather poorly with the rest of the film since it is a fairly competent scene. Another scene of note (and in my opinion the best of the movie) is when the teacher Mr. Jason Burke (Lew Ayres) is confronted by a vampire in his own house because he had unwittingly invited the man into his house before the man was a vampire. So, this vampire sits in a rocking chair as Burke comes into the room and the creepiness level of this scene is awesome. Burke sweats and is obviously terrified, as the vampire (in some great makeup, I have to say) walks slowly towards him saying,
Look at me… Look at me, teacher… Look… Look… Look… Look at me… Look at me… Look…
with such an awesome raspy voice that it was hard not to take the guy seriously. Burke, one of the best character in my opinion, gets awesome and attacks the vampire with a crucifix and then has a heart attack and is never heard from again for the rest of the movie.

Now, in terms of the main bad guy in this film, Mr. Barlow, the Dracula type of character of this story... he's... well, a Nosferatu type of vampire... and it doesn't work. He just looks silly. Mr. Straker is a much more believable (human) villain who is terrifying in some respects especially as he carries the doctor who has been helping Ben Mears with the vampires, Mr. Bill Norton, Susan's father, to his death of being impaled by antlers attached to a wall. It's pretty awesome.

Now, as for a few other things I liked, but felt fell very short by the end were the Constable (Kenneth McMillan), who is absolutely awesome in all of his scenes except for his last, and the two scene wonder of the priest, Father Callahan as his crucifix is taken by Barlow. Both characters were very well done albeit fairly small characters, but their characters end poorly because of the lack of actual development for them.

The last scene of Ben and Mark killing Barlow is all right, I suppose, but the actual staking of Barlow is overshadowed by the younger vampiric townspeople stalking out of the root-cellar behind Mark to dine on fresh blood... Having them come to life out of focus behind Mark was beautiful. It actual gave a little tension to the movie that had had little real tension.

Now, I know I barely mentioned the main love interest, Susan... well, the movie seems to forget her, so why should I remember her? She goes into the Marsten House with Mark at one point and just kind of disappears, never to be seen again... I'm guessing she was turned into a vampire or something, but there's never a resolution there and it ends on kind of "huh?" note. And what ever happened to the priest, Father Callahan? His crucifix was thrown aside, but he never shows up again. And what about Susan's mother? Does she die because of the blaze Ben Mears starts at the end of the movie, or does she leave town like she was supposed to? And what about Burke who just seems to have been forgotten? Did he recover from his heart attack or tragically pass away? I have no idea and I kind of want to know... but nope, I never will.

So, Salem's Lot was a bit of a disjointed disappointment. I had wished for a lot more from a great vampire horror story and in the end I did not watch "The ultimate in terror!", what I saw was a movie trying desperately to be the original novel and failing quite badly in almost every way. The movie is worth watching, I suppose, if you like the source material, vampires in general, or mediocre TV movies from the late 1970's, but if you don't, I'd advise you to not waste your time with this "ultimate in terror!"


  1. Ha ha! Loved the lengthy rant about, "The ultimate what in terror?"
    Even as a kid I could tell this film's plot was only complicated due to incompetence.
    I'm sure there's actually a great film in there somewhere - Danny Glick(?) tapping at the window is the ultimate (scene?) in terror! ;)
    It's like a really good jigsaw puzzle, scattered in a box, assembled by Christy Brown. The order of scenes make no sense.

  2. P.S. This is a review of the full 184min 2 part mini series? It'd be 2 VHS tapes. There's a 112min version - if that's what we've seen it'll explain a lot. I remember a lot of scenes having weird fade out transitions - suggesting the butchered version.
    Also, the VHS could've been from 1979(?) - yes, tapes can demagnetise and fade (1977 were the first US VHS releases - Patton; Sound of Music; and 1 other I've forgotten). Although they don't significantly deteriorate within "5-10yrs" as claimed by some VHS to DVD conversion service I stumbled across on the net the other day.
    The Good Teacher (1972, South Korea) was the first VHS film, in case you were wondering, released in 1976.

    1. So, actually, you're right about this being the shorter version review. I should have posted something about it ages ago. Because this was one of my first "serious" reviews I ventured into, I hadn't quite done the amount of research I tend to do now.

      I found out probably sometime last year or so that the longer version existed. I was flabbergasted and had to own it. So, I do own it now on DVD and plan to review it for next October. I'll watch both and compare the versions in the review as well. Hopefully it's a much clearer, creepier, and better version. That would be a pleasant surprise. We'll see.

      Thanks for the comments though! I appreciate them.

  3. I suspect that you may have actually seen the movie version of SL (79) as opposed to the miniseries itself, because in the mini they do show what happens to Susan. In the prologue, they show Ben and Mark in a Guatemalan village, (Ximico). They were seen filling some bottles with Holy Water in the local church when one of them suddenly starts to glow, signifying a vampiric presence nearby. Later, in the epilogue, they enter a small house where we see Susan laying on a bed. We see her with glowing eyes and fangs-yup she's a vampire. She asks Ben to kiss her, and he seemingly bends over to do so, but when she tries to bite him, he stakes her.

    1. You're absolutely right. I did. I confirmed this to myself a little while back. I have seen the miniseries since I posted this review, but yeah, four years ago when I wrote this review I had only seen the movie version of the miniseries.

      More than likely I'll have a review out of the actual miniseries come October 1st later this year. (I've made a habit of doing all of my first October Nights reviews about Salem's Lot. Why change it now?)

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