DreadWorld Features: Revisiting 'Salems Lot' (1979)

It’s been a complicated journey for 'Salems Lot. Not from book to screen, by all accounts that followed a fairly regular late 70's path to fruition. Rather the "journey" I mention is the way it finally made its way into my hands. When the Blu-Ray was first announced by Warner Brothers, Best Buy was the only place that would let you pre-order, which I tried to do, only to have Best Buy repeatedly pull the item out of my cart and tell me too many folks had tried to pre-order the film. Amazon then put 'Salems Lot up for pre-order, which I jumped on, only to have the delivery of the film delayed time and time again. Horror fan problems, right? Finally, after what seemed like a million delays, the UPS guy dropped off 'Salems Lot. So in the words of someone..."Fuck it...let's rock."

'Salem's Lot is my favorite Stephen King novel, trailing only his novella "The Long Walk" on the King pantheon of greatness. It's a strange feeling for me when I think about 'Salem's Lot the book, because I am really not all that into vampires, which is what the novel is about on its surface. What 'Salem's Lot is really about - the underpinning prejudices and paranoia of small town America is what hooked me. It’s essentially an indictment of small town America and it’s that which makes it a cut above most fare. The hypocrisy in small town New England is a subject King plays with a lot in his other novels, specifically in his Derry and Castle Rock stories. While The Tommyknockers, Needful Things (a book that is very much the spiritual successor the 'Salem's Lot), and even the short story "The Body" all effectively address the unsaid life in a small town, none of them do it as effectively as 'Salem's Lot. King breathes life and gives purpose, whether specious or noble to each character - no matter how seemingly insignificant, because they are all part of the towns personality infrastructure. He creates in Salme's Lot, a rich tapestry where each character feels like a fully formed individual rather than some sort of place holding stereotype.

Tobe Hooper's mini-series dips it's toes into the towns personal inter-dynamics, but because of the limitations of the project (a four hour mini-series divided into two halves) Hooper can't fully commit to King's sinister vision of the town 'Salem's Lot. He gives us the Cully Sawyer/Larry Crockett confrontation over Larry's affair with Bonnie as a substitute; but that in and of itself creates an issue regarding the films continuity. Allow me to digress...after being bitten by Barlow, Crockett just kind of conveniently drifts up in his car to where Ben and Susan are on their date. It's one of the more awkward moments of the mini-series. If this had been a feature film the Sawyer/Crockett stuff certainly would have been one of the first things excised. It doesn't feel like it fits and seems to only exist to pad out the mini-series running time. It feels odd that in a mini-series where vampire are invading a small New England town that so much time is dedicated to an affair subplot that ultimately goes nowhere. Now if Hooper had been able to explore the other sinister workings in the town, think the many machinations of Under the Dome, the affair story line would have been just one of many subtle layers. Instead, it's weird veer to the right off the main story line that sticks out like a bit of a sore thumb.

Here is where we run into some of the incongruities that arise when adapting a 400 page tome into a four hour mini-series. 'Salem's Lot the novel, can take it's time to venture off into various rabbit holes concerning side characters and their motivations with everything dovetailing together again at the end because of the Vampire macguffin. Whereas, in contrast, the mini-series, as something existing in a visual medium needs to lose some of that fat. It needs to "Martin's Razor" to borrow a term from the guys over at Bald Move, certain characters to keep the story lean mean and exciting. Characters are often combined, reduced, or in certain cases completed lost simply because Salem's Lot the mini-series is not about small town machinations, it's about a Vampire. So despite being birthed of the same mother, 'Salem's Lot the novel is much different from Salem's Lot the mini-series because of the needs of the form of media.

One of the characters that gets short changed in Hooper's version, Father Callahan, is made almost an afterthought simply to fit a more traditional narrative, As a quick refresher, Callahan is one of the main adversaries for Count Barlow. In a group led by author Ben Mears, Callahan plays a major role in the defense of the town, succumbing to Barlow in one of the more memorable scenes in the book. Forced to drink Barlows blood he becomes unclean and is unable to venture back into his church. He heads to New York, where as King fans know, he becomes an integral part in the Dark Tower series. There is an article out there about Callahan moving from Ben Mears ka-tet to Roland Deschaines and if Mears ka-tet was something of a dry run for what he would attempt to try later in The Dark Tower. Go ahead and write it! In the television version of Salems Lot, Father Callahan, is reduced to a C player. After his cross fails he simply succumbs to Barlow - no blood drinking, no church, and no bus. Via con dios good Father.

Father Callahans loss is Susan Nortons gain. I mentioned earlier the concept of the "traditional narrative" and here is where that piece of the puzzle comes into play. Everyone loves a good love story - even Stephen King. But 'Salem's Lot doesn't exactly fit nicely into the boy meets girl narrative. Whether King was uncomfortable with building the man/woman dynamic ('Salem's Lot is only his second published novel) or not, Susan is turned relatively early for a romantic lead by Barlow.

Hooper's mini-series does better by the romance angle between the two keeping her around for the length of the film and including her in some pretty awesome third act imagery. In many ways Hoopers use of Susan is much more effective than King's simply because at a certain point she becomes the audience. Ben, Mark, and company figure out pretty early on what is going on, but we, the average viewer, are left with some questions. Susan is our portal into the universe. The book tends to fill that role with the various men who are part of Ben's group, but seeing the horror through the doe eyed innocence of Susan makes it all that much scarier and more heartbreaking when Ben has to do what he ultimately does. It also doesn't hurt that Bonnie Bedelia is gorgeous and ridiculously awesome as Susan, so the more screen time the better.

Another character that seems a bit short changed, and just changed all together by the mini-series is the main baddie, vampire Barlow. Those familiar with the books will remember that Barlow is quite the human creature, he's much more a traditional vampire in the Dracula mold than Hooper presents in the mini-series. For his part Hooper eliminates the "human" elements of the Barlow character and basis his entity on the cinematic classic Nosferatu. Again, this is more a function of the central conflict of the property. Whereas in the book 'Salem's Lot Barlow is victimizing a town that was essentially sucking itself dry, Hoopers story is at its heart a traditional monster flick. It has to be because the New England small town subtleties don't effectively exist in the sandbox Hooper is playing in. So the Twilight Zone-ish suburban paranoia is replaced with the threat of the supernatural blood sucker. Hooper, needing to keep some humanity for his bad guys transfers most of Barlows book speaking role to Richard Straker, a character who is little more than a toadie for the ancient vampire in Kings novel.

In many ways 'Salem's Lot as a property has much in common with another famous King entity, The Shining. Both are exciting, viable, and terrifying, despite the thrust of the main stories being tweaked because of the differences between the print and visual mediums. 'Salem's Lot the novel at its core is about the breakdown of a small town. Conversely, Salem's Lot the miniseries, has to be a more traditional vampire story. Kings version of The Shining is about the erosion of a family unit due to isolation and alcohol, with the ghosts playing instigating characters who lead Jack down the path he ultimately takes. In Kubricks vision of the The Shining, Jack Torrence is already heading down that path when he arrives at the Overlook. The ghosts use him a tool, manipulating him in an attempt to kill his family; which at its core is a much more palatable narrative for visual based media. Kubrick, being the genius that Kubrick is able to elevate what could have been another run of the mill Stephen King adaption and turn it into perhaps the best horror film ever made. 

Hooper's Salem's Lot pre-dates Kubricks version of The Shining by a year, Some have speculated perhaps what Hooper would have attempted to do with 'Salems Lot would have been influenced by what Kubrick was able to do with The Shining. It's something to consider, but ghosts and demons ate more ethereal type creatures when compared with the very real (in the case of Barlow) vampire that Hooper had the task of working with. Ghosts on the other hand can give you as an auteur more of a blank slate to work with. They are not bound to earthly devices and can be used for much broader purposes. 

Whether, like me, you prefer the literary version of 'Salem's Lot or are a fan of the stunning visual story that Tobe Hooper tells, you really can't go wrong. While Hoopers version is a slave to its form a media more than Kings the limitations allowed Hooper to create his own unique vampire story. Book or mini-series, both stories still succeed in what they set out to do - scare the shit out of you! 

That's if for me. As always, thanks for reading and "enjoy every sandwich"

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