Directed by Tobe Hooper
Expectations: High. Excited to re-watch this after a decade or so, having just recently re-read the book.
Salem’s Lot is one of my favorite Stephen King books, so any screen adaptation would have a lot to live up to. Add in that this film was a ’70s TV miniseries, unable to capture King’s penchant for colorful language and mind-searing terror, and you might think that this one hasn’t got a shot in hell of holding up much. But it does hold up (for the most part), so if you’ve been sitting on the sidelines for the last 34 years, give it a shot. 🙂 One warning, though: if you’ve read the book and you remember how things go down, it’s going to be hard not to compare the two versions constantly while watching.
I’m generally against reviews that focus on pointing out why the film version isn’t as good as the book, but for this one it’s going to be hard to hold back. Certain aspects of the adaptation don’t even begin to bring life to the words on the page. Many of the book’s characters are missing completely, and in some cases the ones that survived the cuts absorbed their sub-plots where the screenwriter saw a need to combine. This is an understandable necessity in adapting this type of book and I’m not against many of the specific changes made, but in doing this one of the novel’s central characters feels pushed aside and left out: the town itself.
And, as is to be expected, just about every lick of nasty violence and mayhem is completely removed, toned down or edited out. For instance, there’s a lot of fade outs to commercials right as something dastardly is about to happen. Makes sense, and I don’t begrudge them for doing it, but it’s kinda hard to successfully adapt a Stephen King novel without the things that make it haunting and unforgettable. The most egregious offense is not showing the “Ben Mears as child” flashback at all. This scene is one of my favorites in the universe of fiction, Stephen King or otherwise. It affected me so much as a teenager when I first read the book that to this day I continue to think back on the images it conjured up. So perhaps it’s a good thing they didn’t ruin those imaginations!
Unfortunately, the main vampire does come off rather cheesy at times, though. At other times he’s quite effective, but it’s more the former than the latter. This hurts the film perhaps more than anything. Here Barlow is a mindless shadow of his character in the book, where he is more akin to Bram Stoker’s clever, cultured Dracula than the speechless, hideous vampire of Nosferatu. This places most of the villainous duties on the shoulders of Straker, and while James Mason is more than capable, he’s not quite effective enough to forgive the weak treatment that Barlow receives here.
I watched the original 3-hour miniseries version, and I do recommend this take on Salem’s Lot. It gets a lot right, and even though it does some dumb things along the way, its atmosphere is nice and it definitely captures a good bit of the original story’s spirit. And surprisingly it doesn’t feel like three hours! So if you enjoy ’70s horror, this is a good one to hunt down.