The 1979 television miniseries Salem’s Lot was only the second filmed adaptation of a Stephen King novel (following Brian De Palma’s film of Carrie from 1976). While its made for TV budget imposed certain limitations on the production, Producer Richard Kobritz wisely offered the project to Director Tobe Hooper who had shown a knack for squeezing maximum suspense and scares from minimal budgets in the independent film world.
The Production: 3.5/5
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
Starring: David Soul, James Mason, Lance Kerwin, Bonnie Bedelia, Lew Ayres, Julie Cobb, Elisha Cook Jr., George Dzundza, Ed Flanders, Clarissa Kaye-Mason, Geoffrey Lewis, Barney McFadden, Kenneth McMillan, Fred Willard, Marie Windsor
For Stephen King’s second novel, he brought old fashioned vampires to small town Maine with a dash of vintage haunted house creepiness for good measure. Like a lot of his best ideas, it was both simple and irresistible to readers. When it came time to adapt it for film, producers decided to go with a two part television miniseries. This was reportedly due to two high profile theatrical vampire films that were in active production at the same time (Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, and John Badham’s Dracula). Adapting it for television limited the amount of on screen blood and violence, but Director Tobe Hooper took advantage of the over three hours of running time to introduce a large and varied cast of characters (aka “potential victims”), to create an atmosphere of accumulating dread, and to pepper the proceedings with several sequences of sustained suspense.
One of the hallmarks of the golden age of television miniseries in the late 1970s and 80s was the large ensemble casts which would typically blend television stars of the day with a large groups of character actors peppered with cinema stars of the past. Salem’s Lot certainly delivers in that respect. David Soul, in the lead role as Ben Mears, had just completed a four year run on the show Starsky & Hutch that had launched him as a heart-throb both as an actor and as a recording artist. As a lead actor, he can be a bit stiff, which is also the case with teenage actor Lance Kerwin who plays the other main protagonist, magic and horror-obsessed aspiring vampire hunter Mark Petrie. This slight weakness at the cast’s center is compensated for by a supporting cast which includes Bonnie Bedelia as Ben’s love interest, dependable character actors of the era such as Geoffrey Lewis, Julie Cobb, George Dzundza, and Fred Willard as town residents, and Hollywood legends Lew Ayres, Elisha Cook, Jr., and Marie Windsor. This was the first time Cook and Windsor had worked together since Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing”, a fact of which director Hooper admits he was keenly aware when casting and shooting the miniseries.
The highlight of the cast by far, though remains James Mason as Richard Straker, the business manager for the mysterious Kurt Barlow. After a bit of a lull in the early 70s, Mason was in the midst of a late career renaissance, having appeared in seven theatrical films in the two years preceding Salem’s Lot including such high profile productions as Heaven Can Wait, The Boys from Brazil, and Murder by Decree. He plays Straker with a layer of officiousness concealing an underlying malevolence which unravels gradually as the series progresses and seems to be having a great time doing so. Mason’s turn as Straker is so enjoyable that it actually softened my disappointment when the main vampire antagonist is revealed to be a creature hampered by a limited special make-up effects budget.
Special effects are where the limitations of the TV budget really seem to hamper the production, but Hooper manages to otherwise convey strong production values by using creative cinematic lighting set-ups and compositions that are much more visually interesting than the high key lighting and over reliance on close-ups typical of television of the era. Editorially, Hooper keeps things moving along at a methodical pace through the first part of the miniseries which helps to gradually build suspense and dread. Conversely, much of the second half feels rushed and some characters (such as Elisha Cook, Jr.’s “Weasel”) seem to unceremoniously fall of the table.
3D Rating: NA
The 1080p AVC encoded presentation is “pillarboxed” to the TV miniseries’ original 4:3 aspect ratio. The series was shot on 35mm film and looks excellent in this high definition rendering. Film grain is natural and well resolved. The grain gets a bit excessive during optical effects and titles shots, and there are a couple of shots that look like they either were sourced from dupes or were created by optically enlarging the frame. Other than that, it looks as good or better than most theatrical productions from the era.
The original soundtrack is presented in mono via a lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0 track. Dialog, effects, and music are well balanced and clear, with minimal recording artifacts. The music score is above average for a television production, but sounds a bit dynamically compressed compared to modern productions.
Special Features: 2.5/5
The disc comes with two special features.
Audio Commentary from Director Tobe Hooper is a screen specific track from the gravel voiced director that parses out a lot of interesting and informative behind the scenes anecdotes over the course of the three hour running time. There are long gaps of silence throughout, but when he is speaking, Hooper manages to avoid repeating himself or lapsing into narration. Even when he is offering predictable praise for his cast and crew, he manages to interweave it with interesting anecdotes from before, during, and after the production of the series.
Theatrical Trailer (3:23) presents the promo for the European theatrical release of the film. Tobe Hooper discusses details of the theatrical version on the commentary track while making it clear that the full length miniseries is his preferred version. While it would have been nice to have a a special feature that included some of the alternate, more violent, shots from the theatrical version, the trailer at least gives viewers a look at how the film looked cropped for a theatrical widescreen ratio.
Salem’s Lot has its share of dated elements, and the low budget seams show via less than state-of-the-art make-up and optical effects, but director Tobe Hooper sets up the scares and suspense sequences deftly and gets the most out of a supporting cast filled with strong character actors. It is presented on disc with audio and video that far exceed the original television exhibition and highlight Hooper’s highly cinematic compositions and lighting set-ups. Extras consists of a trailer for the European theatrical version of the film and a sporadic but informative screen specific audio commentary from Hooper