Who can forget the moment in “Salem’s Lot” when the little boy, lost in the woods and turned into a vampire, comes scratching at his brother’s window, whispering to be let in? Ralphie Glick floats into the room amid wisps of fog, hovering close to his brother. And then —
The 1979 TV-movie version of Stephen King’s classic 1975 novel about vampires infesting a small town in Maine holds up pretty well despite the intervening three decades (!).
Sure there’s a lot about “Salem’s Lot” that looks dated now. Most of it is cosmetic, though, including the hairstyles and clothing, particularly that of lead actor David Soul (“Starsky and Hutch;” I half expected him to break into “Don’t Give Up on Us, Baby”).
But director Tobe Hooper, who had made “A Texas Chainsaw Massacre” just five years before and hadn’t yet directed “Poltergeist,” did a good job of translating King’s book into TV-friendly images.
King’s book came out as the author’s career was beginning to get red hot. He had published “Carrie” the year before and the five years that followed “Salem’s Lot” could be considered the best five years any writer could hope to have: “The Shining,” “Night Shift,” “The Stand,” “The Dead Zone” and “Firestarter” were all published before 1980. Pretty mind-boggling.
King’s protagonist, Ben Mears, is a haunted man who comes back to the small town of ‘Salem’s Lot — short for Jerusalem’s Lot — to work on a book. Very quickly he realizes there’s something wrong about the town. He had a nightmarish vision there when he was a child. Is there something inherently evil about a place, he wonders?
Just as Ben comes back to ‘Salem’s Lot, the mysterious Kurt Barlow and Richard Straker open an antiques store. Barlow is, of course, a vampire and Straker is his human helper.
The TV version takes some liberties with characters, condensing some and omitting others entirely. Yet it still works.
Watching the show in recent days, I was struck by how dark (not just dimly lit, but that too) the story is.
I also marveled at how much Bonnie Bedelia, playing Susan, the female lead, looks like current-day ingenue Kristen Stewart. Bedelia is first here, then Stewart.
“Salem’s Lot” is probably available online or on disc if you want a pleasant trip back to vintage horror.
I watched it on VHS tape, all the while hoping the 30-year-old tape didn’t break or shred.
Horror doesn’t get much more vintage than that.