Based on the novel of the same name by Stephen King, the plot revolves around a small town that slowly becomes infested with vampires. However, the mini-series is necessarily toned-down from its source material, removing several characters, sub plots, including the social commentary within the novel, and instead focus primarily on visual scares, atmosphere and tension. The appearance of the lead vampire was inspired by the motion picture Nosferatu. As in that film, vampires are portrayed as monstrous and repulsive in keeping with legend and folklore. The much later Hollywood version of the vampire as charismatic and misunderstood is eschewed.
The 1979 mini-series attracted a large viewing audience and received positive reviews from critics. It has garnered a considerable cult following due to its adherence to King's original novel and the film's relatively high production values.
During the course of the mini-series, strange events begin to take place after a large crate is delivered to the Marsten House, which turns out to contain Barlow, actually an ancient master vampire, who has come to the town after having sent his servant (Straker) to make way for his arrival. Various sub-plots are woven into this, including the story of an affair between the real estate agent Larry Crockett and his secretary. Straker cryptically informs Crockett who sold the property to him that he will be rewarded, and Crockett is later attacked by Barlow. Mears and Straker's arrival coincides with the disappearance of a young boy, Ralphie Glick, and the two (along with Barlow) becomes suspects by Constable Gillespie. The Glick boy returns as a vampire to claim his brother, Danny, who rises from the dead and strikes first at Mike Ryerson and then a friend, Mark Petrie. However, Mark is familiar with the properties of movie vampires, and is able to resist Danny's hypnotic control.
Slowly, the vampires spread as Mears and Burke figures out what is happening to the town and attempt to do something to stop it. Burke, however, falls prey to a heart attack, following a visit from the vampirised Ryerson. In the end, Susan, along with the Petrie boy have been both captured by Straker after breaking into the Marsten house. Mears and Dr. Norton heads over to end the town's takeover. Inside the house, Norton is killed by the daily guarding Straker, who is then shot to death by Ben. Afterwards, Mears with Petrie finally destroys Barlow, but Susan is nowhere to be found. Both flee the town after setting it ablaze in the hopes of 'purifying' the evil that has engulfed the town.
The mini-series ends where it opened; Mears and Petrie seen two years later at a mission in Central America. They are apparently on the run from the vengeful vampires. Fortunately, they know when the vampires are near when the holy water they keep with them begins to glow. Warned by this phenomenon as they refill their supplies of holy water, Mears and Petrie quickly go to pack their things before fleeing from the mission. However, Mears finds Susan lying in his bed; now a vampire, she prepares to bite Ben, as he leans down to embrace her, but only to mercilessly stake her, though with grief. He and Petrie then leave, with the vampires still on their trail.
The rights to the Salem's Lot novel were a hot topic within the industry and the genre for quite some time before the film was made. Stephen King himself commented as such "It was a mess. Every director in Hollywood who's ever been involved with horror wanted to do it, but nobody could come up with a script". Larry Cohen wrote a draft of the script that proved unsatisfactory; Producer Richard Kobritz would describe the script as being "really lousy" (Cohen would go on to direct a A Return to Salem's Lot), but the filmmakers claim that one element from Cohen's draft remained, namely the decision to turn Barlow from an aristocratic European into the monstrous, Nosferatu-like creature seen in the film. Cohen actually appealed to the Writer's Guild to receive screen credit, but they ruled against him. A screening of the now benchmark horror classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, resulted in Richard Kobritz selecting Tobe Hooper as director, who was thirty-six at the time and fresh off of making the troubled low-budget film Eaten Alive.
Salem's Lot was filmed in Ferndale, Northern California, and had a reported budget of $4 million. A full scale mock-up of the Marsten House was built for the film, costing an estimated $100,000. Another $70,000 was spent on the interior set.
The film was originally broadcast as a two-part mini-series, on CBS-TV, from November 17-24, 1979. It was then aired as a single three hour movie of the week. (The film runs for four hours when aired with commercials.) Salem's Lot was also re-edited to be more violent and fast paced for a limited European theatrical release. One instance that illustrates this, is Dr. Norton's death at Straker's hands: the European version of this particular scene lingers on the doctor hanging on the animal horns, for a considerable number of seconds longer than the American mini-series. The 112 minute version also contains an altered scene of Cully Sawyer threatening Larry Crockett with a shotgun. Larry holds the shotgun barrel in his mouth, though in the mini-series he holds the barrel in front of his face. The "theatrical trailer" (included on the DVD) contains a scene that occurs after Jason calls Ben over in the middle of the night because he sensed an evil presence in the house. The trailer shows him holding a crucifix and saying "There's a dead man upstairs", although in the complete miniseries, this scene is omitted and cuts directly from Ben's speeding jeep to the two of them going upstairs to investigate.
For its initial video release Warner Bros. issued a heavily truncated version of the film, deleting 72 minutes of footage. This 112-minute cut was retitled Salem's Lot: The Movie, which also served as the European cut of the film. Warner eventually released the full-length miniseries to home video audiences. This 1996 video release is now entitled "Salem's Lot - The Movie - Full-length version". The newly relased DVD is titled "Salem's Lot: Full-Length Miniseries".
|David Soul||Ben Mears|
|James Mason||Richard K. Straker|
|Lance Kerwin||Mark Petrie|
|Bonnie Bedelia||Susan Norton|
|Lew Ayres||Jason Burke|
|Julie Cobb||Bonnie Sawyer|
|Elisha Cook||Gordon 'Weasel' Phillips|
|George Dzundza||Cully Sawyer|
|Ed Flanders||Dr. Bill Norton|
|Clarissa Kaye||Majorie Glick|
|Geoffrey Lewis||Mike Ryerson|
|Barney McFadden||Floyd Tibbets|
|Kenneth McMillan||Constable Parkins Gillespie|
|Fred Willard||Larry Crockett|
|Marie Windsor||Eva Miller|
|James Gallery||Father Callahan|
|Reggie Nalder||Kurt Barlow|
Purists of King's novel were off-put by some of the wide deviations from the novel. The biggest complaint was heaped on the characterization of the villainous vampire Barlow. George A. Romero, who was originally attached to direct the film when it was initially being considered for a theatrical release, would later comment: "The biggest problem I had with it, was that the vampire wasn't really the lord. The vampire was an attack dog for James Mason". In the book Creepshows: The Illustrated Stephen King Movie Guide, Stephen King commented on the Nosferatu-like depiction of Barlow: "It was just a dreadful steal on the make-up. That was bad". Producer Richard Korbitz commented in Cinefantastique magazine vol. 9 #2 on the major change of the character:
We went with the concept of a really unattractive, horrible-looking Barlow. We went back to the old German NOSFERATU concept where he is the essence of evil, and not anything romantic or smarmy, or, you know, the rouge-cheeked, widow-peaked Dracula. I wanted nothing suave or sexual, because I just didn't think it'd work; we've seen too much of it. The other thing we did with the character which I think is an improvement is that Barlow does not speak. When he's killed at the end, he obviously emits sounds, but it's not even a full line of dialogue, in contrast to the book and the first draft of the screenplay. I just thought it would be suicidal on our part to have a vampire that talks. What kind of voice do you put behind a vampire? You can't do Bela Lugosi, or you're going to get a laugh. You can't do Regan in THE EXORCIST, or you're going to get something that's unintelligible, and besides, you've been there before. That's why I think the James Mason role of Straker became more important."|quote text
Stephen King was pleased with Paul Monash's script: "His screenplay I like quite a lot. Monash has succeeded in combining the characters a lot, and it works". He also commented saying "I like the movie version (the 112-minute cut) better, it just seems tighter."
In 1979, NAL/Signet Books published a paperback tie-in of the novel which included "8 pages of blood-chilling photos". In 2003, the Salem's Lot mini-series was featured on the British television programme, 100 Greatest Scary Moments.