|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 26 October 1999|
Based on one of Stephen King’s earliest novels, ‘Salem’s Lot’ was one of the first made-for-TV horror miniseries. Despite the passage of years and genre conventions since its 1979 debut, parts of this tale continue to provide genuine chills.
Novelist Ben Mears (David Soul) returns to his childhood home of Salem’s Lot, Maine, just in time for all hell to break loose. The old Marsden house is reputed to be haunted; Ben saw something awful there when he was a boy. The place has stood empty for years - but now it’s been sold to Mr. Straker (James Mason) and his partner, the mysterious Mr. Barlow (Reggie Nalder). Suddenly, townsfolk are vanishing or succumbing to strange cases of pernicious anemia. Ben, his new girlfriend (Bonnie Bedelia), the town doctor (Richard Dysart), an aging schoolteacher (Lew Ayres) and a junior high school student (Lance Kerwin) attempt to get to the bottom of whatever is plaguing Salem’s Lot and find themselves confronting a growing brood of vampires.
Some of ‘Salem’s Lot’ has dated badly. The hair and clothing styles remind us why there’s not a lot of ‘70s fashion nostalgia, and the character exposition scenes tend to plod. Even the lighting has a ‘70s TV look, although the print quality itself is quite good, virtually pristine except for a bit of scratchiness between Chapters 40 and 41, and again over the closing credits.
While there is a great, whamming orchestral score that kicks in right from the start in Chapter 1 (if your volume control is cranked too high, prepare for speaker distortion), things don’t start to get really spooky until Chapter 15, about 50 minutes into the 183-minute disk. However, all is forgiven when screenwriter Paul Monash and director Tobe Hooper get down to business. Chapter 19’s scene of a child vampire wreathed by mist, floating outside a window, tapping to be let in, is still astonishingly creepy (even if you’ve seen the parodies that came later), with an equally eerie effect in Chapter 22. Chapter 33 provides Barlow with a notably dramatic entrance. Barlow’s extreme appearance and the less overtly monstrous but still ferally unhealthy look of the other undead remain suitably nightmarish.
It takes awhile for the horror to assert itself in ‘Salem’s Lot,’ but once it does, it’s easy to understand how this miniseries succeeds at being frightening, two decades after it was made.