Throughout the month of October we’re going to post articles meant to prepare our dear readers for Halloween. Whether events local to our area, tips for throwing a killer bash, special movie screenings or just plain movie review shenanigans we’re cuckoo for this month, and you should be too. This is the inaugural entry into a section we’re calling “Halloween movies to watch when you’re tired of watching HALLOWEEN”. Don’t get me wrong, I love John Carpenter. It’s just sometimes you need a break from the godfather of masked psycho stalks babysitters films. We believe the movies we’ll highlight throughout the month help set the tone for a fright filled Halloween. For our first title, we recommend Tobe Hooper’s 1979 made-for-television adaptation of Stephen King’s SALEM’S LOT.
What’s it about? While folks point often point to The Stand or The Dark Tower series, I’d argue that Salem’s Lot marks King’s highpoint as a writer. It’s an examination of what ‘Dracula’ would look like if the setting was removed from Victorian England to twentieth century America. Novelist Ben Mears (David Soul) moves back to his sleepy hometown to work on his newest book. The inspiration comes from an abandoned mansion long rumored to be haunted and the site of a severe childhood trauma for Ben. Before he can rent the home out, a mysterious duo-the urbane Mr. Straker and the elusive Barlow move in. Their appearance ushers in a series of unfortunate events, accidents, deaths and disappearances. Soon loved ones are either vanishing or turning up at the morgue, only to come back in the night, scratching at windowpanes and demanding to be let back in.
Why is appropriate for Halloween? Though it’s not centered on the holiday, it features a number of genre trappings that make it perfect for the month. First you have Barlow as the classic undead. Hooper changed the villain from the novel making his character a feral Nosferatu as opposed to King’s vision of a sophisticated gentleman. Straker takes up that role here and James Mason is perfect in the Redfield role. In the role of Barlow’s familiar he plays the public face of the duo, operating as a charming smooth talker with flashes of menace lurking underneath. Though the Marsten house does not feature quite as prominently in the film as the novel, it still provides an eerie presence overlooking the town. It adds a “haunted house” vibe undercurrent to the proceedings. Add in the town itself-a small New England burgh where everyone knows their neighbors and their neighbor’s business and you have all the trappings needed to scare the hell out of an audience. As with Herzog’s “Nosferatu” vampirism can be compared with the plague, as Barlow’s appearance coincides with the mysterious deaths and disappearances of the townspeople.
Don’t let the TV movie status dissuade you, this film is terrifying. From invisible forces abducting children in the woods to those same children returning from the grave and floating outside former friend’s windows to Barlow’s first appearance providing a jump scare that made me run upstairs crying and hiding (I was seven when I first saw it) there’s no way the Parents Television Council would let this film fly today (in this PC age I can’t imagine a town full of dead vampire kids or a scene where a young boy witnesses his parents’ necks get snapped would fly at 8pm on a network). There’s a slow burn to the first half of the film as Lot creates an air of mystery as to the cause of the events. Scenes in the Marsten house lend and eerie Shirley Jackson (The House on Haunted Hill) tone to the affair more in line with ghostly apparitions over vampirism. TV or not, Hooper created one of the best vampire films ever. I’ll take this over Bela Lugosi any time.