As the spooky season raises its sharpened axe to soon fall upon us, the ghouls and goblins of Film Ireland wallow in the terror of the films that embrace the nutty freaks, bloody psychos and raging spoonatics with our ‘Bloody Countdown to Halloween’ – cue Vincent Price laugh…
(Tobe Hooper, 1979)
It may seem rather an odd addition to this list of such great horror films, a three-hour-long TV adaptation of a Stephen King story, but this is definitely a film that deserves a second look. I read King’s novel when I was way too young to be exposed to such horror and it started a lifelong love affair between me and King’s books. I first saw the movie as a child, rented by my older sister from the video shop and I remember it being the scariest thing I had seen in my life, up until that point. I revisited the film recently and despite the fact that it has aged terribly in parts, including the odd freeze-frame here and there and the dodgy floating demon children, the film still terrified me and the other members of the audience. Because it was originally a TV movie, there is surprisingly little blood in the film. This is something I realised after the fact and had trouble believing how little onscreen violence there actually was, especially considering Tobe Hooper was at the helm.
Salem’s Lot is a story about a journalist, Ben (David Soul) who returns to his home town of Jerusalem’s Lot, Maine to write about the Marsten House, a place that had frightened him as a child and has haunted him since. He has arrived at the same time as the mysterious antiques dealer Mr. Straker (James Mason) and his as yet unseen partner Mr. Barlow, who have rented the Marsten House.
The film is part haunted house horror, part vampire thriller, part indictment of the passive masses. King has been known for his tendency to favour small-town Americana. Perhaps this is because his good-evil dichotomy has always had an observer; the passive townsfolk who get picked off one by one. Salem’s Lot is a fine example of this.
‘You’ll catch your death out there…’
The standout aspect of Salem’s Lot is the fact that it features a truly terrifying vampire, a rarity in cinema these days. Mr. Barlow is not sexy, he is not a tortured soul and he is not tragic…he’s evil, he’s ugly and he’s scary! I can’t remember the last time I saw a depiction of a vampire that was truly a bloodsucking demon and nothing more. The introduction of Barlow after almost two hours of anticipation is brilliant, one of the greatest scares in all of horror cinema.
The very long running time of the film may seem excessive but the character exposition and the slow burning tension ensures that it rarely drags. Some of the characters’ stories may seem superfluous but it all acts as a gateway into the lives of the town’s inhabitants and how far they all are from the world of vampires and demons.
Salem’s Lot is a genuinely tense and scary film; a good, old-fashioned horror film and a fine example of what can be done without overuse of blood and gore. Flawed and at times a little cheesy, this is still a truly terrifying film which has been unfairly overlooked for a long time. Maybe it’s time to give ol’ Mr. Barlow another look. You might just find it’s the perfect film for a dark, spooky, Halloween night.