Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 20, 2016)
In 1976, Stephen King’s debut novel Carrie became the first one of his works to get a movie adaptation. Not surprisingly, King’s second book –’Salem’s Lot - received filmed treatment next, though in a different format. Whereas Carrie ran on the big screen, 1979’s Salem’s Lot aired as a two-part TV presentation.
The televised Lot reached screens right around the time I became interested in King’s novels, but I can’t recall if I ever saw it. If I did, it clearly didn’t make much of an impression. Still, given its place in King’s history, I wanted to give it a look.
Successful novelist Ben Mears (David Soul) decides to return to his hometown, tiny Salem’s Lot, Maine. He does so to write a book related to a spooky old abode known as the “Marsten House”.
Mears plans to rent the building and live there while he writes, but instead he finds it occupied, and the inhabitant adds to the intrigue. Richard Straker (James Mason) offers an eerie presence, one exacerbated by his mysterious partner Kurt Barlow (Reggie Nalder). Mears suspects the presence of evil forces and pursues answers.
The fact that Lot exists as a 1970s TV movie immediately sets off my “Snob Meter”. Let’s face it: despite the occasional quality project like Roots, most television films of the era were poor. Made for TV projects now can be excellent, but 40-ish years ago, that wasn’t the case.
I also find myself leery of a made for TV horror tale – especially given the era in which Lot was created. It’s been so long since I read Lot that I can’t remember how graphic the material was, but I have to assume a network TV movie from 1979 sanitized a lot of violence/gore for the standards of the time.
On the other hand, the two-part format gave Lot room to breathe it would lack as a feature film, so that seemed like a potential positive. Also, the 1979 adaptation included better than average talent. In his second project after the success of 1974’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Tobe Hooper sits in the director’s chair, and the cast offers a bunch of notable names.
Granted, two of the film’s leads feel like relics of its era. David Soul gained fame as half of Starsky and Hutch but enjoyed little success otherwise, and Lance Kerwin – as a local kid who gets involved with the mystery – peaked with the 1977 series James at 15>.
Otherwise, Lot includes some memorable talent. Of course, James Mason stands as the class of the group, but we also find well-known “classic Hollywood” actors like Elisha Cook, Jr. and Lew Ayers. Then-newer performers like Bonnie Bedelia, Fred Willard, George Dzundza and Geoffrey Lewis add luster to the cast. While I won’t claim any of the actors provide great work, they do give Lot a bit more depth than it otherwise might enjoy.
Of the actors, Mason proves most enjoyable. I get the feeling he viewed the project as beneath him, but he still offers a delightful performance. While Mason veers toward camp, he avoids those pitfalls and gives us the film’s most entertaining moments.
Actually, the whole project feels meatier than I might have anticipated. As I mentioned, I view 1970s TV movies with a fair amount of suspicion, and I feared that Lot might suffer from too many of the eras tropes.
Happily, Lot fares pretty well for the most part. Granted, the first act can feel a little too soap opera/Peyton Place for my liking, especially as it investigates various romantic relationships. These moments can feel soppy and fail to bring much to the tale beyond gratuitous sentiment.
Once the supernatural side of things kicks into gear, though, Lot usually works. I could live without some of the cheap scares, but the movie manages a reasonably creepy vibe that gives it more punch than I might expect.
Truthfully, I’ve never been too wild about Hooper as a director. I find Chainsaw to be amateurish, and Hooper’s one good movie – 1982’s Poltergeist - seems to owe most of its success to Steven Spielberg.
Whatever talents Hooper may or may not possess, he executes Lot in a fairly successful manner. Even with the goopy parts of the story, the movie builds a quietly spooky aura and it creates a reasonable level of low-key terror. Despite the occasional “boo moment”, the movie usually opts for eerie ambience over overt jolts, and that choice makes it more effective.
I can’t call Salem’s Lot a complete success, as it suffers from a few too many concerns – taming needed for TV, general 70s cheesiness, etc. Nonetheless, it does more right than wrong and creates a surprisingly involving horror tale.