Initial airdate: Australia 20th of March 1980 (re-airing 1986)
Network: Channel 7, Australia
I was only a youngster when I first saw “prodigal son” and writer Ben Mears (David Soul) swiftly turn two popsicle sticks into a makeshift crucifix to protect himself from an undead Marjorie Glick (Clarissa Kaye). My heart skipped a beat when I heard Mike Ryerson (Geoffrey Lewis) hiss “Look at me teacher,” while his yellow eyes glared with disturbing burning intelligence, all the while baring his twisted fangs in front of a shaky Matt Burke (Lew Ayres).
From the first viewing of Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot on TV, I was hooked. Addicted. Obsessed by the idea that an entire town would fall victim to darkness; and that one by one, these all-American characters (that looked as though they had popped out of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town) would become bloodthirsty, predatory and genuinely terrifying vampires.
This two part miniseries hit a nerve for me and one of the core reasons it did was that it presented a narrative structure that I have always been insanely attracted to – the Twelve Little Indians motif. This concept of “the next one is gonna be me” has always appealed to me, and Salem’s Lot, with its fundamental core essence as a story about townsfolk being birthed into vampirism, served this story-type hunger.
Tobe Hooper’s adaptation of Stephen King’s sweeping novel about small town America being devoured by something very ancient and very evil is incredibly moody, beautifully structured, happily unsentimental and intelligent with its handling of terror and thrills. The pacing for this two part miniseries is also a major highlight, as we are allowed to spend some necessary time with these characters. The townsfolk of Salem’s Lot are so well written, nicely developed and always interesting to watch, that when they turn into parasitic feral monsters it is both creepy and heartbreaking. The film boasts some legendary character actors such as Marie Windsor as boarding house owner Eva Miller and Elisha Cook Jr. as town drunk Ed “Weasel” Craig, as well as newcomers of the time such as Fred Willard as realtor Larry Crockett and Lance Kerwin as the brave and intuitive boy Mark Petrie, who survives the vampire holocaust.
Besides the inspired casting and slickness of the piece, three major narrative elements of Salem’s Lot inspired me from the get-go. Firstly, this was the first time I remembered seeing working class vampires. Replacing the oft-used characteristic of aristocracy (the multiple times I had seen Dracula or fellow counts, princes, countesses and so forth) with school teachers, waitresses and truck drivers, gave Salem’s Lot a very grounded realism that I responded to even at a young age. Instead of a devilishly decedent European gothic terrain where horse-drawn carriages lead hapless victims to opulent but oppressive castles, we had stretches of countryside where a young art teacher like Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia) could happily sketch amongst the grassy surroundings, and pristine white picket fences framed the neatly manicured lawns of small town America. This was Peyton Place – a halcyon serene Norman Rockwell painting conceived in mundane normalcy, but much like Grace Metalious’ novel (and sequential filmic adaptation from director Mark Robson in 1957) this town had secrets – secrets that would be rendered meaningless once introduced to the town’s most recent residents: the urbane Renfield-stand-in Richard Straker (James Mason) and the elusive Kurt Barlow (Reggie Nalder).
The characterisation of Barlow would be the second major highlight for me in regards to how Tobe Hooper altered Stephen King’s original vision. Having read the novel (finding the book is a story unto itself) after seeing the miniseries, I was so glad Hooper went with the blue-skinned, feral Nosferatu-like towering menace instead of King’s sophisticated Mephistopheles. The introduction of Barlow is forever etched in my memory: In a quiet scene where local handyman Ned Tibbets (Barney McFadden) lay in a jail cell, the door gently glides open as if by some unholy magic, and we are greeted by stabbing shock as the horrific image of Barlow’s monstrous face snarls head-on in full close-up. And later, when Barlow appears in the dishevelled Petrie kitchen only to smash June (Barbara Babcock) and Ted Petrie’s (Joshua Bryant) heads into each other, is something straight out of kinder trauma (fun kinder trauma that is!).
Thirdly, and possibly most profoundly, is the fact that Salem’s Lot would be the first vampire outing that would introduce me (and possibly generations of fellow horror fans) to child bloodsuckers. Sure there would be more to come as seen in Near Dark, The Lost Boys (both 1987) and Interview with the Vampire (1994), but here in Salem’s Lot, the iconic imagery of vampire children Ralphie Glick (Ronnie Scribner) and Danny Glick (Brad Savage) tapping at the window and floating in mid-air—eyes piercing the darkness and pearly white teeth exposed, with skin deathly pale—are nightmare material. It is a dark play on the Peter Pan mythology, where you will never grow up and therefore never face responsibility–something spookily endearing for second-wave monster kids growing up in the late 70s and early 80s.
Salem’s Lot is a perfect summary of “small town disease” – the perpetual darkness, the endless quiet and the inability to connect. Vampirism consumes the New England residence, but it is truly emptiness that suffocates the townsfolk, transforming them into soulless leeches lost in post-McCarthyism America.