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Salem's Lot: The Mini-Series Review

Updated on July 6, 2015
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Salem’s Lot: The Mini-Series

By Michael Rosen

Salem’s Lot is a two part CBS TV mini-series based on the best selling Stephen King novel, about a writer who returns to his rural hometown in New England and finds that a vampire plague may be spreading over the town. It is directed by Tobe Hooper and stars David Soul and James Mason. Salem’s Lot was first broadcast in November of 1979 and really impressed viewers at the time. Upon its release, Salem’s Lot was one of the most expensive TV mini-series ever made and re-set the bar for what TV movies could be.

David Soul plays Ben Mears a novelist who returns from Colorado to his rural hometown of Salem’s Lot, Maine to write about the Marsten House, an eerie, large house that has haunted him since his childhood. At the same time, Straker (James Mason) a mysterious stranger has also moved into town and has bought the Marsten House. Straker is planning to open an antiques store with his business partner Mr. Barlow, another European who has yet to arrive.

As Ben Mears starts to settle into Salem’s Lot and re-kindle friendships with the town’s residents, he meets Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia) and they begin dating. Susan’s on-off tough guy boyfriend, plumber Ned Tebbets (Barney McFadden) doesn’t like this and soon sets his sights on getting even with Ben Mears. Tebbets goes along with Mike Ryerson (Geoffrey Lewis) for a nighttime trucking pick-up and drop off of a large crate to the Marsten house. The two men feel there is something mysterious about the giant crate as it is cold and seems to be moving towards them in the truck bed. Tebbets and Ryerson drop it off at the Marsten House and leave a bit spooked.

Soon afterwards, a few kids start to disappear around town but they return as vampires at night to their family and friend’s residences. We soon begin to realize that the crate shipped to the Marsten House contained Mr. Barlow, who’s really the master vampire and his coffin. As residents of the town of Salem’s Lot become sick and die and return as the undead, Ben Mears and a few fellow townspeople begin investigating the diabolical on goings and try to come to grips with the unbelievable reality of vampires and what’s really going on in Salem’s Lot.

The special effects for Salem’s Lot were groundbreaking at the time, done in camera and better than many CGI effects of today. To give the kids who come back as vampires a ghostly look, boom arms, slow motion and ghoulish make-up were all incorporated. The vampire kids were suspended from boom arms behind them, giving them the effect of floating when they came towards the bedroom windows at night. All the vampires were fitted with reptilian style, highly light reflective, special contact lenses that give the illusion of glowing eyes to transfix the other characters and TV audience when viewing them. Fog machines added to the effect as well as eerie, low key lighting and scary music.

Film Director Tobe Hooper, was hired due to his work on 70’s exploitation horror movies and in particular, his classic terror film, 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which shocked audiences and cleaned up at the box office. Richard Kobritz, producer of Salem’s Lot, impressed by Hooper’s Chainsaw Massacre film, told him he wanted Salem’s Lot to look and feel like a movie and not TV. After Salem’s Lot, Hooper went on to direct two other big studio films, The Funhouse (1981) and Poltergeist (1982). But after these movies, Hooper returned to more independent, low budget horror filmmaking.

Although the Stephen King novel and mini-series for Salem’s lot takes place in the fictional town of Salem’s Lot, Maine, it was actually filmed on location in the northern California city of Ferndale, to double for Maine and on the Warner Brothers’ soundstages in Los Angeles. To this day, many of the locations in Ferndale are unchanged that Salem’s Lot was shot at. However, the Marsten House, which was constructed in Ferndale for the CBS mini-series, was torn down afterwards.

Jules Brenner, the cinematographer who filmed Salem’s Lot, makes the production look visually stunning. His use of fog filters and low key, eerie lighting with long, dark shadows adds a lot to the look of Salem’s Lot. His cinematography is like looking at a dreamlike sunny painting one moment and a surrealistic nightmarish vision the next, when all hell breaks loose during many of the nighttime sequences. He has shot a whole host of movies and TV movies from the 1970’s into the early 1990’s, including the 1985 horror/comedy cult film classic The Return Of The Living Dead.

Tobe Hooper did a fine job helming Salem’s Lot by hiring an excellent cast. He does terrific work as a movie director by guiding the talented cast through the film production to deliver great performances. Hooper really has an eye for horror that can pull out our darkest fears and emotions and deliver them on the screen. His vision for Salem’s Lot sets a strong pace from the opening scene that builds to a terrifying climax.

David Soul (Starsky & Hutch) gives the performance of his career in the lead role of Ben Mears in Salem’s Lot. His acting and believability as the character is so good it’s as if he were born to play the part. We follow his ups and downs, emotions and strong courage through a two part mini-series and he holds our attention every step of the way.

James Mason is also terrific in his role as Straker, the mysterious stranger who comes to Salem’s Lot and prepares the way for Barlow the vampire. He is both an elegant English gentleman at one moment and a diabolical, strong man the next. Mason has said that he will consider doing a script if it is well written and interesting and when he read the Salem’s Lot script, he knew he wanted to do the part.

Reggie Nalder, an Austrian born actor, who had appeared in a long list of TV movies, television shows and B Movies, was cast as the movie’s main terrifying fiend, Barlow the vampire. A tall, bony actor, Kobritz and Hooper had cast Nalder for his skeletal facial features, and being familiar with his past film work. Once his grayish-blue make-up, fangs and bright, transfixing contact lenses were applied, Nalder became Barlow the vampire, who remains to this day, the most frightening looking vampire of TV and cinema.

Several cast members in Salem’s Lot are of noteworthy mention. Geoffrey Lewis, who plays Mike Ryerson, the local Harmony Hill gravedigger, is best known to audiences as a cast alumni member from several Clint Eastwood movies of the late 70’s and early 80’s. George Dzundza (trucker Cullen Sawyer) has gone on to appear in such movies as Crimson Tide and Basic Instinct. Bonnie Bedelia (Susan Norton) was later cast in Die Hard and Presumed Innocent. Lance Kerwin (Mark Petrie) was in the TV show James At Sixteen before appearing in Salem’s Lot and has been an actor on various TV shows and television movies. Barney McFadden (Ned Tebbets) really shines in his performance in Salem’s Lot, with a wide range of emotions. He has had a long television career, guest starring on numerous TV series, including Dallas, Centennial and JAG.

Salem’s Lot: The Mini-Series was so well received and successful with audiences that a movie version was released in theatres in 1981 called Salem’s Lot: The Movie. The film version was cut down to a two hour running length and played in heavy rotation on HBO and other pay cable channels over the next several years. Salem’s Lot is just as good now as it was when it first came out. The popular mini-series continues to air on late night television, sell on DVD and has a loyal fan base. Salem’s Lot is one of the best vampire movies and TV mini-series ever made and really stands the test of time.

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