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With: Reggie Nalder, David Soul, James Mason, Lance Kerwin, Bonnie Bedelia, Lew Ayres, Ed Flanders, Fred Willard, Julie Cobb, Kenneth McMillan, Geoffrey Lewis, Barney McFadden, Marie Windsor, Bonnie Bartlett, George Dzundza, Elisha Cook Jr., Clarissa Kaye, Ned Wilson, Barbara Babcock, Joshua Bryant, James Gallery, Brad Savage, Ronnie Scribner
Written by: Paul Monash, based on a novel by Stephen King
Directed by: Tobe Hooper
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 183
Date: 11/24/1979

Salem's Lot (1979)

3 Stars (out of 4)

A 'Lot' of Fun

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

After making the lowdown, great grindhouse film Eaten Alive, director Tobe Hooper was hired to adapt Stephen King's best-selling novel Salem's Lot for television. In the days before cable and streaming, that mean toning down all the gore and nastiness that Hooper had come to be associated with. But, of course, Hooper was far more skillful than anyone might have guessed -- good at more than just cutting things up with chainsaws -- and he accomplished the job quite nicely.

Working from a script by Paul Monash, Hooper used the small screen format to spread out the story, spending time on character interactions and slowly setting up the ghoulish things to come. It's probably one of the most low-key horror movies ever made; nothing really scary even happens until well past the first hour. As always, Hooper uses his spaces and rhythms to amazing effect, always managing to surprise with his choices of medium shots or close-ups. I'm still haunted by the simple, but startling long shot down a hallway that leads up to a very simple shot of a vampire creaking back and forth in a rocking chair. It's a slow-burn movie, delivering more chills than shocks, but it does have a few of those. And the main vampire (Reggie Nalder), in his Nosferatu-inspired makeup, is certainly nightmare fuel.

David Soul is probably the movie's weakest point; he plays writer Ben Mears who returns to his hometown to write a book about the town's haunted house; Soul is always looking like he's working too hard to stretch out the scene and fill the running time, or otherwise, his reactions are a little too big. Better is James Mason as the mysterious antiques dealer who moves into the house, as well as young Bonnie Bedelia as a love interest for Ben. Character actor Geoffrey Lewis (best known for many roles in Clint Eastwood's movies) is great, and becomes one of the first vampires. Fred Willard is here in an early, non-comedy role. Best of all, we get a reunion between Elisha Cook Jr. and Marie Windsor, who last appeared together in Stanley Kubrick's The Killing.

Only the second screen adaptation of a Stephen King work (after Carrie), Salem's Lot apparently first aired in two, two-hour episodes, and a two-hour theatrical cut was released overseas and on video, but the version that exists now on the Warner Home Video DVD is a three-hour cut, which is more than ample (though it is easy to see how some stuff could be cut). All in all, Salem's Lot is one of Hooper's best films, one that inspired generations of filmmakers, and one that even made Stephen King happy.

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