Friday, May 22, 2015

Monster Serial: SALEM'S LOT


My name is Nancy and I am a horror movieholic. I glory in this.  I had, in my mind, the advantage of growing up in a 200 year old haunted house, originally built by John Dickinson of the Declaration of Independence fame.  I never saw a physical manifestation but many times heard the heavy, measured sounds of footsteps in the attic in an otherwise empty house, save for me.  That creepiness was not enough for me: I delved into the world of vampires, ghosts, mummies and monsters courtesy of Universal Pictures and the family television.  One Christmas, my parents bought me a huge poster of Bela Lugosi posing in his famous role as Dracula.

I bought every issue of the FAMOUS MONSTERS magazine.  I was doing all the fangirl things.  At that time, vampire films were my movies of choice.  SALEM’S LOT rocked my world, first as a novel then the miniseries.

I was in high school when Stephen King’s second novel, “Salem’s Lot” was published in October, 1975. I was mesmerized.  A haunted house? And a vampire?!  How could I NOT like it?  King was riding the wave of new success with his first published novel, “Carrie” a paperback best seller.  It was already being made into a major motion picture.  “Salem’s Lot” became a blockbuster best seller, a novel inspired by King’s time as a high school teacher, teaching “Dracula” to his science fiction fantasy class.  King wondered what would happen if Dracula came to the 20th century and landed in New York City.  He toyed with that for a while until his wife, Tabitha, opined the setting should be a small town.  It would offer a more intimate setting and a chance to integrate the fantastic story into a small town and all its gossip, dirty secrets, certainly a microcosm of the antics in the big city, but with a horrifying intimacy.  Drop Dracula into that mix and you can have one hell of a vampire novel. “Salem’s Lot” is one hell of a vampire novel and the 1979 adaptation actually improved on the story in a number of ways.

I stress the year 1979 as there have been several adaptations of the novel.  Warner Brothers snapped up the movie rights soon after the novel’s publication.  The BBC produced a seven-part radio play of the novel in 1995.  TNT aired the second television adaptation in June 2004. (I have not seen that version but I do know they updated the time period from the mid-1970s to the 2000s.)

King originally titled the novel “Second Coming” but he and his wife thought that would make the novel sound like a bad sex story.  He re-titled it “Jerusalem’s Lot” but then there the concern it was too religious sounding.  Thus, what would become King’s favorite came to be called “Salem’s Lot.”
The novel and the film each represent a unique experience.  I highly recommend both.  King’s novel, as he said himself, was muddled in spots and its structure not the best.  That said, once you get into the unfolding horror it’s hard to put the novel down.  There is much more horror in the book than in the movie which includes a horde of creeping kiddie vampires on a school bus.  That would probably have been too much for a primetime television audience.

So, what’s the story? you ask.  The film opens with a prologue featuring writer Ben Mears and the orphaned teenager, Mark Petrie.  They look dirty and unkempt.  That’s because apparently they have fled from Salem’s Lot in Maine, seeking some kind of sanctuary.  Now in Guatemala hiding out in a church, they have raided the holy water and are pouring the holy water into several small bottles.  One of the bottles suddenly starts to slowly glow and Mears tells the teen “They've found us again.”

We can surmise from this prologue that something or somethings are after these two.  If you know your horror movies, you can pretty much guess the supernatural entities in question are probably vampires.  What to do, what to do.  We are transported back two years to the small town of Salem’s Lot, Maine.  Ben Mears (David Soul) is a moderately successful writer returning to the Lot where he had spent a few years as a child.  His time there left an indelible memory on him, primarily because he saw something very scary at the local haunted house on the hill, known as the Marsten House.
 The story of the Marsten House is much more involved in the novel than in this teleplay, the start of seeing how this script has streamlined the 400-page novel by editing together or editing out certain characters, and simplified the story enough for coherency.  This had been the stumbling block in getting a script at all back when Warner Brothers bought the rights for the purpose of making a movie.  Numerous screenplays had been written — and rejected — and then the format was changed to television.  

Mears wants to write his book about the Marsten House in the now empty house but learns that it has recently been rented out to another newcomer named Richard Straker (James Mason).  Straker, along with a mysteriously absent partner Kurt Barlow (Reggie Nalder) are in the process of opening up a high end antique store in town.  Barlow’s absence is explained away as his being on a buying expedition in Europe.  Everyone is curious about Mr. Barlow.

Ben winds up moving into a boarding house and while knocking about town meets Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedalia) with whom he develops a romantic relationship.  He confides in Susan his belief that the house is evil and he wants to get to the core of it.  She isn't sure if he is nuts or not, but likes and supports him.  Ben seeks out a teacher who inspired him the time he was living in the Lot, Jason Burke (Lew Ayres).   Susan takes Ben home and he quickly bonds with her father, Dr. Bill Norton (Ed Flanders).

Then, strange things start happening.

A large, very cold crate, is brought to the Marsten house by two delivery men recruited for the job.  They are supposed to use previously-supplied chains to lock the basement where they have brought the crate and some other entrances to the house.  But they are so creeped out by the crate, which seems to have something alive inside, they toss the chains and make good their escape.

A local boy, Ralphie Glick, disappears one evening after he and his brother, Danny, visited horror movie fan, Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin), at his house.  Danny disappears soon after. Inquiries are made: Ben Mears is a suspect as is the other newcomer, Richard Straker.  But we know Straker killed the boy in anticipation of Mr. Barlow’s arrival.  We see Straker carry a small, unmoving bundle into the basement and lie it almost gently down on the flat slab.   A meal for the Master.  (In King’s novel, it takes over 100 pages before any talk of vampires.)  In one of the best and scariest scenes ever, Ralphie Glick literally floats in a fog outside of his brother, Danny’s, bedroom begging him to open the window.  Danny does and is bitten. He lingers a short while but a repeated visit by Ralphie kills Danny.  Danny likewise comes back as a vampire, infecting everyone he can, even his own parents.  People start disappearing or become weak and lethargic.  It’s as if a virus has swept the town.  Danny comes to Mark Petrie’s window, beckoning him to let him in but Mark realizes what Danny is and repels him with a cross.  See? Being an expert in horror movie lore can come in handy.

Mears convinces Burke, Susan and eventually Dr. Norton that the culprit is a vampire who is now making more vampires.  A priest sits down with the Petries one evening only to have it interrupted by a visit from none other than Mr. Barlow.  This marks the first time we see Mr. Barlow.  Here is a key change from the novel, and a change that really makes the movie.  In the novel, the vampire is a charming, almost courtly dark-haired figure along the lines of a Barnabas Collins or even Lestat.  Scriptwriter Paul Monash thought there had been too much of that type of vampire already and instead created Mr. Barlow to be in the order of Nosferatu.  He certainly makes a grand entrance into the movie and is appropriately hideous.  Mr. Straker refers to him as “Master.”  Barlow kills Mark’s parents by banging their heads savagely together.  He turns on Mark who is able to repel him long enough to escape.  Mark is now hell-bent on killing Barlow and heads for the Marsten house where he runs into Mears, Susan and Dr. Norton.  They are looking for Mr. Barlow’s coffin so they can drive a stake through his heart.  Mr. Straker tries to prevent this, of course, and in a superhuman show of strength throws Dr. Norton with such force that the good doctor is impaled and dies.  Jason and Mears manage to kill Straker with a gun, and Susan disappears.  She eventually is also turned into a vampire.  Mears has the unpleasant task of having to stake the woman he loves.  They find Barlow’s coffin in the basement, kill him, and discover there are other vampires in the cellar – townspeople.

Mark and Mears set the house on fire and we hear the terrifying and eerie sound of vampires screaming.  Presumably, the fire is heading towards the town to destroy it and the plague that has engulfed it.  Are all the vampires destroyed?  Apparently not given the first scene of the movie.
Producer Richard Kobritz decided to use the television format for the property as the final, much-liked script was still a little over three hours long, which was too long for a feature film.  Two actors were on his wish list from the start: James Mason and Reggie Nalder as Mr. Barlow.  Mason readily agreed to be in the project and asked if his wife could have a role.  She played Mrs. Glick.  Reggie Nalder endured a lot of discomfort in playing Mr. Barlow having to wear special eye contacts, fingernails and heavy make-up.  He was an inspired choice for the role.

This column is among those featured in
 BRIDE OF MONSTER SERIAL, a collection of 
horror essays written by contributors to 
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Paul Monash’s choice to make the vampire a truly ugly thing inside and out is what makes this film so memorable for me.  King was very pleased with this decision.  Monash had vast experience in television and film as a writer and producer and was known for having a good eye for scripts (He created PEYTON PLACE, too.)  He had produced CARRIE and was thus familiar with King’s material.  He was fortunate to get Tobe Hooper to direct.  Kobritz saw a screening of Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE and as a result, asked Hooper to director SALEM’S LOT.  The styles could not be more different.  SALEM’S LOT is subtle, dark, and eerie.  What makes putting this two-part, three hour production on television daring is that it was unheard of that a horror movie would be made into a mini-series.  That was more in the realm of historical dramas such as ROOTS and CAPTAINS AND THE KINGS, not Nosferatu-like characters.  SALEM’S LOT was nominated for three prime-time Emmys including Outstanding Achievement in Make-Up and Outstanding Achievement in Music Composition for a Limited Series.  Paul Monash won the 1980 Edgar Award for Best Television Feature or Miniseries.

SALEM’S LOT first aired on CBS on November 17th and 24th, 1979 in two 2-hour installments.  I was riveted and after seeing the first installment, it was agony waiting for the second.  In 1980, an edited, single broadcast aired also on CBS.  Based on the great success of SALEM’S LOT, a 112-minute edit of the miniseries was given a theatrical release in Europe in the 1980s.  In this edited version, there are alternative scenes, new musical cues.  Deleted scenes included Susan’s being turned into a vampire and subsequently killed and the opening scene and epilogue in Guatemala with Mark and Ben.  Warner Brothers put the full-length miniseries on VHS, and later DVD.  The DVD had extras including the alternative scenes that were part of the European theatrical release.

SALEM’S LOT is a must-see for any horror movie fan.

Nancy Kersey is a retired professional actor and producer with 500 productions under her belt. She retired to focus on freelance writing and recently co-edited a book on Jonathan Frid.

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