Salem’s Lot was the second adaptation of a Stephen King novel and couldn’t be more different from Carrie in tone and spirit. In place of suburbia we now have small-town Maine, in place of Brian De Palma’s tightly wound coil we now have three languorous hours and in place of Carrie’s graphic depictions of sexuality and violence we now have the constrictions of primetime television, although director Tobe Hooper also uses these to his advantage to craft one of the high watermarks for naturalistic adaptations of King’s oeuvre, and a work that really deserves to be referred to as a single, magnificently scaled film. If that didn’t make Salem’s Lot feel every bit as foundational as Carrie, then this is also one of King’s foundational stories on its own terms – a vision of horror gradually overtaking a small town, and the first of his many exercises in embedding horror with the American regionalist novel (or envisaging the American regionalist novel as a form of horror). In essence, it’s Dracula transplanted onto a small Maine town, and still the best adaptation (or reimagination) of Bram Stoker’s novel since the 1931 version, as King and Hooper sketch out a rich cast of characters, all of whom revolve around the “Marston House,” a looming Gothic edifice that has cast a brooding shadow over the township of Salem’s Lot for a couple of hundred years.
As with so many of King’s narratives, we’re introduced to this town by way of a prodigal son – in this case, Ben Mears (David Soul), an ex-resident of Salem’s Lot who has since become a writer, and has returned to the town to use a formative moment he experienced as a child as the basis of his next novel. Although it takes a while for Ben to articulate this experience (and he never quite articulates it), it’s clear from the outset that it revolves around the Marston House, which has changed hands since he was last around, but still exudes the same “inherent evil” that has haunted him ever since his childhood. In fact, he arrives in town with the purpose of purchasing and purging the house, only to find out that it has just received a new tenant after lying dormant for some twenty years. Not much is known about this tenant, played by James Mason in one of his final roles, except that his name is Mr. Straker, that he has cohabited with his unseen “business partner” Mr. Barlow for the best part of his life, and that he has moved to Salem’s Lot from England to retire, as well as to set up a small antiques shop in the main street. Over the first part of the film, then, Ben’s scrutiny of the house becomes scrutiny of Straker and his lifestyle, a preoccupation that immediately aligns him with the wide panorama of townsfolk, most of whom are curious about anyone from abroad, let alone somehow as markedly “peculiar” as this new arrival.
With such an expansive cast, it’s hard to discuss every single character, but some of the highlights include Fred Willard in an early role as the town’s real estate agent, Elisha Cook, Jr. in a late role as the town’s resident drunk, and Bonnie Bedelia, as Ben’s love interest Susan Norton. Bedelia, in particular, is so good that it’s a bit sad to think that she would eventually become synonymous with a role as generic as John McClane’s wife in the Die Hard franchise. Yet even the most minor characters feel as if they could have their own television series, thanks to the gorgeously naturalistic ambience Hooper builds around them and the events of the narrative. At the time, Salem’s Lot was framed as something of a departure for Hooper, who had become infamous as a master of gore and violence following the success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but in reality this simply continues the exquisite suspense he showcased in the first two acts of that film, luxuriating in it for two whole hours before he is eventually compelled to start orchestrating the denouement.
As with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, that suspense – and the possibility of the supernatural – is intimately bound up with the act of looking. After a brief prologue set in Guatemala, the series opens with Ben arriving in town and heading straight to the Marston House, scrutinising Mr. Straker who steps out onto the porch to stare him down in turn. Most of the townsfolk are then introduced through a similar network of covert gazes – people peering through curtains, watching through windows, setting up elaborate conceits in order to maintain their surveillance of others – as if to suggest some great collective secret that no single individual is quite able to articulate or envisage. All of these gazes converge on the Marston House, which commands a panoramic vantage point over the town, the sea and the surrounding environs, and yet while Straker is implicated in every one of these gazes he also seems immune to them as well, indiscernible to the townsfolk even as he seems to have contoured their every look and gaze before he even arrived in town.
Combined with the constrictions of primetime television, that makes for a mode of horror founded largely on evocative compositions and fluid camerawork rather than overt depictions of gore or violence. For the most part, Hooper doesn’t rely on props, which isn’t exactly to say that there aren’t props in the film, but that they tend to be either confined to Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin), a local boy who delights in recreating prosthetics from his favourite horror movies, or deflected into Straker’s antique store and his fascination with his inventory, which stands in for the heightened scrutiny of incongruous and antiquated objects that prop-driven horror typically generates. In effect, you might say that Salem’s Lot accrues all the eerie, embodied horror that comes from props – the tactile fetishism of actual objects in the mise-en-scene – without any of the residual cheesiness of actual props. In the process, Hooper repeatedly reaches back to an era of horror in which props were central, invoking the poise and gravity of classical Hollywood (and the Universal horror cycle in particular) but fusing it with a more languorous and laid back New Hollywood naturalism.
Place, then, plays a critical role in Salem’s Lot, which more than any other adaptation sets the benchmark for how King’s Maine might look on the big and small screens. Over the first hour (and much of the second hour), the supernatural stuff is more or less incidental, merely contouring what is effectively a small-town drama, since even without the prospect of vampires these townsfolk make for a fascinating cast of characters, many of whom feel as if they must have been based upon King’s own childhood in Portland. Of course, King would often refer to this substrate throughout his career, but it feels closer to his source material here, as if what we were watching were in fact a thinly veiled autobiography or coming-of-age novel; more personal, in its own way, than even the most heartfelt moments of Stand By Me. Personal, but not idyllic, since this community is quickly defined by an inchoate apprehension of something right on the fringes of what can be seen, forcing one local after another to strain their whole bodies around their eye sockets, in search of a presence that perpetually announces itself just below their threshold of perception. At first, these various apprehensions are woven into – and almost concealed by – the small town drama, as one character after another is exhausted and extinguished by the sheer act of looking. After a while, though, a critical mass forms and it becomes clear that a strange plague is making its way across Salem’s Lot, sending people into a strange, suspended state that defies any traditional diagnosis, and in which it is impossible to discern whether they are dead or alive.
What ensues is less a supernatural transformation than an intensified embodiment, as the townsfolk become constrained by their corporeality, morphing into a corpse-like stasis rather than dying in any emphatic way, and suffusing the “survivors” with a torporous, trance-like resignation to suffering the same fate. Interestingly, no character quite embodies that corporeal claustrophobia like Straker himself, who continually seems to be trying to escape his own body, so furtively and uneasily does he dodge anyone else’s scrutiny of it. While Ben’s demons are bound up in the Marston House, Straker is also clearly suffering under some unspeakable burden, even if at first it only appears to be the burden of having to make conversation with curious residents. There’s much more to it than that, however, with all the endless “polite questions” put to him by the residents of Salem’s Lot gradually playing as so many efforts to discern the exact nature of his “peculiarity,” and his exact relation to his partner Barlow. From his first appearance on the main street, Straker is coded as queer, or at least appears to be regarded as such by the townsfolk, even if they appear to have only the most inchoate notion of what that actually entails, to the point where trying to figure out Straker becomes tantamount to conceptualising queerness for the first time.
At first, it’s Straker’s nationality that sets him apart, with the reappearance of England in New England signalling a return of the repressed as it does in so much American Gothic literature, just as the Marston House towers over the town like an incongruous monument to a disavowed moment of colonisation. As the ideal tenant of that house, Straker is an uncomfortable reminder that the town hasn’t always been there, and that the town’s way of understanding social relations hasn’t always been the norm – in effect, that the naturalism with which Hooper suffuses his mise-en-scenes hasn’t always been regarded as natural. Yet to simply designate Straker as English would be simplistic, since within the insular worldview of Salem’s Lot his Englishness immediately, inevitably becomes continuous with a more expansively European decadence (at one point he teaches the local policeman the meaning of “Ciao”), along with a wider worldliness that can’t help but adopt a somewhat wry, sarcastic orientation towards the local residents and their daily routines. Without ever hamming it up, Mason never plays down his indebtedness to another era either, and if Salem’s Lot can be called a “film” it is both because of and despite his presence, with Hooper invoking him as the representative of a classical cinematic realism that inevitably feels slightly constrained and televisual against New Hollywood naturalism.
The fact that Straker works in antiques seals the deal, establishing his queerness primarily in terms of an orientation to the past that eludes the narratives the town has spun about its own heritage, so it’s no coincidence that his life partner is also his partner in the antiques business, nor that the two have spent the better part of their lives travelling and dealing together. Accordingly, it’s also his partner who generates the most speculation from Salem’s Lot, since it’s no exaggeration to say that the entire supernatural import of the film hinges on the disclosure of Barlow, and the exact nature of his rapport with Straker. In that sense, Salem’s Lot is foundational in more ways than one, since King would regularly use homophobia as a way of calibrating how even – or especially – the most bucolic backwaters of Maine might be a privileged imaginary site in wider national patterns of discrimination, most notably in his recourse to the 1984 murder of Charlie Howard in Bangor as inspiration for the character of Adrian Mellon, whose fate opens the main narrative of It, set in 1984-5.
Not surprisingly, when Ben outlines the long genealogy of crimes generated by the Marston House, they gradually coalesce around images of same-sex attraction, as if the American Gothic tropes of an earlier era had transmogrified into a more suburban anxiety about the domestic homosexual couple as disruptors of nuclear paternal authority. For all the occasional flashes of vampiric imagery, most of Salem’s Lot feels drawn from true crime more than horror cinema, as one young boy after another vanishes from the town, and Ben increasingly presents as a victim of child abuse coming to term with his past. While Straker isn’t directly or literally part of that abusive past, he seems to be complicit in it, and to relish his awareness of it, promising to giving Ben a tour of the Marston House when Barlow returns, all the while assuring him that “You’ll enjoy Mr. Barlow – and he’ll enjoy you.” Beyond a certain point, the disappearance of boys and the delay of Straker’s partner become the same thing, especially after the terrifying sequence in which Straker transports a bundle into his house and then into his basement, finally unwrapping it to reveal the body of the first young boy to go missing in the woods outside Salem’s Lot the evening before.
This is our first sustained encounter with the “supernatural” part of the story, and yet this sequence feels far from supernatural, partly because the boy’s body is unmarked or unmolested in any way, and in fact still appears to be in a relatively good state of health, albeit sunken in some trance that renders him oblivious to everything taking place around him. Far from bearing the traces of a ghastly vampiric intervention, this body instead functions as the blank canvas for a unformed, yet imminent connection between old men and young boys that is so unspeakable that it could never be shown on primetime television outside of this supernatural guise. After all, in his furtive, twitchy efforts to escape detection, Straker could just as easily be a molester as a vampire, so it makes sense when Ben discovers that he is not actually a vampire at all, but a mere mortal who acts as the vampire Barlow’s keeper. Whereas Barlow gathers young boys because their blood is most nourishing, Straker simply gathers them for the thrill of gathering them, and the thrill of keeping Barlow fed, making him by far the more threatening figure as the film gathers momentum.
Much of that momentum depends on cross-cutting, as Hooper cuts between boys in contorted poses and Straker perusing the town as he cruises through in his antiquated car, in a kind of middle ground between the disembodied gazes of Halloween and the perverse perception of A Nightmare on Elm Street. Like a slasher film distilled to a particular way of looking, the effect isn’t exactly scary so much as eerie, as Salem’s Lot converges around some unspeakable affiliation between this old man, who represents everything alien to the town (or everything about the town that remains alien to itself), and these young boys, who represent the town at its most homely, and are currently working on the annual pageant, which celebrates and contemplates the history of the town from a fresh angle every year. This time, as they reconstruct history, history itself returns to absorb them and render their bodies unfamiliar to themselves, as the sheer length of the film gives Hooper scope to diffuse the supernatural content into a more brooding, sombre sense of sexual awakening.
This produces the central set piece of the film, which involves the infected boys arriving at the windows of fresh victims late at night, floating outside before drifting into the room to hang over their beds. By this stage, the infected boys are made up to look undead, with pale skin punctuated with bite marks, and contact lenses that give their eyes a demonic sheen, but the appearance of their bodies is largely displaced by their sense of disembodiment, thanks in large part to Hooper’s decision to use cranes rather than wires to capture their hovering motion. Beyond a certain point, these don’t exactly play as supernatural sequences at all, so much as some great fantasy of the township that has gone awry, as if the collective boyhood of Salem’s Lot had dispersed and devolved under the burden of futurity placed upon its shoulders. Watching the healthy boys watch these other infected boys is therefore like watching them come to terms with their own bodies, their sublimated scrutiny of similar bodies, and the full scale of what needs to be repressed for them to guarantee the futurity of the town and its traditions and institutions. In place of the rhythms that once structured the town, Hooper substitutes the rhythmic emergence of these suspended bodies, whose inexorable pacing tends to be eerier than any overt imagery, and which enrhythm the film as a whole, reoccurring more or less periodically throughout the narrative.
It’s not merely the townsfolk, then, but the entire texture of the town that falls apart under the influence of Straker, Barlow and the Marston House. With Hooper opting to reveal Barlow’s vampiric features about two hours in, the final act focuses on how the atmospherics he has used to establish Salem’s Lot are now used to evacuate it in the same breath. As one adult after another is infected, we start to get a more specific sense of the symptoms of undeadness – torpor, tiredness, languour, pallour, a bad nights sleep, a feeling of not having woken up properly or still being in the middle of a dream and, finally, in inchoate prescience of having been collapsed just a little too emphatically into the sleepy sombience of the townscape as a whole. The result is a collective exhaustion, an overwhelming awareness of finitude and impending mortality, as if Salem’s Lot were finally falling asleep, snoozing off to totally sequester itself from the outside world. That undoes the insular atmospherics of the opening acts better than overt eruptions of violence ever could, as the supernatural presence and proximity of the vampires force the town to sink deeper and deeper into itself, until it has nothing but itself left as a point of reference – or nothing but the Marston House, which becomes the locus and conditions for all meaning.
If Salem’s Lot is a prototype for King’s small-town Maine, then it’s also a prototype for the ways in which that small-town texture collapses into its own insularity time and again over the course of King’s career, a process that reaches its literal and logical conclusion in the recent adaptation of Under the Dome. As much as the film might initially seem to promise a series of jump scares, a sudden eruption of horror, or some kind of spectacular transformation, none of these things every really occurs, with Hooper instead shifting the spectacle to the way in which his opening atmospherics become self-defeating when distended over the course of three hours. Insofar as Straker does change, it’s only by becoming more open about how much he enjoys being a witness to this spectacle – it’s his version of coming out – as well as how little he is prepared to do to prevent it occurring, lending his performance a supple passivity that perhaps renders him queerer than anything else in his wide range of “tells.” Yet while the devolution of the town may be the climactic spectacle for Straker, there’s no single showdown in the town either – it just gets more and more deserted as everyone either succumbs to the plague or flees in panic, leaving nowhere to go but the Marston House, which Ben finally enters in the last fifteen minutes of the film.
Even here, Hooper refrains from any emphatic use of special effects, or even any emphatic spectacle, since the house is pointedly devoid of fixtures and largely in a state of disrepair, like an ancient sound stage that was last used during the classical era and has since fallen into desuetude. At the very moment at which the film seems set to disclose these same-sex living arrangements as its summative spectacle, we’re instead presented with something of a blank canvas, as Straker and Marlow are collapsed back into the wider legacy of the house and its lineage of tenants. As a result, their proximity to the town’s boys is never really resolved in any decisive fashion, just as the import of Straker’s peculiar pleasures are never really contained either, with Hooper cycling through the genre cues as rapidly as possible, and sidelining all the conventional vampiric moments in favour of quite a bleak conclusion, as the Straker house burns with Susan trapped inside, and the flames then engulf the town.
Yet the screenplay doesn’t quite end there. With everyone else in their lives either dead or undead, Ben and Mark are forced to conceive of a new kind of relationship in order to stay one step of the vampires, even if that new relationship simultaneously brings them closer to the vampires by conforming to the eerie proximity between boys and men that roused the suspicion of the townsfolk in the first place. It’s at this point that Hooper returns to the opening scene in Guatemala, where Susan suddenly reappears, and promises to mediate Ben and Mark’s relationship, thereby allowing them to finally commune as a regular father and son. In the final twist of the film, however, Susan turns out to be acting at the behest of the vampires, forcing Ben and Mark to exclude her as a point of reference more emphatically than ever before, and consign themselves to wandering the world much as Straker and Barlow did before them. What that world now looks like is unclear, since Salem’s Lot is no more than a distant memory, and Maine itself might as well have vanished into thin air. What is clear is that it can no longer be processed by Hooper’s exquisite naturalism, and that’s perhaps why Larry Cohen opted for high camp with A Return To Salem’s Lot, released in 1987, which takes this unusual rapport as its point of departure and main subject matter.