On Salem’s Lot as the Urtext for All Stephen King Adaptations to Come

We look back at Tobe Hooper's work as the first and best distillation of the author's sensibilities.

Movies Features Tobe Hooper
On Salem’s Lot as the Urtext for All Stephen King Adaptations to Come

Andres Muschietti’s new adaptation of Stephen King’s It stands as one of the more prominent and promising-on-paper King adaptations in recent memory—for two reasons:

1. The film follows a decade’s worth of straight-to-video films (Dolan’s Cadillac), bargain-bin releases (Cell), and high-profile failures like this year’s The Dark Tower and the misbegotten Carrie remake.

2. Unlike Brian De Palma’s masterful Carrie, the work Muscietti is remaking isn’t particularly good.

Kicking off a long line of cheap TV miniseries of King novels, few of which replicated the power of King’s best work, 1990 miniseries of It has a memorably creepy performance by Tim Curry as demonic clown Pennywise, but is otherwise awkwardly directed, badly paced and an oversimplification of one of King’s most ambitious (and wackadoo) novels. In contrast, Hulu’s 11.22.63 went down well enough, but the only TV King adaptation that’s managed to keep the pulse of its original inspiration was the first: Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot in 1979.

Hooper, who died on August 26, is too often distilled down to two films—The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, rightly acclaimed as one of the most influential horror films of all time, and Poltergeist, usually attributed more to producer/writer/possible-ghost-director Steven Spielberg—but Hooper’s sensibility was, in some ways, a better match for King’s than almost any other director who took on the preeminent horror author’s work. Having been adapted for CBS, Salem’s Lot is, by necessity, tamer than most of Hooper’s other cult favorites (The Funhouse, Lifeforce, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2), but it shares a similar love of and ability to draw upon works of horror from the past while bringing them to the present, grounding them. Given that this is also one of King’s greatest strengths, it’s no surprise their styles work together so well.

Set in the Maine town of Salem’s Lot, the sprawling story involves an author (David Soul) returning to his hometown to write a book about the Marsten House, a creaky old property he believes to be inherently evil. Around the same time, the house becomes home to antique dealer Richard Straker (James Mason) and his partner, Kurt Barlow, who never seems to be in town. By the end, they’ll cross paths with, among others, Susan (Bonnie Bedelia), a schoolteacher who falls for Ben before falling prey to Barlow; Mark (Lance Kerwin), a monster movie-obsessed kid who’s among the first to reckon with the real monsters in town; Burke (Lew Ayres), Ben’s former teacher and closest ally against Barlow; Bill (Ed Flanders), Susan’s friendly but conservative father; and Bonnie (Julie Cobb), a woman having an affair with her boss (Fred Willard) raising the suspicions of her drunken husband (George Dzundza).

King has described the novel as a cross between Dracula and Peyton Place, a template Hooper follows closely, veering back and forth between ominous views of the Marsten house and small-town romance and drama. In the early horror scenes (the iconic vampire boy-at-the-window shot; in-camera edits of a ghoul enveloping its prey) Hooper comes close to creating a modern-day Hammer horror film (not unlike what he would attempt again with Lifeforce), punctuating a steady, stately dread with moments of shocking power. Hooper’s gift for ominous sound design is also on brilliant display: The creaking of a heavy crate on a truck’s loading lift suggests the weight of an unspeakable evil entering the picture; the scratching at the window as a vampire boy lures his older brother to damnation is ungodly. Hooper even fits in a number of Psycho throwbacks, not just in his framing the Marsten house similarly to Norman Bates’ abode, but in the overall Straker/Barlow relationship, which occasionally echoes the Norman/Mother dynamic.

Hooper’s white-knuckle sense of escalating insanity is more evident (if comparatively toned down) in the back half of the film, in which Reggie Nalder’s feral Barlow (an homage to Nosferatu that makes the vampire even more animalistic, also hinting at the monster Hooper would make in The Funhouse) attacks both jailbirds and households, and an assault on the Marsten house leads to a final 20 minutes of impalings of humans and vampires alike. The director also makes greater use of one of his signature shots, the crouching, creeping low camera angle suggesting something terrible lurking just ahead or above. Horror fans might best pick this out of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, as Pam (Teri McMinn) walks up to the house, but in Salem’s Lot, Hooper uses it nearly as effectively in a pair of scenes showcasing staircases. One is in Burke’s home as he investigates a noise upstairs, the camera remaining in his study as he ascend, the other in the Marsten home as Susan is made to seem almost impossibly small. Hooper’s vertical framing is superb, particularly for a television production of the era, and these shots help suggest what Spielberg might have been attracted to when he brought Hooper on to collaborate for Poltergeist.

What makes Salem’s Lot stand out prominently as an adaptation—as a Hooper film as well—is how the director suggests the moral bankruptcy that lies within the town long before Barlow and Straker show up. Some of this is built into the script, in which town gossip about Ben and Barlow takes a turn for the nasty (comments about Ben’s left-wing political views join whisperings that Barlow and Straker may be lovers) and moral figures fail (Constable Gillespie leaves town when he’s needed; meanwhile, Father Callahan’s faith fails). Hooper also gets a fair amount of mileage out of the general distrust of Ben, whether via Susan’s parents’ suspicious looks or Susan’s ex-boyfriend stalking him. (There’s a fun in-camera jump-scare out of the vengeful ex popping out and slugging Ben in his hotel room.) Hooper implies that the town is too focused on petty, local drama to notice or stop the evil lurking within—a feeling compounded by the longstanding town rumors (without confirmation or action) about the late Hughie Marsten’s murders of young boys.

The scene that unsettled me the most upon my most recent rewatch, and the one that felt most in-line with Hooper’s interests and aesthetic, had little to do with the supernatural. George Dzundza’s Cully Sawyer finds a couple of locals to cover for him at work (bringing Barlow’s coffin into town, incidentally) while he aims to catch his wife in the act with Willard’s local bigwig, Larry Crockett. As in Chain Saw’s tracking shot with Pam, Bonnie is shot from below as she calls Crockett over, a moment meant to emphasize her vulnerability and indicate the danger of the situation.

When Cully catches them in the act, we get a moment of psychological torture that would fit right in with the infamous dinner scene in Chain Saw. Cully forces Crockett to grab the barrel of a shotgun and point it at his face (or, in the harder theatrical version, in his mouth). Hooper’s camera is low and far when trained on Crockett, making him seem small, and closer below Cully, whose deranged smile may be the most disturbing element of the film. The gun is ultimately unloaded, and while Hooper gets another good scare as Crockett runs directly into Barlow, the more unnerving conclusion to the scene comes as Cully walks upstairs to his bedroom and closes the door before we hear him beat Bonnie. In these moments, Hooper draws parallels between violence by outsiders and violence by everyday people, suggesting supernatural and human monsters are equally capable of preying on people. That idea is a hallmark in King’s work, and something to which Hooper seems to instinctively respond.

Hooper’s only other completed foray into King’s work, an adaptation of the short story “The Mangler,” was released in 1995 to negative reviews. The film is closer in tone to the comic, feverish grand guignol in which Hooper largely specialized. The director manages more than a few moments of garish beauty in the film’s early scenes, and there’s something potent (if obvious) about it literalizing its themes regarding capitalism literally eating up the lives of workers, but the film is simultaneously too rushed and too overextended, spreading something that Hooper might’ve nailed in a 30-minute timespan too thin and sending it spiraling out of control into aimless excess (particularly when compared with the more successfully loony Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2).

As we head into a new era of King adaptations, we should remember the bracing, relatively restrained example of one of the King adaptation’s oldest forebears. With Salem’s Lot, Hooper captured what is great about its original artist and what was great about its adaptor: They knew too well how to make forgotten fears feel real again.

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