When it comes to movie adaptations I think only William Shakespeare has had more cinematic translations than author Stephen King, unfortunately, King also holds the record for the number of terrible adaptations of his works. With over two hundred screen credits it’s expected that there would be a clunker to two among them, yet the amount of actually good movies based on his works barely requires the fingers of both hands to count them. When the film Carrie was released in 1976, to great critical and financial success, it seemed like horror movies and King was a match made in Heaven. Now, it should be noted that King himself has even stated that he finds the movie version of Carrie to be better than the book.
So after the success of Carrie, it’s no surprise that Hollywood was eager to adapt his next book ‘Salem’s Lot into a movie, but there was one problem “How exactly do you adapt a book that is over 400 pages and has dozens of characters?” It took Warner Bros a while before they realized that the required length to tell this story could only work in a television mini-series format, and soon they were knocking on the door of director Tobe Hooper to see if he was interested.
The novel ‘Salem’s Lot is the story of a small town in Maine called Jerusalem’s Lot that quickly found itself overrun with vampires; the lead protagonist is Ben Mears, a writer who spent part of his childhood in this town and has now returned to excise some demons of his past because when he was a child here he had a horrific and possibly supernatural experience in the presumed haunted Marsten House. When he arrives in town he’s shocked to learn that someone had recently purchased the Marsten House; that someone turns out to be Richard Straker, whose business partner Mister Barlow is on an “extended buying trip” and unavailable for comment, and of course, he turns out to be a Master Vampire and Straker is his uber-powerful Renfield.
The book pretty much follows the formula of your standard 70s disaster movie as we are introduced to numerous people that will all most likely die when the shit hits the fan, and make no mistake a vampire outbreak is a disaster, it’s just of a quieter and more insidious nature. When Ben arrives in town to write his book he runs into Susan Norton, a young woman with dreams of leaving this small town and making it in the Big City. She is the book’s love interest and King doesn’t dally around so these two are making whoopee in the park in no time. Susan is a sweet girl, not one to easily believe in vampires, and so it’s her tragic death that will really spur on the hero.
The story kicks into gear when little Ralphie Glick goes missing while he and his brothers Danny are taking a shortcut through the woods. We later learn that Ralphie was a sacrifice to the Dark Powers, apparently, even vampire masters have to answer to somebody. Soon Danny is becoming listless and anemic, and for no reason medical science can devise. Danny dies after of his strange anemia and then poor Mike Ryerson, the groundskeeper at the local cemetery, finds himself mesmerized by the idea that Danny is in his coffin with his eyes open. He goes to check, with the idea of placing coins on his lids if he has to, but instead, he finds himself waking up the next morning with no idea how the grave got filled in. He complains to English teacher Matt Burke about his feeling weak and having weird dreams, and then for some bizarre reason, Mister Burke invites Mark to stay at his house for the evening. That’s a bit over neighbourly, even by small-town standards
What’s nice here is that Burke is one of the smarter people you’d find in a horror story for when he overhears Ryerson invite someone in, followed by the sound of sucking and a child’s laughter, he doesn’t rush upstairs to investigate. He calls himself a coward but I’d say he was just being damn sensible. He ends up calling Ben, who isn’t all that convinced of Burke’s vampire attack theory, but when Ryerson returns and this confrontation causes Burke a heart attack, well let’s just say Ben starts to give the idea of vampirism a second thought.
Ben Mears is an okay hero, and certainly the one Stephen King identifies with for obvious reasons, but the character I most identified with was Mark Petrie; a tough kid who outwits bullies and has a love of horror movies. When Danny Glick appears at his window he survives by snapping a cross off of one of his Aurora monster model kits and he sends the evil little shit back to his master. Does Mark tell his parents that one of his school chums tried to eat him? Does he call late-night monster movie host Peter Vincent for advice? No, he gets some wooden stakes together and marches right over to the Marsten House. You’ve got to admit that’s pretty damn brave, I mean he’s just a kid for Christ’s sake, but of course, it’s also phenomenally stupid.
Mark has a brief team-up with Susan, he runs into her while she is spying on the Marsten House, and she’s there because she needed a bit more proof that Straker and Barlow were vampires, so when Mark finds her in the woods outside the spooky mansion they decide to go in together. Unfortunately, things go as well as could be expected and Straker captures them both; Susan is taken down into the cellar to “Meet the Master” while Mark is left tied to a chair as a late-night snack for either the Master or a soon-to-be-turned Susan. This is when the shit gets real. Turns out Mark isn’t just a lover of monster movies he’s also a fan of Houdini, and when Straker returns to the room to gloat and be evil, Mark is free to bash the creep’s head in.
The last third of the book has the dynamic team of Ben, Mark, Catholic priest Father Callahan, and Jimmy Cody, who is Burke’s doctor and joined the team after witnessing the rising of Danny Glick’s vampire mom, all trying to figure out how to best save their town from the vampire menace. Storming the Marsten House during the day seems to be the best move, but they are greeted by the upside-down hanging corpse of Straker, Barlow is apparently not too keen on failure, and they then find a note left from the Master himself. The note taunts the group, stating that he will be visiting Mark and his parents very soon and that he left them a little present. The present, of course, is vampire Susan, laid out under a white sheet for them to find, and a distraught Ben is forced to stake her.
Like people who’ve never seen a horror movie the group then splits up; Ben and Doctor Cody head to check in on Burke, who’s been doing vampire research from his hospital bed, while Father Callahan and Mark head over to Mark’s place to convince the kid’s parents of the danger. Needless to say, things do not go well as Barely having time to explain to the Petries what’s going on, let alone make them believe the whole vampire problem, Barlow shows up and knocks the two doubting parent’s heads together, killing them both quite dead. Barlow then offers the priest a deal; if he sets down his cross, putting his faith against Barlow’s, he will let Mark go. Callahan agrees to this and Mark is allowed to escape under the cover of Callahan’s faith-powered cross.
Sadly once he finds himself face to face with the vampire he isn’t able to drop the cross. This lack of faith is revealed in the cross losing its glow; Barlow then grabs the now useless trinket and then forces the priest to drink from him. Barlow not killing the priest is one of the most horrifying things in the book; poor Callahan is able to flee his failure in the eyes of the lord but when he arrives at his church the door handle burns his palm. You see drinking from the Master has marked the priest as one of the damned, and like the fallen coward, he is Father Callahan then takes the first bus out of town.
The team meets up later in Matt Burke’s hospital room where the elderly teacher implores them to work together, “The dead are thirsty,” Matt said simply. It’s best to be prepared. You dare not split up, even in the daytime. It will be like a scavenger hunt. You must start at one end of the town and toward the other.” This is solid advice, but one they abandon almost immediately. The trio of Ben, Mark and Doctor Jimmy head over to Mark’s home and while there they decide that Ben will stay put and use Mark’s father’s lathe to make stakes, while Jimmy and Mark will score the town for the places the undead are sleeping, and mark those places for later extermination.
A keen-eyed Mark had also noticed a bit of blue chalk on Barlow’s jacket, a good observation considering the dude was murdering his parents at the time, and the group come to the conclusion that Barlow had moved his resting place to one of the town’s schools, but while out and about Jimmy realizes that colour of chalk could be from a pool cue and that there was a pool cue in the basement of Eva’s boarding house. Unable to inform Ben of this revelation, the phone lines to Mark’s house having been cut, they decide to investigate on their own. Things do not go well for Jimmy. While exploring the boarding house Jimmy heads down the basement stairs, despite the fact that it’s pitch black and the lights aren’t working, and he dies horribly when he finds out the hard way that the stairs had been cut away. Mark finds Jimmy lying in a pool of blood as the basement floor had been set up with boards full of knives sticking up.
Mark makes it back to Ben and the two head over to the hospital to consult with Burke, only to find that the elderly teacher has passed away. With the vampire hunting team now down to just two, neither of them knows what happened to Callahan, they head to the church to arm up with a good supply of Holy Water. When they get to the boarding house they quickly discover Barlow’s hiding spot, yet taking out a Master Vampire isn’t an easy task as one glance from the creature mesmerizes Mark and sets him against his friend, but Ben is able to fight off the kid before finally staking the Big Bad Barlow.
The novel had begun with a prologue of Ben and Mark hiding out in a seaside town in Mexico, where they attempted to recover from their ordeal in ‘Salem’s Lot, and while there Mark is received into the Catholic Church. The book’s epilogue has the dynamic duo returning to the vampire town with plans to burn the place to the ground. You see a brush fire had almost destroyed the town back in ’51 so Ben and Mark hope this time it will see the whole town, and its nest of the undead burned to the ground.
Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot is one of my favourite of King books, it’s also my all-time favourite vampire story period and I’ve read it several times, but it was the first time I read it that it really affected me. I was about ten when and it scared the living crap out of me (not helped by the raccoon who decided to scratch at my second-floor bedroom window one night while I was reading it), and it holds up remarkably well even after all these years. King managed to juggle a large cast of characters while slowly building the simmering dread until the book explodes into an all-out terror-fueled romp. That someone would want to adapt this book into a movie is a no-brainer, but adapting such a massive book was going to be no easy task.
That major changes would have to occur was something one had to expect when adapting a 400-page book; though the choice of going with a two-part television movie may have allowed producer Richard Kobritz to make a longer film it also forced him to make a “family-friendly” version. This also begs the question, “If you are making a family-friendly version of ‘Salem’s Lot why hire the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre?” Now Tobe Hooper is a fine director but in this adaptation what we got was Hooper doing his damnedest to make an Alfred Hitchcock version of a Stephen King book, and if you are looking for a Hitchcock homage expert that would be Brian De Palma.
The biggest hurdle in adapting the book to screen is in consolidating the dozens of characters that appear in those 400 pages; this was solved by having many of the characters doing double duty or being abandoned altogether. For example, the character of Lawrence Crockett (Fred Willard), in both the book and movie, is the Realtor who handles the sale of the Marsten House to Straker (James Mason), but in the book, he is revealed to be quite crooked and even helps cover-up the murder of Ralphie Glick, but the movie version of Crockett is just a schmuck having an affair with the wife of a truck driver. To be fair, that affair is also in the book but it is perpetrated by two completely different characters who were excised from the movie. This is a minor change but it goes to show how the mini-series wasn’t quite able to really breathe life into the townsfolk of ‘Salem’s Lot the way King did.
The biggest victim of this is our hero’s love interest Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia), she’s now a woman who has returned to ‘Salem’s Lot after a failed attempt at making it big in Manhattan. In the book, Susan was dating Floyd Tibbets who works at the bank, in the movie his name is changed to Ned Tibbets (Barney McFadden) and he’s one of the men Lawrence Crockett hires to get Barlow’s coffin into town. In the book, an already partially turned Tibbets ambushes Ben in the parking lot, while in the movie he is fully human when he attacks Ben in his room, and only later while in jail is he visited by Barlow. Worse is that the script decides to send Susan off to a job interview in Boston and thus, for some reason, keeping her absent during much of the action. This lack of screen time results in us never getting a sense of her relationship with Ben Mears (David Soul) so when he is eventually forced to kill her there isn’t the same sense of emotional destruction found in the book. Also, she is no longer left to be killed by Barlow as an evil taunt, in the movie she shows up in the Mexico epilogue to reveal that she’s as bad at being a vampire as she is an artist.
Also missing is Doctor Jimmy Cody, stepping into that role is Susan’s father Bill Norton (Ed Flanders), who gets a career upgrade to a doctor for the mini-series. He fulfills most of the requirements of the character that Cody did in the book, but already having teacher Jason Burke (Lew Ayres) being played by an older actor it would have been nice to have a younger actor to play the doctor as depicted in the book. Also, what’s with changing his name from Matt to Jason? Seems rather arbitrary and pointless. The doctor’s death in the movie is a bit different from the book as well for instead of falling into the basement of the boarding house and landing on to a bunch of knives he now gets impaled on a wall of antlers by Straker.
Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin) is another severely short-shrifted character in the transition from book to screen as in the book, he is a smart kid able to outwit and defeat bullies that physically outmatch him, and when he is captured by Straker not only does he use his Houdini skills to get free but he beats the bastard down. This makes him enemy number one of Barlow, and it then leads to the showdown at Mark’s house between Barlow and Father Callahan (James Gallery). In the movie Mark gets free and runs into Ben while fleeing the house, he doesn’t even see Straker let alone take him out, and then he goes back into the Marsten House to join Ben and Susan’s dad in taking out Barlow…which they, of course, fail to do. The movie also jettisons the Master Vampire being forced to abandon his house and take up residence in the basement of the boarding house. As this probably shaved a half-hour or more off the movie’s running time it’s not surprising that they’d want to consolidate the ending a bit. Susan’s death being moved from the Marsten House to the ending was apparently to provide the film with more of a “snap ending” but once again it just robbed her death of any real emotional impact. So it’s safe to say that the movie did a pretty terrible job with Susan and Mark, but what about our villains?
Producer Richard Kobritz was instrumental in this change; he had the look of Barlow changed from smooth and cultured European to the speechless monster that looks like it stepped out of an early screening of Nosferatu. Kobritz’s reasoning for this is as follows, “I just thought it would be suicidal on our part to have a vampire that talks. What kind of voice do you put behind a vampire? You can’t do Bela Lugosi or you’re going to get a laugh. That’s why I think the James Mason role of Straker became more important.” I’m not completely sold on his reasoning there. This change resulted in any of the chilling seduction scenes in the book between Barlow and his victims being completely discarded, and the speech to Father Callahan about the priest pitting his faith against Barlow’s is now said by Straker, who now is not only the Master Vampire’s human guardian but apparently also his spokesperson as well.
With the casting of James Mason as Richard Straker the part was greatly expanded, and to be fair with such a fantastic actor on hand it’d be insane not to utilize him, but this does change the fabric of the story quite a bit. In the book Straker only makes a couple of appearances, mostly being asked by the citizens of ‘Salem’s Lot as to when his mysterious partner would arrive, and when he does arrive that’s when the vampire epidemic begins, but in the movie, Straker is the true villain of the piece and Barlow comes across more like one of the chief henchmen in a Bond film than he does as an intelligent force of evil that has been walking the Earth for centuries. It’s a shame we get a feral snarling monster instead of the eloquent and clearly dangerous Barlow of the book, but at least we are left with a very good James Mason performance.
Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot isn’t a terrible movie but it’s not a very good adaptation of King’s book, and certainly not helped by the listless performances by most of the cast, with James Mason being an exception, yet acting aside it was really the watering down of the horror elements so that it could pass Network censors that really killed this film for me. Which makes one wonder why they’d attempt a second adaptation 25 years later and yet still go with a fright-free TV movie.
In 2004 another two-part television mini-series, this time on the Turner Television Network, was released with heartthrob Robe Lowe as the heroic Ben Mears and Donald Sutherland as the villainous Richard Straker; while this version includes many more characters from the book it also has even more baffling changes. The 1978 version opened and closed with Ben and Mark Petrie in Mexico, much as it did in the book, but this updated adaptation starts with Ben Mears (Rob Lowe) attacking Catholic priest Father Callahan (James Cromwell) at a homeless shelter in Detroit. Callahan shoots Mears multiple times but eventually Ben is able to send them both out a third-story window onto a police car.
This leads to the bulk of the movie being narrated by the critically injured Mears to his very interested doctor. It’s with this narration, which goes on and on for what seems like an eternity, that we are introduced to the varied inhabitants of Jerusalem’s Lot; we have Sue Norton (Samantha Mathis) the failed artist who now waits tables at her family’s diner, Eva Prunier (Julia Blake), who runs the boarding house and has a sweet romance with her handy-man Ed “Weasel” Craig (Martin Vaughan), there is hunchback Dud Rogers (Brendan Cowell) who has a crush on Ruth Crockett (Penny McNamee), there is, of course, her father Larry Crockett (Robert Grubb) who is the realtor that sold the Marsten House to Richard Straker (Donald Sutherland ), then we have Doctor James Cody (Robert Mammone) who is having an affair with trailer trash Sandy McDougall (Bree Desborough), even though he suspects that her baby is being abused, next we have local poor kid Mark Petrie (Dan Byrd) and his two friends Danny (André de Vanny) and Ralphie Glick (Zac Richmond) who are at war with child hating school bus driver Charlie Rhodes (Andy Anderson), who keeps gruesome Vietnam photos in his buses glove compartment.
The first hour is just introduction after introduction, all with Rob Lowe’s vapid narration, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg of all the characters and unnecessary backstory chucked at us during this movie’s three hour running time. What’s completely bizarre here is that most of those backstories are not from the book; the marital affair in the book does not involve James Cody and certainly doesn’t have him blackmailed by the trailer trash couple as it does in this movie, and it’s also suggested here that the character of Matt Burke (Andre Braugher) invited Mike Ryerson (Christopher Morris) back to his place because he had sexual feelings towards his former student. Is throwing in awkward gay subtext this movie’s way of updating the story?
We also learn that Ben Mears went into the Marsten House when he was a young boy and witnessed Hubie Marsten committing suicide, also discovering the man’s wife dead body on the bathroom floor, when of course in the book Hubie had died years before Ben was even born and what he saw was the ghost of Hubie Marsten hanging in the deserted house. It gets worse; Sue Norton gets pissed off when she discovers that Ben isn’t in town to write a book on the Marsten House but instead it some treatise on small-town evil. So the hero is a self-righteous dick and everyone in town is either an amoralistic asshat or a victim, but what about the actual villains? How bad or good are they? That the last time we saw Donald Sutherland and Rutger Hauer together they were facing off in Buffy the Vampire Hunter, and both giving much better performances, about says it all.
Though this movie’s version of Barlow (Rutger Hauer) is a step up from the hissing Nosferatu from the 1978 adaptation it still never once comes across as terrifyingly malevolent as it did in the book. This 2004 mini-series does limit the appearances of both Barlow and Straker, just as King did in the book, but unfortunately, the time we do spend with them leaves no impact unless you count unintentional laughs.
The overall structure of the movie’s middle act is much closer to the book than the 1978 version; Mark escapes from the Marsten House after taking out Straker, and he returns with Ben, Jimmy and Father Callahan, but once again they fail to have Ben stake the vampirized Sue. In the 1978 movie, Sue isn’t there, and only shows up again at the end when she tries to seduce him in Mexico, but here she is found in the cellar of the Marsten House, laying in repose inside Barlow’s coffin, but Ben is unable to stake her and is somehow able to convince his companions to leave her be. Once again the emotional heft that the book provided, where Ben was forced to stake the woman he loved, is completely missing. Mind you the love story in this version is even lamer than the one in 1978.
The biggest departure from the book is in the handling of Father Callahan; as in the book he and Mark went over to convince Mark’s parents to leave town (well in this movie he only has one parent), and Barlow shows up and snaps Mark’s mother’s neck. Barlow offers to let Mark go if Callahan drops his cross, and like in the book he doesn’t drop the cross, but we never get a sense that it was because his faith failed him. In the book, holy objects glowed in the presence of evil, and when Callahan failed to trust in his God the glow of the cross-faded, leaving Callahan at Barlow’s mercy. Now the movie does use the moment from the book where Barlow forces Callahan to drink from him, but where in the book this resulted in Callahan no longer being able to enter his church, and his eventually skipping town in disgrace, the 2004 movie version has Callahan joining Barlow as a minion.
That final defeat happens at Eve’s boarding house, as it did in the book, but here Sue will show up so that Ben will finally be forced to stake her, and as in the book the doctor falls into the basement, but instead of on implanted knives it’s on a powered up table saw. We then get Ben and Mark driving up to the Marsten House so that they can set it ablaze; with the assumption that this will somehow result in the entire town burning down.
The movie then cuts back to the E.R. doctor listening to Ben’s story, and while he’s been enthralled by this tale good ole Mark had snuck into Callahan’s hospital room and smothered the priest to death. Mark then slips into Ben’s room to tell him it’s over, and Ben finally succumbs to his injuries and dies. The kid then disappears into the night. As endings go this has got to be one of the dumbest I’ve ever seen; we never find out why the vampire/zombie army leading Callahan was slinging soup at a homeless shelter in Detroit. Did the town burn to the ground as they’d hoped or did most of the shambling vampires escape? Are we missing an entire chapter of Ben and Mark hunting vampires and Callahan across America? If so that sounds like a better movie than what I just watched, or at least it would have made a better television series.
Until a network like HBO or AMC is allowed to take a crack at ‘Salem’s Lot I don’t think we will ever get a truly faithful adaptation of Stephen King’s book, and if I had my way I’d let the makers of Netflix’s Stranger Things have a go at it, but as it stands the Tobe Hooper movie is decent if not particularly scary, while the 2004 version, by television director Mikael Salomon, is an unwatchable mess.
Stephen King hasn’t had much luck with adaptations, but with Hollywood taking two cracks at one of his best books and failings both times, let’s hope that someday in the future we will get a great horror movie made from this fantastic book.