Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Castle Rock Companion - Salem's Lot (1979)

From now on, Castle Rock Companion will be most commonly appearing in written form. I explained the reasons for the change over on my personal blog. My apologies to all of you who enjoyed the videos.

Salem's Lot is King's attempt to write Dracula, but it's not really Bram Stoker's version of Dracula.  This is closer to the Dracula we see in the Hammer films, a brooding older man with a charming presence despite his ghoulish appearance.  He's affected by all the modern myths that have surrounded vampires since Nosferatu, like the inability to come out in the daytime.  The cast of characters is also updated to King's standard of the residents of a small town.  The town of Salem's Lot is authentic King, with the feeling that you could put these characters up against Cujo, Christine or Carrie and they'd be just the same.  It's mostly when he's directly emulating the Dracula story that it comes off a little less authentic.

The 1979 adaptation exists in two forms - its original television mini-series format and an edited down movie format that was released years later.  For the purpose of this review I'm looking at the mini-series version.  This adaptation is once again very close to the novel in a lot of ways.  It was toned down a bit for content and a lot of the minor characters are merged together to save time.  There's really only one large difference between the two, and I'll get to that in a minute.

I feel that keeping the pacing so close to the novel was a mistake.  We saw this in the 1997 version of The Shining and again in Firestarter.  These kind of straight up adaptations can come off really bland, like a cover song so close to the original that you'd rather just listen to the original instead.  It makes sense for a book to take its time and build slowly, and between narration and knowing what the characters are thinking, it can really build a sense of tension.  But in a TV series you need to raise the drama or action in order to keep people's attention, and this mini-series doesn't do that at all in my opinion.  It does make some really strange choices though.

When the deliverymen drop off the crate containing Barlow at the Marsten House, they tell us over and over again that they are cold, and that the crate seems to be emanating cold from it.  Now I know that vampires are cold, but I think this is the first time I've ever heard of them making everything around them cold too.  Or maybe he's being delivered packed in ice so you can't smell the stink of death?  Regardless it's just a silly detail and is unneeded.  This kind of repetition of lines happens a few times throughout the mini-series.  Another strange choice that confused me was changing some of the character's names.  Floyd is called Ned and Matt is called Jason.  It did remind me of the way that characters often get flipped around in Dracula adaptations though, so I guess they succeeded in that.

The most obvious change they make in this version is making Barlow more like Count Orlok than Count Dracula in appearance. He speaks only in hisses and wails.  This was the decision of producer Richard Kobritz, who felt like Dracula had been done to death and would only come off as silly.  Ironically, this blue faced hissing creature is the one that comes off silly to me.  He looks like the bat boy from Weekly World News.  Of course most of the vampires come off silly, with their glowing yellow eyes and their strange attempts at appearing menacing.  Though there is one moment towards the end that genuinely creeped me out, where the vampires are slowing creeping up on our heroes, the fact that they are out of focus while doing so speaks volumes.

Making Barlow silent means that the film's villainy must be carried by his assistant Straker, so it's fortunate that they cast James Mason in the role.  While it's a little strange that he just appears out of nowhere all the time when they need him in a scene, it does tie into the idea that being Barlow's companion gives him extra-human abilities.  His death scene is way too over the top though.  The other thing about Barlow being silent is that it takes away the angle from the book where he is using his charms to seduce the people of the town.  Here Straker captures Ralphie Glick for Barlow, and from then on it seems like all the people are turned by their fellow townspeople.  I like this idea, because it seems logical that you might miss your recently deceased loved one so much that you would allow them into your home and fall prey to them.

The other main difference here is the climax being moved around, where Barlow's death happens within the Marsten house, and Sue's death is saved until the end.  Both of these are excellent story choices that fit the pacing a little better.  It's just a shame they couldn't have also tried to change things up early on too.

There was a sequel to this mini-series made, and Noel will be covering it in two weeks.  Before that, I'll be talking about the 2004 mini-series.


  1. The novel isn't one of my favorites by King. Don't misunderstand me; I like it a lot, it just isn't in the upper echelons for me. I actually appreciate the Tobe Hooper miniseries' attempt to replicate the slow-burn nature of the novel -- and to be honest, I don't know how you'd adapt the novel without doing that slow buildup in some way. At the same time, I can sympathize with finding the miniseries boring; if the tone doesn't work on you, and if the characters don't capture your attention pretty much immediately, then it will almost certainly be a bit of a bore.

  2. It's been a while since I've seen the miniseries, but I remember agreeing with a lot of your points. I also remember (hopefully not incorrectly) that it spent so much time faithfully adapting the first half of the novel, that by the time it reached the second half, they only had about 45 minutes left, and had to rush and compress a lot of it down, leaving the final stretch feeling a bit rushed. If they'd tightened up the first half and given the second some more room to breathe, that would have fixed a lot of it.

    It also lacked a lot of Hooper's typical stylistic craziness. Love it or hate it, that's what gives his films a unique feel, and this felt like he was being muted by the hand of the producers and a rigid script by the same guy who wrote Carrie.


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