The Plot: In the small Maine town of Salem’s Lot two strangers have recently arrived. Straker, who has moved into the large mansion on the outside of town and moved his small antiquities store on main street and Ben Mears (played by David Soul) who is a successful writer originally from Salem’s Lot who has been drawn back to the town by The Marsten House the very mansion that Straker has moved into. This house acts as a magnet for evil men, due to it’s own innate evil presence. Although he’s the only one who believes this at first, it becomes clear soon enough that Straker isn’t exactly what he claims to be. His partner “Barlow”, who has supposedly been on vacation the entire time that Straker has been in Salem’s lot still hasn’t made an appearance and now small children are beginning to come up missing. These actions replicate an incident that happened at the mansion years ago and from where it got it’s reputation. Unknown to the townspeople, but Mr. Barlow is a vampire lord and they are doomed to become his feast. Will this town succumb to the evil or Barlow or will there be anyone left to fight back?

The Review: I find myself sometimes in the middle of debates with other horror fans, about the worth of modern horror versus that of the classical taste. There are some out there who feel the need to hang onto the belief that horror in cinema is actually dead and this disturbs me to no end. When there are so many interesting films out there being made, I just can’t put my mind into such a frameset. The game has changed in a lot of ways, but in a lot of ways it has changed for the better. After watching Salem’s Lot again to get in the mood for Halloween (October 2009 currently) I do have to concede that ‘creepy’ horror actually might be dead at this moment. That probably seems like a mouthful when you have stuff like “Shutter” or “Mirrors” hitting either DVD shelves or theaters every other week. These are films that really should be the direct continuum of flicks like The Omen, The Excorcist or the movie I’m talking about today: Salem’s Lot. However, something has been lost. Something is gone from the cinematic equilibrium in terms of creating intensely creepy atmosphere and moments that are visually frightening. Hollywood as well as we the audience have come to the banquet of horror cinema with the mindset of an action movie. We expect shocks a minute at this point and if we don’t get at least one grotesque scene then we actually leave disappointed.

We come for that cat that jumps out from behind the curtain. We come for that spike in the soundtrack that causes us to jump from our nerves. We watch these movies no longer with fears of leaving with nightmares or that feeling of needing to hide when we turn the lights out to go to sleep. Some of us confuse those feelings as something simply from our childhood, but after watching Salem’s Lot one more time I know that’s not the case alone. There’s a general presence with Salem’s Lot as well as those previously mentioned picture. It’s that inspired form of terror that you just don’t get today. There are movies out there that take those chances that could come off as being phony or come off as being silly, but build the audience up so much and have them so invested in the story that there’s no need to even bother with suspending disbelief. We are there in the movie with our characters and we’re there about to douse our undergarments. Those moments are so few and far in between that some of us don’t believe they even exist, but it is true but it takes a patient audience member and it’s unfortunate that most of us these days simply are not.

Although I am quite familiar with Stephen King’s writing, having read thirty or so of his novels, I have not yet read the original Salem’s Lot so I don’t have that background information to judge the film on that layer (of it being true to the original novel or not) but I have to say it certainly keeps the feel of a Stephen King book. The length and span of the movie gives it a literary feeling, by that I mean immediately after you feel as if you’ve read a novel. The details of this small town are driven into such detailed accounts that it does have that feeling of something written. This leads to possible the only one complaint I could imagine anyone having with Salem’s Lot and that would be the length of it. The fact is, it’s a made for TV movie that simply wasn’t meant to be watched in one viewing. However, at three hours in length it certainly is do-able but it takes an audience member really putting forth an effort. It’s really a shame that with all of the excess, there’s isn’t a theatrical cut out on DVD along with the original version. Really, it’s just a shame that there isn’t any kind of fully realized special edition out at this point. It makes me feel as if this is some sort of lost masterpiece, despite it already having a fairly bare bones DVD release as well as airing on television fairly often. It certainly deserves a remaster at the very least though.

Salem’s Lot is a film that horror fans might look past, due to it’s length and “made for TV” statute, but I guarantee this doesn’t feel like your run of the mill made for TV movie. With blood, truly atmospheric horror and some of the spookiest (as well as artistic) bits of gothic horror ever photographed. Chances are, if you’re not familiar with this version of the story, you’ve at least seen a few cinematic moments that were obviously inspired by it. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to many other takes on these iconic creatures of the night, Salem’s Lot can be felt in so many other vampire films from then to now. Moments such as the ones featuring the two brothers who fly to different windows in order to lure their way inside of the homes of potential victims. Not only are these moments iconic, gothic and intense in their delivery – but they’re simply terrifying. It is everything you feared as a kid whilst looking outside the window at night and the way these scenes are shot, they’re simply nightmarish to say the least. Suspenseful and frightening, Salem’s Lot defines what horror could be.

Salem’s Lot really was THE film to show just frightening vampires actually could be. It’s really something amazing to see. With such a limited budget, it creates this dreadful atmosphere. If you were going to be jaded while watching I guess you could say that the effects work is rather simple. The corpses are bleach white with dark rings around their eyes and they wear contacts. What’s so scary about that? Let me tell you, it’s everything. The combination of the music, so dense and dark with the otherworldly performances from the standout cast it creates a completely believable world where all the horrible things we imagine in life could very well happen. Those contacts I mentioned? Some of the best and most effective prosthetic effects in any horror film. How they glow in the dark, I am not sure. I have to imagine it’s a visual effect, possibly animated, but the time period that it was made in makes you second guess everything. Regardless of how the effect was made, it is simply so effective in making these creatures more than simply actors whispering their lines. That also leads me back to the facetious comment I made in the opening paragraph. The actors actually committed to their roles here. The problem I think with modern society is simply how obtuse we have all become at the prospect of being scared by the whims of a movie. The performances here, from characters who have been changed into vampires, are so devoted to scaring the audience. They are not played over the top or as smooth talking Anne Rice vampires, the performances are subtle and relaxed. A mix between a zombie and a demon, they speak in whispers or hisses.

It’s such a creepy movie monster and leads us as the audience to really dread what might come of these innocent people that are fed to these beasts. The cinematography is owed a debt in the creation of this Salem’s Lot atmosphere. Even watched on a full screen, with no wide angles, the camera catches all and paints so many magnificent images. Small things like Straker sitting in his antique store with a skull in the foreground, while he sits back and unintentionally mimics the positioning of said skull. A really beautiful shot that is there for no other reason than a bit of artistic flourish and mood. There’s another shot where one of the vampires is found sitting in a rocking chair, eyes glowing in the dark, with most of it’s body lit from the light coming from the doorway that our character came from when stumbling upon this monster. This scene is one of the most memorable and frightening moments of the entire picture for me as it takes another one of those horrible things you know will never happen, but explores that doorway of what would happen if you opened a bedroom door only to find a creature behind it. Then, the creature doesn’t jump at you. He doesn’t attack. He simply stares at you and starts to whisper evil things. A terrifying concept! Put to the screen perfectly.

It has problems, there’s no getting past it. The TV format length does create some issues for the audience. However, no matter how you watch it (either in one night or over two), the experience remains the same. It is for my money everything I love about horror. The pacing is slow, but the characters are so well built by the time we’re full steam ahead into the vampire war that is waged later on that we feel like we know these people and we know this town. We know that what people show us on the exterior isn’t always what their real motivation is. I can’t recommend Salem’s Lot enough. If i had my way, it would be listed on every horror fan’s top ten. Like Spielberg’s Jaws, it just seems like the kind of movie that gets everything right while making us wait patiently for the delivery. If you haven’t had the experience yet, add this one to netflix, go rent it, buy it or do whatever but I don’t think you’ll be disappointed by having it in your collection.

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