Ben Mears, portrayed by David Soul, (Starsky and Hutch) returns to the town of Salem’s Lot, Maine, where he lived up until the age of 10. Ben is a novelist, and the current book he is working on, has to do with the Marsten House. The decaying house sits atop a hill and, in essence, is a looming presence over the entire town of Salem’s Lot; it is a place that has haunted Ben’s thoughts since childhood. The reason the house has remained in Ben’s psyche from adolescence into adulthood, is that one day, on a dare, he entered the house. When he went inside he discovered that the owner, Hubie Marsten, had hung himself, but what was even more shocking to Ben at the time, was that he was convinced, that Marsten opened his eyes and looked at him. Prior to that, other terrible events had taken place in the house. The question Ben is exploring in the novel he’s working on is: Are places inherently evil? If they are, will other evil forces be attracted to them? (As an aside: A full scale facade was built to represent the Marsten House. The structure was constructed around a smaller home that was sitting on-top of the hill. The estimated cost to get the right exterior look for the Marsten House cost approximately $100,000).
As scared as Ben is of the Marsten House, he attempts to rent the property. He is informed, however, by realtor, Larry Crockett (Fred Willard), that the house has recently gone off the market, after being vacant for twenty-five years. The current occupants of the house are a mysterious pair – a man named Richard Straker, portrayed by Golden Globe winner and three time Oscar nominee, James Mason (A Star is Born), and his business partner, Kurt Barlow (Reggie Nalder), who is away on a buying trip for the new antique shop the two men are opening in town. In actuality, Barlow is a vampire, whose appearance is styled after Vampire Count Orlok in the 1922 film “Nosferatu,“ directed by F.W. Murnau, and Straker is Barlow’s daytime servant and protector.
Ben moves into a local boarding house run by Eve Miller (Marie Windsor). He takes a room which has a perfect view of the Marsten House. During his time in Salem’s Lot, before chaos begins to take over the town, he meets a woman, Susan Norton, played by Golden Globe nominee, Bonnie Bedelia (Heart Like a Wheel). Ben begins to date her, much to the ire of her ex-boyfriend, local town plumber, Ned Tebbets (Barney McFadden). Ben also renews a relationship with his grade school English teacher, Jason Burke, portrayed by Oscar nominee, Lew Ayres (Johnny Belinda), a person who Ben credits with inspiring his love of writing.
The aforementioned chaos begins to take place a short while after Straker arranges with Crocket to have an important package picked up for him at an airport warehouse. Crocket thinks he’s giving the assignment to truck driver, Cully Sawyer (George Dzundra). Cully, however, gets two other men, Ned Tebbets, and town gravedigger, Mike Ryerson, played by character actor and Golden Globe nominee, Geoffrey Lewis (Flo) to pick up the package. The reason Sully opts out, is that he suspects Crocket has been having an affair with his wife Bonnie, (Julie Cobb) and he wants to catch them in the act.
Tebbets and Ryerson are instructed to drive the package – which turns out to be a large sized crate, that is cold to the touch, and moves on its own, while inside the cargo hold of the truck – to the Marsten House. Once there, they are to deliver it into the cellar. Furthermore, they are to padlock the doors to the cellar, as well as the other entrances to the house. Tebbets and Ryerson complete part of the assignment, but get scared to the point that they merely place the crate in the cellar, and leave the padlocks and the keys for the locks on the floor of the cellar. A short while after the package is delivered, The Glick Brothers, Danny (Brad Savage) and Ralphie (Ronnie Scribner) are very late in returning from their friend Mark’s house. Lance Kerwin plays Mark Petrie, who is a lover of all things having to do with horror and magic and, like Ben Mears, has demonstrated to his teachers that he has a talent for writing.
The incident with the Glick Brothers is only the start of the trouble that will engulf the town of Salem’s Lot. Ben Mears is convinced that the horrific events that take place from that moment forward are a direct result of Straker and Barlow moving into the Marsten House. Along with Susan, Jason, Mark, and Susan’s father, Dr. Bill Norton, portrayed by three time, Emmy winner, Ed Flanders (St. Elsewhere), they set out to stop the evil from spreading before it’s too late.
“Salem’s Lot” premiered as a mini-series on CBS television, airing in two parts on November 17, 1979 and November 24, 1979. The mini-series was based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, which was published by Doubleday on October 17, 1975; it marked the first time a work by Stephen King was made into a mini-series. Directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), with a screenplay written by Paul Monash (The Friends of Eddie Coyle), “Salem’s Lot” is effective thanks to several factors. First and foremost, in addition to the leads, as mentioned throughout the post, it has an excellent ensemble cast, who help propel the story forward. Additional members of the cast, include: Emmy winner, Barbara Babcock (Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman); versatile character actors, Elisha Cook Jr. and Kenneth McMillan: James Mason’s wife, actress Clarissa Kaye-Mason; and James Gallery, in the role of Father Donald Callahan, whose character also appears in books in King’s “Dark Tower” series. (As an aside: “Psycho” author Robert Bloch was originally tasked with writing the script for “Salem’s Lot”).
There are several cuts of the mini-series, the one that I’ve reviewed is the Warner Bros. Blu-ray DVD release which has a runtime of 183 minutes. “Salem’s Lot” relies on atmosphere, story, and tension, instead of gore and gratuitous violence, which didn’t hamper the ratings. In fact, the ratings were excellent, and for a time CBS considered turning “Salem’s Lot” into a television show, but that didn’t happen. The mini-series negatives, for some viewers, will more than likely be, that the look is dated. In addition, for those who love the novel, the character of Barlow is vastly different. He no longer possesses a superior intellect, charm, or sophistication. The mini-series version of Barlow is non-verbal, and monstrous; at first Stephen King objected to the changes made to Barlow, but after watching the mini-series before it aired, he gave his approval. I hadn’t seen “Salem’s Lot” since I was a teenager, and at the time, I remember watching it with my father, on VHS tape, so I was glad I revisited it on DVD. For Stephen King fans, who can look past the differences in the presentation of Barlow’s character, and for those, who like their horror more story driven, “Salem’s Lot” is an excellent adaptation of King’s novel.