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Monday, 21 October 2013

Salem's Lot (1979)

The King's Vampires Saved by Soul

Every time I have been to the cinema this summer a particularly striking advert has been shown. On each occasion it has left me with goosebumps and a craving to hide my head behind the nearest sofa. I’m speaking of the BFI trailer which celebrates cinema’s Gothic glory in all its spine-chilling majesty.

Nosferatu silently looms; condemned, exposed, by the timid moonlight. The Mummy grudgingly stirs from its slumber. Frankenstein shrieks as his monstrous creation comes to life.

Our awful fascination with these sights is our undoing. Goblins and ghouls can’t possibly exist and yet the dark heart of man never ceases to dream up the next lurking ethereal threat. Humanity’s taste for the supernatural is explored in Salem’s Lot with the same delicate crescendo and jarring bizarreness which defines the greatest terrors.

In 1979 Tobe Hooper (Poltergeist, Texas Chainsaw Massacre) adapted Stephen King’s second novel for the big screen. With the inclusion of a haunted house, vampires and countless horror clich├ęs, it is by far King’s most Gothic and traditional tale.

A successful writer (David Soul) returns to his sleepy New England hometown to investigate the derelict mansion that terrified him as a child. When a mysterious stranger buys the crumbling building terrible events begin to occur. Could a house be inherently evil?

Salem’s Lot survives as a relic of a time when the supernatural was not the obsession of heart-struck teenage girls but the preserve of macabre-loving nerds. To modern eyes it looks hopelessly dated, coming from a period when David Soul was considered a romantic lead and a British accent was the epitome of villainy. The last 34 years have not been kind and showcase this seventies quirkiness as little more than a niche novelty.

I half expected Scooby Doo and the gang to appear at any moment. “Yikes, Scooby. It’s a V-V-Vampire!”
 
Nonetheless, underneath its cheap exterior, Salem’s Lot is a horrifying thriller waiting to run rampant on our nightmares. Occasional scenes of originality convey a spooky tone and an insidious sensation of malevolence develops along the narrative. Like all of King’s best works, it flourishes on the premise of dragging ordinary - albeit flawed – characters into extraordinary circumstances.

However, because of some ruthless editing, the film never has time to fully explain the story’s development. Each change of scene requires a dizzying chronological leap which has no respect for character progression or consistency. One minute we’re following David Soul, and then we’re watching the estate agent, then the teacher, and so on. This style may suit an 800 page novel but seriously hinders a 120 minute movie.

Salem’s Lot is intriguing as either a piece of cultural history or entertainment for die hard horror fans. Casual viewers need to look elsewhere if they want to be spooked.

ST

BFI's Gothic Trailer

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