The first two films of this series, Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu and John Badham’s Dracula, very firmly and easily fall into the classic definition of Gothic horror. The nineteenth-century setting, the crumbling castles, and cobwebs are all telltale signs of this long-standing sub-genre of horror. Tobe Hooper’s television film Salem’s Lot, however, is somewhat harder to pin down. It is set in modern times and filled with modern characters finding themselves in contemporary situations. Still, it falls into the realm of Gothic horror for three main reasons: The Bad Place, the classical nature of the film’s vampires, and the imperilment of children.
Salem’s Lot began, of course, as a novel by true Master of Horror Stephen King, and he deliberately retooled scenes from Dracula for it. As he explains in his excellent survey course on the horror genre, Danse Macabre:
“I decided I wanted to try to use the book partially as a form of literary homage…So my novel bears an intentional similarity to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and after a while, it began to seem to me what I was doing was playing an interesting — to me, at least — game of literary racquet-ball: ‘Salem’s Lot itself was the ball and Dracula was the wall I kept hitting it against, watching to see how and where it would bounce, so I could hit it again. As a matter of fact, it took some pretty interesting bounces, and I ascribe this mostly to the fact that, while my ball existed in the twentieth century, my wall was very much a product of the nineteenth.”
And with the “wall” that he continually bounced his story against being so firmly fixed in Gothic storytelling, ‘Salem’s Lot was predestined to fall into similar territory.
The Bad Place is a great standard-setting for horror stories going back to the dawn of storytelling (stay out of that cave). This goes beyond the so-called “haunted house” and includes any setting that gives us pause before entering or sends a chill up the spine. It certainly could be the witch’s candy house in the woods from Hansel and Gretel, Castle Dracula, Hill House, or the Overlook Hotel — dwellings with horrific pasts and dangerous ghosts and supernatural monsters. Or it could be Wuthering Heights, The House of the Seven Gables, Bleak House, or in more modern and familiar terms the Bates Mansion from Psycho or the Sawyer house from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, neither of which are actually haunted, but certainly contain their own non-supernatural form of sinister ghost. In Salem’s Lot, the Bad Place is The Marsten House; and in the film, without a doubt, it evokes the design of the Bates Mansion from Psycho, immediately unsettling the audience. The house is also the most traditionally Gothic element of the film. Though it is made of wood rather than stone and set in New England rather than old Europe, it is the epitome of the crumbling, cobwebbed, rotting Gothic setting.
In the novel, the Marsten House plays a much more peripheral role than in the movie. Ben Mears, a reasonably successful writer, returns to his childhood town of Jerusalem’s Lot to do research for a book on the house and its disturbing past. As a child, he had entered it on a dare and has been haunted by it ever since. He believes that this evil house attracts evil men. In a discussion with his former teacher he asks, “Jason, do you believe a thing can be inherently evil? A house. The Marsten House, for instance. Can it be evil in its stone foundations in its wooden beams in the glass of its windows in the plaster of its ceilings, Evil?” Jason counters by saying, “If an evil house attracts evil men…” to which Ben responds, “Why did it attract me?” delving into a frightening place where few of us dare go. It is a Bad Place within our own minds and souls where we ask ourselves what we are capable of and how different we really are from what we identify as evil. Just the kind of place that our vampire, Barlow, and his minion, Straker, would relish to dwell, both the physical house and that dark place in our hearts.
The vampires of Salem’s Lot are actually quite traditional for a film that, for the most part, still feels quite modern 40 years later: they must be invited in; they succumb to crosses, holy water, and garlic; they can be vanquished with a stake through the heart. As with Count Orlock of the original Nosferatu, as well as the Dracula of Herzog’s remake, Barlow is a bringer of plague. The Barlow of the novel is much more like the Count Dracula of Stoker’s book — suave and articulate. But the film’s Barlow (played by Reggie Nalder) is very much based on the Nosferatu vampire — a mute, hissing monster. (It is doubtful that either production, Herzog’s Nosferatu or Hooper’s Salem’s Lot, was aware of the other during the design stages of their vampires. I firmly believe that the choice to design Barlow after Max Schreck’s Orlock of Murnau’s Nosferatu is a complete coincidence.) Again, we see a rat in human form: bald and pointed eared with close-set incisors and sharp claws. As Barlow, with the help of James Mason’s Straker, spreads his plague, the town of Salem’s Lot is either oblivious or in complete denial.
As with much of Hooper’s (and King’s) work, this obliviousness and denial has particular political underpinnings. The act of covering up chaos and horror with a glossy and pretty facade would continue to be seen throughout the work of both men. In King’s work, this is a major theme of It and the “Captain Trips” section of his great epic The Stand. In each, the town of Derry, Maine, and the whole world in The Stand, respectively, are in complete denial of the danger they face. In Hooper’s work, this is perhaps most prominent in Poltergeist (1982) where the graveyard of the neglected issues of the 1960s and 1970s are simply built over and hidden by the pretty suburban neighborhoods of the Reagan Revolution until those problems can no longer remain buried and strike back upon America and its children.
Children in peril have long been a major storytelling element from the ancients, to fairy tales, and certainly in Gothic literature. Many of the greatest of Gothic horror stories include Frankenstein’s young sibling William being murdered in Frankenstein, the vampire version of Lucy hunting down children in Dracula, and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw where a ghost is threatening children. This is also a common thread in Stephen King’s work. Salem’s Lot, The Shining, Cujo, the novella “The Body” (the basis for the film Stand by Me), It, The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger, The Dead Zone, Firestarter, Pet Sematary, and The Mist among other novels and stories all include children either dying or in great peril. It is more prevalent in his early work and is perhaps an extension of personal fears that his own demons of addiction at the time would cause him to harm his own children. He often seemed to cast a version of himself as the villain of these stories, perhaps most memorably as Jack Torrance in The Shining. I am not claiming that his books are autobiographical, but he has been very open about these personal demons and fears of his past.
In Salem’s Lot, the children in the most peril are Ralphie and Danny Glick, who both become vampires, and Mark Petrie, the monster kid who becomes a fearless vampire hunter. Perhaps the most memorable and effective scenes in the movie involve these three characters. Ralphie (Ronnie Scribner) and Danny (Brad Savage) both have scenes of floating in the mist outside windows begging to be let inside. The scenes were filmed in reverse causing the mist to act in strange and unnatural ways, as well as the movements of the boys taking on an unearthly quality. This simple but effective technique is just one example of the kind of ingenuity that went into making this television movie look truly cinematic.
Mark Petrie (Lance Kerwin) is perhaps even more the film’s hero than David Soul’s Ben Mears. A favorite scene of mine is Mark’s father asking him why he is so interested in monsters and magic as Mark works on a model of a monster. “It’s just the way I am,” he answers. And because this is just the way he is, Mark is the only person in Salem’s Lot equipped to deal with the problem at hand. He is the weirdo, the freak, the outcast…and the only hope. I respond so much to Mark because I, like many horror fans, have felt the same way. I still collect monster toys, horror movie posters, books, and Blu-rays. I have a Psycho house model in my office, a Michael Myers model in progress, and Bride of Frankenstein and Christine models waiting to be built. Mark Petrie is the monster kid who is the stand-in for the film’s audience. This character later took on the form of Tommy Jarvis in Friday the 13th, The Losers Club of It, and the kids of The Goonies, The Monster Squad, and Stranger Things.
The reach of Salem’s Lot is still felt in many ways. From the obvious like the character of Petyr in What We Do in the Shadows (2014), to the more subtle underlying structures of a small town with a large cast of characters invaded by evil. King himself returned to this format many times, particularly in creating his towns of Castle Rock and Derry. It, Needful Things, and Under the Dome are all prime examples of his own use of this template after Salem’s Lot. And countless other writers and filmmakers have been inspired by it as well.
Though the Gothic vampire has given way to more modern versions like those found in The Lost Boys (1987) and Near Dark (1987), From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), Blade (1998), 30 Days of Night (2007), Let the Right One In (2008), and even Twilight (2008), it has never entirely disappeared. Anne Rice’s vampires certainly bear more than a passing resemblance to their Gothic forebears as do Charlaine Harris’s of the Sookie Stackhouse novels. Dracula has never fully disappeared and has even made a resurgence with the recent Netflix series and the announcement of a Karyn Kusama-helmed reimagining for Blumhouse. There is no doubt that the Gothic vampire will continue to rise and bare its fangs.
Beahm, George (Ed.). The Stephen King Companion. Andrews and McMeel, a Universal Press Syndicate Company. Kansas City, MO. 1989
King, Stephen. Danse Macabre. The Berkeley Press. New York, NY. 1981
King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. Scribner. New York, NY. 2000
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