Cult Movie: Salem's Lot still sends a shiver down the spine

Still scary... The famous window scene from Salem's Lot
Still scary... The famous window scene from Salem's Lot Still scary... The famous window scene from Salem's Lot


Many of us have a scary movie moment from the past that still sends a shiver down our spines the instant its remembered.

You know the kind of thing; something you’ve witnessed on a late night TV screening at an impressionable age that made you recoil in cold blooded terror, unable to sleep and desperate to talk to your friends in school about it the next day. For me that moment happened in Salem’s Lot.

The sequence in director Tobe Hooper’s 1979 adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name comes when a young kid, eyes blazing and fangs at the ready, floats up to the bedroom window of his friend, scrapes on the glass and asks to be let in.

It may sound like a standard enough vampire set up but Hooper shoots it with a dreamlike wooziness that works its evil magic impressively. Even the thought of it now leaves me a little shaky, if truth be told.

For anyone who hasn’t read King’s original book or seen Hooper’s made-for-TV film version, let me introduce you to a simple tale of creepy kids and small town vampirism. A writer Ben Mears, played by a post-Starsky And Hutch David Soul, returns to his old home town to try and finish his latest novel. He hopes to rent the old Marsten House, a creepy mansion that sits high in the hills of Salem’s Lot, but is told a strange old English antiques dealer called Straker (played with aloof charm by the great James Mason) is now in residence.

Ben swiftly takes a room in town and hooks up with Susan Norton (Bonnie Bedelia), the daughter of the local doctor. Romance soon blossoms but everything changes when the mysterious Straker has a huge crate delivered to his basement and a local kid, Ralphie Glick (Ronnie Scriber), is abducted and offered as a sacrifice to the vampire lurking within.

A reborn Ralphie then returns home to take on his elder brother Danny (Brad Savage) and soon the curse of vampirism is all over town. It’s left to Mears and a few select townsfolk to work out how to handle it.

Originally a two-part TV movie that was glued together for cinematic release, Salem’s Lot does suffer from a sluggish pace at times. It takes a while for the horror to hit home but when it’s up and running there’s plenty of fine set pieces and performances to enjoy.

Chief among them is Reggie Nalder’s unforgettable and Nosferatu-like turn as the main bloodsucker but close behind him is Mason as the smooth and evil facilitator who brings chaos to town. Even David Soul, never the most convincing of leading men, is excellent as the increasingly paranoid writer who wishes he’d never returned home.

Those looking for the kind of X-rated gore you might expect from the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre may be disappointed – this was a TV production after all – but there’s enough latent menace on show to keep you watching to the end. And don’t even get me started on that bedroom window scene...