Call this one: Tribute to a Face. This veiny blue monstrosity, the icon of Tobe Hooper’s TV adaptation of Stephen King’s best-seller Salem’s Lot, took the Max Schreck template from Murnau’s Nosferatu to its hideous endpoint. Crooked fangs, desiccated features, dead marble eyes. Pushing the boundaries of the term “human,” this horrifying creation, embodied by actor Reggie Nalder, remains the most truly upsetting incarnation of the vampire ever created for the screen. And there he was, in 1978, in everyone’s living room.
Or maybe this entry in the Great Pumpkins series is more a tribute to the power of television to instill fear in the viewer. Is it because we least expect it? Is it because we get caught off guard, while sitting, presumably safely, nestled in our chairs? Nearly all of the terrifying experiences I can recall from childhood were necessarily from network or UHF channels: these came not just from airings of theatrical films (though my first experiences with The Shining and Psycho arrived with commercial interruption, and for some reason that heightened the tension for me. How could something so emotionally disruptive come packaged with something so mundane as toothpaste and car ads?) but also from reruns of old television shows—The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery (see earlier this week), and, perhaps worst of all, that one terrible Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode about the female convict who attempts to break out of prison by stowing away in a casket . . . bad idea.
But Salem’s Lot was maybe worst of all. And it mostly had to do with that face. In my household the story is apocryphal: a year before my birth, my mother was nonchalantly folding laundry while Tobe Hooper’s hyped miniseries was glowing from the television in front of her. The creepy, but rather placid story was about an hour in. Horror visuals had been mostly relegated to some fog-enshrouded floating undead and cobwebby houses. But there had been talk of an absent “Mr. Barlow.” And when he finally arrived, awaking a man in the shadows of a dingy jail cell, he certainly didn’t disappoint. My mother’s reaction, a blood-curdling scream to an empty house and a true momentary fear that a heart-attack might have been induced, followed by an abrupt turning off of the TV, remains as vivid an image in my head as anything in the film itself. (If you feel the sick need to watch this very scene, YouTube has made it handily available. But you really don’t have to…) Even some years later, when I went through my supposedly fearless “horror movie phase,” I would have to cover up the images of Mr. Barlow that graced the front and interior of my “Stephen King Goes to the Movies” fan-book.
Congrats to Mr. Hooper for so consistently decimating my childhood, making it nearly impossible to turn the lights out without thinking twice (between this, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Poltergeist, it’s hard to believe that anyone could proclaim Wes Craven a superior horror craftsman and keep a straight face). As for the rest of Salem’s Lot? Elegant, eerie, sometimes dull, sturdy, an always welcome James Mason. But who remembers any of that, when that face is there, lurking around the corner, waiting to pop out of some thick black shadows?