Ben Mears (David Soul, a.k.a.Hutch from Starsky & Hutch) returns to his hometown after being away for an extended period of time. He's chosen to come back in order to write a book about the creepy house on the edge of town - the Marsten House. It's a home that has a reputation for being haunted (of course) and Ben has always held feelings of fear where the house is concerned. He first asks about possibly staying at the home, but is quickly shot down by the local townsfolk who tell him a peculiar old man and his "employer" have bought it. The eccentric Mr Straker (James Mason) and his oft-gone Mr. Barlow (Reggie Nalder) are living there now, with intentions of putting down roots and opening an antique shop in town. Ben instead rents a room at a boarding house and begins asking questions around the town about the mysterious duo in the house on the hill.
Things help the case for weirdness along when late at night the Marsten house receives a large crate, and soon there is an apparent murderer running amok. While Ben and Susan are getting their groove on, people are dying in strange ways, though a common denominator seems to be a bite to the neck. While it would be plain and simple (and even logical) to explain away the problem by just admitting there is a vampire in town, no one in the town is willing to admit this, even though person after person winds up infected with the blood of the undead, effectively turning them into vampires as well. The antiques business seems to be drumming up more customers than they expected. In other words, business is good.
Salem's Lot probably pales a lot in comparison to the horror films of today, if only for the gore content and the amount of violence that was allowed on network television back in the late 70's. Now if we turn on the tube at any given time we're apt to see a man carving a swastika in someone's chest, sticking a meat fork in someone's brain, or burning someone alive (and that's just Sons of Anarchy, folks). But what Salem's Lot DID have is atmosphere. Loads of throat-choking fog drifting in and out of view, child-vamps knocking on your window in the dead of night, labyrinth basements of doom, and the ever-present pause for effect that commercial station identification inevitably brought. You also get a continual sense of doom, a feeling that starts at the opening credits and rolls on throughout the entire running time.
Though the end result had Stephen King's source material ending up a little disheveled, the novel itself is really one of King's best, and it goes without saying that the man knows how to make your skin crawl. But in taking a few liberties with King's novel, what Salem's Lot the film really achieved is that it made vampires damn scary. All they wanted to do was eat you and force you to do their bidding for all eternity. Seems easy enough. Cinema keeps turning the wheels on the vampire legend, and quite often the lore just goes right out the window. Lore is replaced with lure, with vampires itching to get the pretty girl into bed and making her one of his kind so he can love her forever. Um, NO. Vampires in legend just want to make you suffer, kill you, and/or force their will upon you.
It's really easy to overlook the hokey here and enjoy this Tobe Hooper-directed gem. He injects enough scares to make it a legitimate horror film despite its mild television roots. It has endeared itself to the horror crowd if for no other reason than it is a great representation of a frightening vampire film, in which the undead are terrifying as hell and awaiting your eternal devotion.