ALL the Salem's Lots! (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

I've never owned Salem's Lot before.  I always appreciated it.  I even saw a few scenes as a little kid when it aired on TV and they were some of the few really scary horror moments for me.  But the fact that it was made for TV did put me off a little in the prime days of DVD.  Couple that with the fact that it never got a special edition, or even could quite decide whether it should be the shorter theatrical cut or widescreen or the TV version or what, and I just never felt compelled to pull the trigger.  But now that Warner Bros has released a killer new HD restoration blu with an all-new audio commentary by Tobe Hooper at a sell-through price, and who could pass that up?  Especially since I've already got the sequel.

Update 12/3/16 - 1/27/17: I wasn't completely happy with this post initially.  It felt like this was one where it was really important to have a proper comparison to the old DVD, but I just didn't have it.  Well, I was able to borrow a copy, so now we can really look at the improvements the blu-ray brings.  And, while I was at it, I figured instead of just having a little, throw-away paragraph about the remake, I'd give that one proper DVD coverage, too, and make this a definitive Salem's Lot post - enjoy!
Stephen King novels don't exactly have a spotless track record for being adapted to film, especially not on television (remember The Langoliers?).  But this one nails it pretty hard, being genuinely creepy and atmospheric with some great, inspired vampire scenes.  If you want an idea of how influential this was, watch Salem's Lot and Fright Night back to back and count all the times they cribbed from it.  James Mason is one cool customer of a villain and David Soul (Hutch of Starsky and Hutch) is surprisingly good as the leading man.  Except for airing in fullscreen with a little extra reliance of close-ups, Hooper does a great job of making this feel like a big-budget film, with a sweeping score and some great effects.  In its full 3+ hour version, Salem's Lot takes it's time building a whole little world of characters to then revel in ransacking.
Is it perfect? Well, no.  As much as I enjoyed seeing Fred Willard perform (well) in a rare, serious part, we do spend the first ninety minutes or so following a sub-plot of him having an affair with Bonnie Bedelia behind George (Law & Order) Dzundza's back, only to have it make absolutely no difference to the overall story (spoilers, I guess? lol).  King likes his over-the-top Norman Rockwell meets broad satire style ensembles, and while Hooper thankfully plays that down and keeps most of the characters real, there are definitely hints poking through.  Plus, the story's Mexican wrap-around does come from the novel, but it just doesn't fit the tone of the rest of the picture.  And a lot of camera set-ups have a cheaper, flatter feel than we probably would've gotten from an actual movie.  ...But for all of that, it's still pretty great.
Like I said, I've never owned it, but Salem's Lot has been available on DVD since 1999.  You know, one of those crappy snapper cases and everything.  It was full-screen, but in this case that's acceptable.  But as you'll see, for a 2016 blu-ray, the master was too old to just slap onto an HD disc like the major studios do with a lot of their catalog titles.  So we get a brand new transfer.  And which version of the film?  The same one as the DVD (and the 1993 laserdisc before it): a hybrid of the longer television version but including some of the extra violent bits shot exclusively for the foreign theatrical version.  So for fans wondering: Willard puts the shotgun to his head, not in his mouth; and yes, Ed Flanders gets gruesomely impaled.  And it's all edited into one long movie, as opposed to being in two parts with their own opening and closing credits like it originally aired.
Warner Bros 1999 DVD top; Warner Bros 2016 blu-ray below.
And boy does it look great!  The detail is so fresh and naturally film-like.  Look at the pores on Kenneth McMillan's skin in the last shot!  Warner Bros hasn't put out much information on what they've done that I've seen, but it looks like they've made taken a fresh scan of the original negatives.  I definitely wasn't expecting it to look this good.  There has also clearly been some color-timing work done, or undone, as you can see in the blue tint removed from the nighttime shot above.  Once again, they've opted for fullscreen, which does feel a little boxy with a lot of free space sometimes; but you really can't fault them for going with the OAR.  And, in fact, it's actually a little zoomed in compared to the DVD.  But before you bemoan any lost slivers of picture, you can briefly catch glimpses of boom mics on the DVD, so the slightly tighter framing is surely more correct.
Warner Bros 1999 DVD top; Warner Bros 2016 blu-ray below.
Just look how much clearer the new transfer is and how much more you can make out of Lew Ayres in this extreme zoom-in.  The DVD just looks soft, smudgy and washed in comparison.  And reviewers often talk about being able to read small text and other detail that wasn't visible in the old transfer, and usually I find that not to be the case.  What was too far away and out of focus on the DVD is still a tiny blur on the blu-ray.  But look back up at McMillan's badge; you can actually read the "POLICE" on it, which you definitely can't make out on the old disc.

The DTS-HD audio is also pretty full and clear, so Salem's Lot doesn't feel creaky at all here.  Warner Bros has also included optional English subtitles, plus subs in 13(!) other languages and five audio dubs.  They really went all-out in that regard.
But is this a special edition?  Ehh... it's right on the edge.  It's main extra, and the first substantial extra this film's ever gotten, is a brand new audio commentary by Tobe Hooper.  And it's pretty good.  On one hand, it's actually great, with Hooper answering a lot of questions that come up as a viewer, plus some interesting anecdotes you never would've thought to wonder about.  But on the other hand, presumably to pace himself for a commentary that's over three hours long with no moderator, he pauses.  Like all the time.  He basically says a paragraph's worth of stuff, pauses, then another paragraph's worth, and so on.  So when he does talk, he's not stretching for things to say or low on energy, but that leaves a lot of dead air interspersed throughout.  So it's definitely worth the listen, but also takes patience.  But unlike some other slow commentaries, that patience is rewarded.  That and the theatrical trailer are all that's here, but that's still a big step forward.
And why, yes!  There was a 2004 remake starring Rob Lowe, as well.  To its credit, it's also a two-part TV series, meaning it didn't have to compress the characters and details into 90 minutes.  It updates the story to 2004, forsaking the scary atmosphere for internet references, lame quips and rapping, but it's got an interesting supporting cast, including Donald Sutherland, Andre Braugher and Rutger Hauer.  Some scenes are new, while others are direct re-stagings of the 1979 film.  The scene where the two men wait in the morgue for the dead wife to rise from under her sheet while the one tapes together a cross out of tongue depressors is a beat-for-beat reproduction of the original scene, right up until the end, where some awful CGI takes over, covering up the actress's face and then she flies up into the ceiling and turns into sparkly computer dust.  But then, there's a whole new subplot about a hunchback who works at a garbage dump and has a crush on a highschool girl, which to be fair does actually come right from the book.
So I guess the idea is that this is a more faithful "return to the book," which I appreciate.  It at least justifies this version's existence and gives serious King devotees something to pout through.  But like The Shining and its 1997 remake, it really just shows that talented filmmakers tend to know better than literary purists what works best on screen.  And it doesn't help that a lot of the acting and staging is awfully stilted, sometimes to the point of being downright embarrassing.  You've never seen so many over-the-shoulder dialogue shots in your life, Lowe's narration is downright painful, and the CGI looks like cartoonish garbage, unlike the effects from the 1970s that still pack quite a punch.  So give it a pass unless you're a serious fan who just wants to see what's been changed or kept faithful between this, the original film, and the novel.  The most notable being that the vampire Barlowe is back to being a speaking part instead of a snarling blue monster, some major scenes take place in a different order, the priest plays more of a role and there's no Mexico material.  And as I said, that Mexico stuff was in the book.  Plus with the film's need to modernize, I'm not really sure it can be called more faithful.  It's just... differently faithful.
2004 Warner Bros DVD.
But if you are determined to see for yourself, Warner Bros did at least put it out as a no frills, widescreen DVD in late 2004.  And I mean really no frills.  No trailer, no nuffin'.  The film looks fine, though, presented in 1.78:1, which is presumably just how it originally aired on the TNT network.  It's alright for a TV show on an older DVD, suffering a bit in the compression department but otherwise fine.  It's anamorphic, has a 5.1 mix and optional English, Spanish and French subtitles.  Apparently though, this was shot on 35mm, so in theory a fresh HD scan of the negatives could yield a nice improvement.  But that would require people taking an interest in 2004's Salem's Lot, which doesn't seem to be in its future.  And I'm fine with that; I wouldn't buy a blu-ray special edition of this anyway.  If Warner Bros is going to revisit any Salem's Lot follow-ups, I'd much, much rather they look at the 1987's much more entertaining entry by Larry Cohen.
Return To Salem's Lot cannot be said to be a true sequel to Salem's Lot.  Not only do none of the characters return or get a mention, but the history of the Salem's Lot vampires as told in Return directly contradicts what we saw in the original.  This cannot be the same town after the vampires took over in the first one.  But, having watched them back to back for the first time after previously only having seen them years apart, there are enough similarities that I'm sure Cohen was at least making intentional nods back besides placing more vamps in the same town.  Both have a middle-aged man and a teenage boy as the vampire fighting leads.  Both films opening scenes are in Mexico, which is an odd choice both times.  There's a scene of a child vampire hovering outside a window beckoning the teenage boy to let them in, a clear reprisal of one of the original's most iconic scenes.  Of course, in both films, the vampires mostly look like typical humans with fangs, but the biggest baddest one is a blue, monstrous one.  And there are plenty more I could list, including this fun fact: because they couldn't afford to burn a whole house down, Hooper took b-roll footage that wasn't used in Eli Kazan's 1969 film, The Arrangement. And when a completely different house burns down in Return To Salem's Lot, Cohen clearly used the same Kazan footage.
2016 Blu of Salem's Lot on top; 2006 DVD of Return to Salem's Lot below.
Salem's Lot fans looking for more of the same are surely disappointed by this film.  Scary vampires really aren't what's for sale this time around.  But if you're a Larry Cohen fan, you should be happy.  There are his usual clever moments, there's Michael Moriarity giving another great and quirky lead performance, and just as you think maybe you're getting a little bored with his character and he's becoming too much of a generic, straight leading man... in comes Samuel Fuller as one of the most entertaining characters in any vampire movie ever.  Also look for Tara Reid looking lovely in her first acting role, Andrew Duggan in his final role and Cohen regular James Dixon, who this time also gets a co-writing credit.  This isn't a terribly ambitious picture; and Cohen's let it be known that he only made the film as part of a contract so Warner Bros would fund It's Alive 3.  It's no passion project.  But if you want a low-key enjoyable watch, hey, here ya go.
For ages, Return To Salem's Lot was unavailable on DVD, which was awfully frustrating for a Cohen fan like myself.  But in 2006, Warner Bros released it in Germany under the title Salem II: Die Ruckkehr, as an anamorphic widescreen disc to boot!  More recently, in 2010, Warner Archives finally released it, and that's anamorphic widescreen, too.  Certainly, I'm happy to have the properly pressed DVD rather than an MOD DV-R; but honestly if I didn't already own it, I might take the Archives version as "close enough," and save myself the trouble of importing.
2006 Warner Bros DVD.
Yeah, it's a little soft and obviously standard def as it's a DVD, but I just fired this up on my 65" television and it still looks surprisingly good.  Solid darks, no interlacing.  It's basically 16x9 exactly, but with a little bit of blank space in what would've been the over-scan area, giving us a 1.79:1 aspect ratio.  This could definitely stand a bump up to HD for better compression, and a new scan of the original elements could look even better; but for a plain old DVD, you can't really ask for more than this.
And yes, it's English friendly.  It has optional German subtitles, but they're removable directly from the menu or the remote, and it gives you the choice of the original English audio (mono in 2.0) or a German dub. Unfortunately, it has no extras, not even the trailer (neither does the Warner Archives disc), except for a slightly amusing commercial that plays on start-up.  But it does come in a cool, red case.
So, Warner Bros has finally done Salem's Lot justice.  They also released great new (and affordable) blus of Stephen King's It and Cat's Eye at the same time.  And apart from the lack of special features, they did alright by Return To Salem's Lot, too, at least for DVD.  I'd certainly be happy to see a special edition from the likes of Scream Factory, but Warners doesn't like to license their stuff out, so I wouldn't expect one anytime soon.  This is probably the best we're going to see for any Salem's Lots for a long time, and in the case of the original, now it's actually quite impressive.

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