With the passing of the versatile actor and singer David Soul at the age of 80, tributes naturally pour in for his iconic portrayal of detective Kenneth 'Hutch' Hutchinson in the timeless TV series Starsky and Hutch. However, Soul's career, characterized by his seemingly straight-arrow persona, extended far beyond the lighthearted roles he often embraced for comic effect.
While Soul's later years saw him reveling in self-parody with notable appearances in projects like Filth, Little Britain, and Holby City, it is essential to recognize the actor's underappreciated depth and versatility. In particular, Soul's finest hour as an actor came in 1979 when he took on the lead role in the Stephen King adaptation Salem’s Lot, a two-part drama broadcast on CBS shortly after the conclusion of Starsky and Hutch.
While David Soul was renowned for his twinkly and amiable presence in comedy and light drama, his turn as Ben Mears in Salem’s Lot showcased a different facet of his acting prowess. The miniseries, based on Stephen King's chilling novel, marked a significant moment in King's foray into TV and film adaptations. At the time, King's literary fame was soaring, with bestsellers like The Shining and Carrie captivating readers worldwide.
Soul's portrayal of Ben Mears added a visceral layer to the horror genre, offering a terrifying experience for audiences. In the late 1970s, King had not yet solidified his presence in TV and film adaptations, and Salem’s Lot faced the daunting challenge of living up to the success of Brian de Palma’s Carrie. Warner Bros Television, producing the film on a $4 million budget, treaded carefully, aware that a misstep could derail the rising King bandwagon.
For those accustomed to David Soul's affable on-screen persona, Salem’s Lot was a revelation. The actor transcended his clean-cut image, demonstrating a capacity for intensity and fear that left an indelible mark. Beyond the comic cameos and lighthearted roles, Soul's performance in Salem’s Lot remains a testament to his acting prowess and the indomitable power of Stephen King's narratives.
Stephen King, the maestro of horror literature, initially met the prospect of his novel Salem’s Lot being adapted for television with skepticism, famously declaring, "TV is death to horror." The author's reservations were shared by many, including King himself, as attempts to bring the chilling tale to the small screen faced numerous challenges.
In the early stages, Hollywood directors clamored for the opportunity to helm the project, but none could crack the code of translating King's intricate narrative into a compelling script. The daunting task required a willingness to take risks that could either lead to admiration or plunge into the realm of disappointment and absurdity.
Salem’s Lot, with its gripping story of successful writer Ben Mears returning to his hometown only to discover a vampiric infestation orchestrated by the charismatic Richard Straker, held immense potential. The critical factors for success lay in assembling the right team of filmmakers and stars. Tobe Hooper, fresh from the success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, emerged as the ideal director to infuse the project with the necessary horror intensity. Meanwhile, James Mason, a seasoned screen villain, brought a seductive and terrifying presence to the role of Richard Straker.
However, the linchpin of the production rested on casting the lead role of Ben Mears. Tobe Hooper and screenwriter Paul Monash, a King veteran, sought an actor who was both a familiar face and not overly associated with the horror genre. They needed someone who could hold his own against the formidable James Mason while providing a relatable anchor for the audience amid the scares.
Enter David Soul, a choice that would prove inspired. Meeting with producer Richard Kobritz in a fittingly "black, bleak" office, Soul was offered the role and eagerly accepted the opportunity to act opposite Mason, describing it as "a real kick." The production unfolded in the town of Ferndale in Northern California, where an elaborate set, mirroring the haunted Marsten House from the novel, was constructed. Yet, as Soul revealed, the façade of the house was built on location, while the interior scenes were filmed at the Warner Brothers lot back in California.
The arduous journey to bring Salem’s Lot to life exemplifies the challenges inherent in adapting complex horror narratives for television. However, with the right blend of talent, risk-taking, and meticulous attention to detail, the production team succeeded in crafting a terrifying tale that would endure as a seminal moment in the fusion of Stephen King's macabre imagination with the visual medium.
In the eerie realm of Salem’s Lot, David Soul found himself not only entangled in the gripping narrative but also witnessing the unsettling impact it had on reality. Recounting a chilling incident during the shoot, Soul revealed, “One day, when we were preparing to shoot up at the house, we heard this horrible crash, and there was this car that had run into a telephone pole." Astonishingly, the driver, a resident of Ferndale for three decades, wore an expression of disbelief, having encountered something seemingly impossible, even in a town familiar to him.
The Starsky and Hutch alum wasn't the sole observer of the unsettling aura that the production conjured in Ferndale. Joining Soul in this horror venture were his Starsky co-stars, including Juliette Lewis's father, Geoffrey Lewis, and George Dzunda. Despite the eerie atmosphere, Soul cherished working with them. However, it was his co-star, the legendary James Mason, who left an indelible impression. Soul dubbed Mason "absolutely a marvel… a legend, a real legend, someone who came out of the old school, and boy, you could tell the difference. He really knew his craft." Despite the on-screen animosity, Soul praised Mason as "a joy to be with, and a joy to be around." Their camaraderie extended beyond the set, where they'd retreat to Mason's trailer for card games – a testament to the genuine bond formed amidst the supernatural narrative.
Adding a touch of humor to the macabre proceedings, Mason amusingly referred to Soul and his young co-star, Lance Kerwin, as "Lancesky and Hutch." The film's haunting villain, Kurt Barlow, portrayed by Austrian character actor Reggie Nalder, underwent a transformation from the novel's conventional look to a more demonic, Nosferatu-esque appearance. Soul acknowledged Nalder's discomfort with the role's demands, from grueling makeup sessions to the use of contact lenses. In Soul's wry observation, "I did it for the art.
As Salem’s Lot unfolded, both on and off-screen, the convergence of the supernatural and reality created an atmosphere that transcended the boundaries of fiction. David Soul's reflections provide a captivating glimpse into the behind-the-scenes intricacies of a horror classic, showcasing the dedication, camaraderie, and unexpected moments that breathed life into the terror of Salem’s Lot.
In the realm of horror television, Salem’s Lot stands as a timeless masterpiece, a chilling narrative that continues to echo in the genre's corridors. Packed with instantly iconic scares, the series etched indelible images in the minds of viewers. The unforgettable moment when the child vampire Ralphie Glick scratched terrifyingly at the window to enter his brother Danny’s room remains etched in the collective memory. Referred to in various forms of pop culture, from The Simpsons to Eminem's song "Lose Yourself," this scene haunted the dreams of many, including Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, who admitted it was the moment that scared him the most as a child.
Tobe Hooper, the visionary director behind Salem’s Lot, approached the challenges of television with finesse, favoring atmosphere over explicit bloodshed. Describing the medium's constraints, Hooper emphasized creating an "overtone of the grave," a pervasive reminder of the limited nature of time and its visual manifestations. David Soul, who portrayed the lead role of Ben Mears, celebrated working with the "very fine director" and praised Hooper for his meticulous preparation.
Despite the gravity of the horror portrayed on screen, there were lighter moments behind the scenes, such as Soul's birthday celebration on set. Recounting the festivities with humor, Soul quipped, "they told me I had a good time, but I don’t remember a hell of a lot... I’m told I was enjoying it too.
The impact of Salem’s Lot extended beyond its initial screening, inspiring a sequel, Return to Salem’s Lot, and a 2004 miniseries adaptation starring Rob Lowe. Its influence resonates in the fabric of modern vampire stories, from '80s classics like The Lost Boys and Fright Night to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and recent interpretations like Mike Flanagan’s 2021 Netflix miniseries Midnight Mass. A film remake directed by It screenwriter Gary Dauberman is in the works, yet it faces the daunting task of surpassing the original.
David Soul, forever known as Hutch from Starsky and Hutch, finds his truest and longer-lasting legacy in Salem’s Lot. As the actor aptly expressed, "Salem’s Lot is responsible for a whole new genre, particularly in terms of television. I think the film we did is the legendary film, the real thing, and everything else tried to copy elements of what we accomplished." In celebrating the life and career of this versatile actor, Salem’s Lot stands as a testament to the enduring power of atmospheric horror and subtle suggestion over explicit bloodshed.
In conclusion, the legacy of Salem’s Lot stands as a testament to the mastery of horror in television, leaving an indelible mark on the genre that reverberates through the years. Pioneered by the visionary director Tobe Hooper and brought to life by the talents of David Soul and the entire cast, the series achieved a rare fusion of atmosphere, suggestion, and iconic scares.
The enduring impact of Salem’s Lot is evident in its influence on subsequent vampire stories, from classic '80s films to contemporary series, cementing its status as a groundbreaking work. Despite the looming challenge of a planned film remake, the original remains a touchstone in horror history, with David Soul recognizing it as "the legendary film, the real thing.
As we celebrate the versatile career of David Soul, forever Hutch in the hearts of many, it is Salem’s Lot that emerges as his truest and longer-lasting legacy. The series not only defined a genre but set a standard for the power of suggestion and subtlety over explicit bloodshed. In the dimly lit corners of horror, Salem’s Lot continues to cast its chilling shadows, a timeless embodiment of terror that transcends generations.