By Owen Quinn
The wonderful world of evil gives us villains and monsters in every guise. From the deadly Sith Lord Darth Vader to Doctor Who’s Master to the human hating robotic Cylons, each of these examples has a very distinctive look.
However, the most dangerous villains of all are the monsters wrapped in the cloak of normality. The Stephen King story Salem’s Lot gave us antique business man Richard Straker. In the television mini series he was brought to life by the late, great James Mason.
In a change from the novel, the Tobe Hooper mini series decided to switch things about. Here, Straker takes centre stage and Barlow is kept off screen for quite some time. This heightens the atmosphere immensely. Like waiting for the shark in Jaws to appear, we are waiting for that moment when Barlow finally rears his ugly head. When he kills Ned Tebbets in his prison cell, mist and the wave of a clawed hand mark his arrival before his full terrifying face marks the last thing Ned will ever see. The terror on his face is as palpable today as it was then.
But the unsung villain of the piece is Richard Straker. Outwardly he is an elderly Englishman dressed immaculately and living alone in the dreaded Marsten House preparing to open his antique business so he can retire. However, the truth is he is a man with a plan paving the way for his Master Barlow, to whom he has total devotion. He has selected Salem’s Lot very carefully for his ends. As he tells Constable Gillespie, it is a town similar to small towns all over the world. Is this an indication that he has sacrificed other towns to his Master’s cause?
In the Time Warriors books, Varran and the others know only too well that evil uses the cloak of normality to cause the most damage to us. Straker has planned the destruction of the town for a while. As writer Ben Mears (David Soul) later tells Doctor Norton that the town was chosen because it is insular, somewhat inbred and full blooded, quaint almost. Straker knows exactly how to take it down in advance and what obstacles he must remove. These obstacles do not involve the townspeople because Straker is simply there to pave the way and has lit the fuse.
Interestingly, it gives us an insight that he has done this before and knows what to do. Ben Mears’ comment about the town being full blooded is more accurate than he knows. The vampire plague uses the citizen’s connections with each other to spread.
Ralphie goes after his brother Danny who then goes after their best friend Mark having converted Mike Ryerson in the cemetery. Mike then targets Jason Burke, his former teacher and man who gave him refuge when sick. Susan Norton targets boyfriend Ben Mears. Alcoholic Weasel converts his former wife, boarding house owner, Eva Miller. The now vampire Ned Tebbet visits Deputy Constable Nolly Gardner because he threw Ned in the jail to sober up after attacking Ben. So closely connected are they all that the vampire conversion is swift. It’s a perversion of human community taking something we all are part of no matter where we live and twisting it to suit Straker and Barlow’s needs.
What could be more disarming than an elderly gentleman seeking to settle down with an antique business for the rest of his years away from a hectic city? He’s a stranger, a little odd as he says to the Constable therefore the perfect suspect when a child goes missing. Anyone else in the police spotlight would be panicking but Straker literally invites it upon himself.
He knows how to play games with humans and what buttons to press. It is his knowledge of the horror he protects and humans’ refusal to believe the same that cement his victory.
Estate agent Larry Crockett is fuelled by money and power. He is having an affair with his secretary Bonnie and these weaknesses are what Straker uses to gain entry into the town. Simply by plying Crockett with money, Straker controls him without Crockett even realising.
For him it’s good business. He is literally Straker’s Yes Man. There is nothing he won’t do to ensure Straker is fully installed into the town. This is Straker’s intentions as well but on a much grisly and darker scale. Indeed, Straker says that he has told Barlow how helpful Crockett has been and will be rewarded accordingly. As we discover this simple compliment is in fact Straker marking Crockett as the first to be killed and turned.
Even the location for his antiques store is a metaphor for what his soul really hides. It was originally a doctor’s practice, a place of healing which is now a place of old pieces of history; objects that were once important but now lie decaying in a shop.
That is exactly what is to become of the townspeople of Salem’s Lot.
Vampires are literally walking history books filled with the stories of the forgotten and lost. They are walking antiques which make Straker the perfect guardian for his Master. He is the guardian of ancient darkness. We know he had businesses in London and Hamberg and his knowledge on the subject is second to none. Even when Ben Mears reveals his knowledge of Georgian silver through the death of his aunt, Straker is dismissive. He comments that the death of the woman is an unfortunate way to acquire knowledge. However when Straker learns that Mears is a writer who wants to meet Barlow, he grins and comments that Barlow will find Mears a pleasure. Is the implication here that Barlow absorbs knowledge from his victims equipping him to survive in our world and evade detection?
Indeed Straker is steeped in dark religion which we see through his actions. This also allows us a glimpse into how the vampire world works. Even they it seems have rules that must be followed.
Straker’s plan is to unravel Salem’s Lot from within so the vampire takeover can go smoothly. This means he must remove any obstacles in his way.
Straker kills grave digger Mike Ryerson’s dog, Faithful, with his bare hands. This echoes the hound the guards the gates of Hell which is now Straker himself. This echoes Ben Mears comment later that Straker is a guard dog for Barlow himself. He now stands at the gates through which evil can now flow freely.
The second thing he must do is sacrifice a child. There is a hint that Straker has some supernatural powers because he conjures a wind to separate brothers Ralphie and Danny Glick. He murders Ralphie and takes him to the cellar of the house. Using more money he has gotten Ned and Mike to transport Barlow’s coffin from the docks to the house. However they don’t follow instructions and padlock the cellar doors as instructed. Barlow has gone by the time he gets there (as Larry Crockett becomes Barlow’s first victim).
We get to see the façade slip as he gleefully unwraps the child’s body and leaves it as an offering to his Master. In this instance the entire town’s death warrants have been signed.
His second obstacle is the law. He knows full well that the disappearance of a child will bring attention to him as a stranger. Thus begins a beautiful game of cat and muse between him and Constable Gillespie. Straker in his body language and speech has no fear of the law.
Indeed when Gillespie comes to him asking to present his suits for forensics in the murder of Ralphie, Straker acts like the implication offends him. When Gillespie claims he is always on duty, Straker is almost rolling his eyes as he replies how safe and snug that makes him feel. You can be sure that Gillespie is also near the top of the list to be converted quickly.
When giving the suits over he goads Gillespie by pointing out the police officer’s inherent racism towards Straker for being different from the locals. This difference is heightened by Straker’s unfamiliarity to the Yeown (a local term for children). Not one to be beaten he confuses the Constable with the word Chao (Italian for goodbye).
By doing this Straker highlights how insular Constable is by not knowing a universally known term for goodbye. It really shows his contempt for these people. To him there are insignificant ignorant creatures ripe for harvest. As he walks the streets his subtle glances around him indicate Straker is mentally filling his larder for his Master to feast.
Gillespie is a tough cop who will face anything. He isn’t used to any challenges to his authority so Straker is new. As a weathered cop, Gillespie knows Straker is involved somehow but he is powerless to do anything. Without proof, his hands are tied. With more and more people disappearing and the deaths of several others including Ned, Danny and Mike, Gillespie knows he is powerless.
Whatever is happening is beyond his experience and something he can’t simply shoot or arrest. His bubble of Salem’s Lot is burst when he learns that there is more to this world than the word Chao. It is something that is undermining him personally. He is sworn to protect the town but it is falling apart around him. He cannot protect the people any more. In desperation, Gillespie gathers his family into his car along with as many belongings as he can gather and flees the town.
The third obstacle is the religious powerhouse. Father Callahan is the town’s conscience and keeper of their sins. He is the man that God has appointed to forgive sins and save their souls. There is nothing stronger than a person’s faith so for this battle, it takes both Barlow and Straker to take the priest down. As the beacon for spiritual faith Father Callahan is their most deadly foe. We have seen that Holy Water glows blue in the presence of a vampire showing us faith is a great weapon in this fight. All you need to do is maintain it in the face of these monsters.
As a Christian town, Salem’s lot is already cracking with the likes of Bonnie and Larry’s extra martial affair. Mark Petrie’s parents have no faith in his love of monsters wanting him to be more normal. He is a closet embarrassment to them but it is this faith in his monsters that makes him the ultimate warrior. Ben Mears’ is seen as a suspicious character due to his wife’s death years earlier despite being one of their own. He is a threat because his imagination allows him to accept the possibility of vampires. His terrifying childhood experience at the Marsten House when he saw Hubie Marsten hanging from the ceiling and opening his eyes strengthens his belief that evil is very real. That is why he knows that the house is a beacon for evil.
Straker and Barlow’s conversion of the people is too far advanced. Father Callahan has noticed his congregation is dwindling and yet he isn’t strong enough to ask the questions he needs to. Like so many secrets, it is swept under the carpet.
When Straker confronts him in the Petrie’s kitchen, we see him at his most vicious. His words are designed to destroy the brick wall that is Callahan’s faith.
It is the only time he and Barlow stand side by side in the entire series such is the threat Father Callahan poses. He is a servant of the Lord just as Straker is Barlow’s. Callahan is the polar opposite of Straker.
Yet God fails to appear in the priest’s hour of need. These demons have murdered Mark Petrie’s parents in front of the priest, destroying a loving family without being invited indoors. It seems that is also a myth. Evil incarnate stands before him with both demon and human faces. It shatters Callahan’s faith…almost.
Straker attacks like a rottweiler, his words ripping away at the priest’s faith. Straker taunts him by ridiculing him as shamen, priest, holy man. He forces the priest to sacrifice his life for Mark’s.
Mason perfectly plays it as his face twists with venom and bile towards what he sees as an abomination. Callahan stands ready crucifix before him, his faith dissolving despite himself. Barlow hovers agitatedly afraid to attack. Father Callahan’s faith is still strong but is failing. The impossible stands before him shattering everything he ever knew. If these demons can simply walk in and destroy lives then why isn’t God stepping in to stop them?
Again Straker challenges to pit his faith against Barlow’s faith. Wavering Father Callahan falls internally allowing Barlow to rip the cross from the helpless man’s hands. If it hadn’t been for Straker’s words then there was a good chance Callahan would have held his own against the vampire. The scene also shows how devoted Straker is to his Master. He rips away at Callahan relentlessly, again knowing exactly how to deflate his faith. He is virtually exploding with excitement at the prospect of ripping out the religious heart of the town. The priest’s death secures the end of the town.
It is also this moment that allows Straker to finally show his true colours. The monster is unleashed as Ben, Mark and Norton storm the Marsten house to destroy Barlow. The shade of an elderly man is wiped away when Straker lifts Norton off the ground, holds him like a butterfly then with superhuman strength impales him on a wall mounted pair of antlers.
He then rips a solid wood spindle from the staircase and lunges to beat Ben to death with it. The writer knows Straker is a souped up human, a guard dog for Barlow but even he isn’t prepared for Barlow taking five bullets before finally falling. Even in his last breaths, Straker makes to rip another spindle as a weapon.
Straker may have shredded Father Callahan’s faith but he didn’t plan for the attack from Ben and Mark. It is Mason’s expression that convinces the audience that this is no ordinary old man and that he is not a happy bunny. His meticulous plan is in danger of coming unravelled. He forgot that faith comes in different forms and this allows not only his defeat but Barlow’s also. Mark and Ben’s belief in the impossible makes them the unlikely guardians who can bring some sort of salvation to the town by burning it to the ground. Doctor Norton fell because he was so entrenched in his own clinical beliefs that even the resurrection of Marjorie Glick before his very eyes doesn’t entirely convince him of the vampire threat.
Straker saw the town as a sacrificial lamb but didn’t expect them to fight back. Changing his importance in the story ensured that Straker became not only a palpable threat but one that would terrify audiences.
Seeing a vampire kill someone is not a repugnant as seeing an elderly man unwrap a child’s body without emotion. Mason deftly jumps the line between charming and malicious in a heartbeat. His expression of cold fury is curtailed in a second by a pleasant greeting. By underplaying the menace he succeeds in making it more frightening in the simplest of expressions and actions.
No offence to Donald Sutherland in the remake but he doesn’t compare to Mason in the slightest. No other actor could have taken a line such as ‘I feel so snug and safe’ and make it sound like he’s telling the police to F off. Indeed when Mrs Petrie asks for credit for an antique for her husband’s birthday, his refusal and then immediate offer of holding it until Friday is chilling. He knows full well they will all be dead in days yet the woman leaves happy in the knowledge she will give her husband a happy birthday. We know it will never come.
Mason’s looks at the people he encounters are so dismissive and contempt filled that it is never obvious. However we as an audience know what is coming which leaves us screaming at the people to run.
If nothing else James Mason’s Straker proved that the darkest evil of all wears a human face.