Salem’s Lot (2004) — Castrated from its full potential

“I’m not afraid to die, Mr. Mears… not at all. But these people don’t die, do they?”

Drew’s rating: Tied with Silent Hill for “Places least likely to garner a return visit.”

Drew’s review: I’ll admit it: I’m not a Stephen King fan. I’m not a non-fan, I’ve just never really been drawn to his writing. Until a few years ago, my biggest exposure to his work was a parody from the hilarious, criminally unknown Samurai Cat series, in which the cephalopoid demon Bl’syu (brother of the Great K’chu, one of the Real Old Ones) mercilessly ridicules a truckstop full of people for being scared of a bunch of evil, driverless eighteen-wheelers.

This stance didn’t change until I met my wife, a huge King fan, who had me read some of his books; I liked them, but I still can’t say I went out of my way to seek any more out Except for ‘Salem’s Lot. I don’t know what appeals to me about it more than King’s other works — maybe the “classic” nature of the monsters — but to me it’s head and shoulders above the rest.

The book (and this, the 2004 miniseries adaptation) finds writer Ben Mears returning to the town of Jerusalem’s Lot to lay some personal demons to rest. But while he’s doing that (and romancing local waitress Susan), antique dealers Straker & Barlow move into the abandoned house that serves as the root of Ben’s trauma. Or rather, Straker does… Barlow seems nowhere to be found, at least until a rather large crate is delivered to the house one night. Before long local children are disappearing, then adults, and ‘Salem’s Lot is on the verge of redefining the term “ghost town.” Can Ben, Susan, and the few other locals wise to the situation stand against Barlow and his growing legion of the undead — or is the town already beyond saving?

When it was released, this version of Salem’s Lot drew criticism for not being as scary as its 1979 predecessor. While I haven’t seen the original, it’s true that a lot of time is spent building up the large cast and the town itself, with correspondingly less attention to the pure horror aspects of the story. That’s not to say it isn’t at all frightening, but the mood is more eerie than truly terrifying, and there are few moments that will have you jumping in fear. Gore-o-phobes can rest assured that they won’t be feeling sick to their stomachs. On the other hand, it’s also more true to the book than the 1979 version was… much like The Shining, which version you prefer depends on whether you value greater scares over a more faithful translation.

But my main criticism with Salem’s Lot lies not in the lack of terror, but rather an inability to sell its main threat. The regular vampires are fine… instead of the attractive, romantic beings of modern fiction, King drew on the more traditional vampires of folklore, filthy creatures who reek of death and pestilence, and to some extent the miniseries holds true to that.

But it fails in depicting the master vampire Barlow, supposedly a being of pure malevolence who has existed for millennia and enjoys matching wits with his mortal adversaries. Instead of a sadistic fiend, the film instead gives us a petty child, vengeful and careless. I genuinely like Rutger Hauer as an actor, but neither his look nor his mannerisms cry “demonic,” and as a result his confrontation with Father Callahan lacks any real punch… why should we believe Callahan is cowed by someone less threatening than the guy who stole your lunch in third grade?

Tying in with that, the makers of Salem’s Lot really castrate the story by downplaying the religious elements. I’m not trying to turn this review into a sermon — we all have our own beliefs, and yours may or may not have anything to do with Christianity. But when it comes to adapting ‘Salem’s Lot, religion is a key part of the story, and the only thing worse than eliminating it entirely is half-assing it. The showdown between Callahan and Barlow falters because there is no crucifix aglow with pure Good keeping the vampire at bay, only to fade when he points out that the priest’s faith in God is weak, rendering the cross a meaningless piece of wood. Likewise, there’s no ax alight with holy water smashing into the vampire sanctuary. Some vague hints are given about faltering faith, but not clearly enough, with the consequence that the single biggest change between book and miniseries — the fate of Callahan — is more puzzling than tragic and doesn’t carry the impact it should. No wonder King fans hated that element.

There are other criticisms – the prologue creates mystery but cuts down on drama by showing us who survived, and the amount of humanity the vampires retain varies as required by plot. (One practically gives an inspirational speech in between trying to suck blood.)

But at the same time, I don’t want to create the impression that I hated this adaptation. There are some extremely strong elements too. Rob Lowe gives a nice performance as haunted writer Ben Mears, as does Andre Braugher with Matt. The special effects are by and large very impressive, especially for a TNT miniseries. (Although Buffy has a lot to answer for with the whole “dusting” thing. And why do they fall up?) Also, the pacing is very good in the first half, introducing us to a large cast of characters without giving any short shrift, even if the ending feels a bit rushed. I genuinely cared about most of the characters, and even though I knew from the book who lived and who didn’t, I still found myself rooting for a few more editorial changes in that department.

It’s true that the absolute coolest thing Salem’s Lot has going for it is that both Donald Sutherland (Keifer’s actual father) and James Cromwell (Keifer’s dad on 24) are in the same movie yet the universe didn’t explode. Still, it has merit as a technically faithful adaptation of King’s work, and does a nice job with the characters and doing a slow burn on the mounting dread. However, it never quite builds to the climax we need, and that causes the last third of the film to suffer, no getting around it.

Is it a movie worth watching? Maybe, if you’re a fan of King’s work in general or ‘Salem’s Lot in particular. But if you’re looking for chilling vampire films, or movies that capture not just the details but the actual horror of King’s writing, I’d ask to be invited in somewhere else.

Didja notice?

  • When Ben and Susan meet at a bar, the song “Stand By Me” is playing. Stand By Me is a film based on Stephen King’s novella The Body.
  • There’s also a brief reference to a dog named “Cujo.”
  • They really play up that vampires can’t enter a place they haven’t been invited into, but Barlow smashes his way into Mark’s house sans invitation pretty easily.
  • Lady Luck: “It’s snowing vampire dust!”

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