Directed by: Mikael Salomon
Written by: Stephen King (novel)
Peter Filardi (teleplay)
Produced by: Mark Wolper
Starring: Rob Lowe, Andre Braugher, Donald Sutherland, Samantha Mathis, Robert Mammone, Dan Byrd, James Cromwell, and Rutger Hauer

First, a little annoying autobiographical info…

Stephen King’s 1975 novel ’Salem’s Lot is one of my favorite books. I’ve read it a dozen times, and every pass brings new insight. The story works on every level: as a discussion on the life and death of small town America, as a love story, as a character study, and as a vampire tale. If you haven’t read it yet (What kind of horror fan are you?!?!), get ye to the local book depository and begin at once! I mean it. Go. I’ll wait.

As good as the book is, I had not yet read it when, as a ten-year-old boy, I was able to con my babysitter into letting me watch the second half of Tobe Hooper’s original 1979 miniseries. I sat there on the couch, with all the lights off and a big quilt pulled up to my eyes, and watched this creepy, terrifying thing unfold. I loved every minute of it! This has to be, hands down, one of the most frightening movies ever made for television. The image of the vampire boy scratching at the window still haunts me to this day.

Which brings us to this 2004 adaptation…

Writer Ben Mears (Rob Lowe) returns to his boyhood home—the small Maine town of Jerusalem’s Lot (also known as ’Salem’s Lot). He has come to write a new book about the old house that sits on a hill high above the sleepy little village. The Marsten House. It seems that many years ago, owner Hubby Marsten was a closet Satan worshipper who performed child sacrifices and unholy rituals. He also had an ongoing correspondence with a German antiques dealer named Kurt Barlow (Rutger Hauer). Soon after Ben’s arrival, he reconnects with his old English teacher (the great Andre Braugher) and meets Susan Norton (Samantha Mathis)—a young woman who loves his writing and wants to get to know the author better.

But Ben isn’t the only newcomer to this rural paradise. Mr. Barlow’s assistant Richard Straker (Donald Sutherland) has purchased the Marsten House and is opening a shop in town. Soon, children start to disappear and the local doctor (Robert Mammone) finds residents becoming sick with a strange virus. With the help of a drunken priest (James Cromwell) and a young boy (Dan Byrd), Ben must discover the root of this strange evil before it is too late.

The teleplay by Peter Filardi has a completely different feel than the 1979 original. Rather than concentrating on spookiness and scares, he focuses much more on “the town” of ’Salem’s Lot. If you’ve read the novel (And you’ve all read it now, right?), you know that King paints the town itself into a major character. Filardi tries to do the same, giving us many more characters than the original. In addition to Ben, Susan, Mark, Matt, and Dr. Cody, we get Dud, Ruthie, Father Callahan, and the real Barlow. In the original miniseries, he was a blue-skinned, rat-faced Nosferatu. The Barlow in Stephen King’s book was a charismatic guy more akin to the traditional Dracula, and Rutger Hauer is more than willing to sink his teeth into the role. The setting is modern, so no bad hair or polyester suits to distract us from the story, and the narrative comes much closer to the original text than the first. Some King purists may fault the writer for what he does with the character of Father Callahan. I didn’t mind, however. The ’79 miniseries only featured Callahan for about five minutes, and Barlow made short work of him in that version.

Despite the larger canvas, director Mikael Salomon keeps things moving. Tobe Hooper’s Lot relied on slow tracking and racked focus to build suspense. Salomon’s approach is much quicker. Faster moving cameras, quicker cuts…even his vampires move faster. They climb walls and crawl across ceilings. When a stake goes into their hearts, their heads bounce around as if they are having epileptic fits on fast forward. Then, for some reason, they fly up into the ceiling and explode into a rain of ash.

So, is any of this scary? Not really. In going for the character study, the filmmakers have sacrificed much of the fright that made the original so memorable. But this is a goodcharacter study. It’s just a shame someone can’t figure out how we can have it both ways. Bottom line…if you want to be scared, my advice is to stick with the 1979 version. But if you want a good story with some chilling moments and exceptional acting, look no further than this ’Salem’s Lot.

3.5 out of 5 stars