‘Salem’s Lot (2004)
I watched the original telemovie of Salem’s Lot from director Tobe Hooper a long time ago, but for whatever reason it never made a lasting impression upon me. In 2004, the TNT cable network produced and aired this re-adaptation of Stephen King’s popular novel, and it has been an October favorite of mine ever since. That is, when I can find three hours to sit and watch this mini-series telemovie. Most of the Stephen King film adaptations I’ve seen have not fared very well, but this one really hit the right tone and consistency to be successful, in my view.
Writer Ben Mears (Rob Lowe), returns to his childhood home of the small Maine town of Jerusalem’s Lot (also known as ‘Salem’s Lot), to research his new book, and to confront his haunted past. As a child, inside the ominous Marsden House, he witnessed a horrific crime and a chilling, evil presence. Little does he or the townsfolk realize that a couple of other new residents have just settled in that house. They are Richard Straker (Donald Sutherland), a kindly, if slightly unsettling antiques dealer, and his partner and master Kurt Barlow (Rutger Hauer), a ancient and malevolent vampire bent on making Salem’s Lot his new home. The story wraps around many of the town’s residents showing that dark secrets are abound even in the quaintest of towns, but for as much bad, there is a measure of good that can win out. Ben Mears fights against his fears and skepticism as he and some of the locals battle to eradicate this heart-stopping force of evil that is destroying ‘Salem’s Lot.
What shines the brightest here is Rob Lowe. He carries the film so very well, and inhabits the Ben Mears character comfortably. Firstly, his voice over narrations have a perfect foreboding tone that demystifies the innocent charm of small town America. It starts off the film reflecting on Mears’ nostalgia for things both pleasant and fearsome. Lowe has enough subtle charm to bring levity to the right moments, but also, a haunted quality which casts a somber aura around him. He does a fine job exploring Mears’ underlying fears. That aspect brings more dimension to the character if he had just been a fearless, courageous protagonist. He’s a very real person who has his demons to confront and overcome, and the journey to defeating them is a painful one. By the end, you see Ben Mears’ soul break through in its purest form, and it can be heartbreaking. Rob Lowe is a remarkable leading man in this mini-series.
Donald Sutherland is excellently creepy as Straker. He walks the line between sweet, gentle old man, and shady, dangerous stranger. The character makes me think back to Max von Sydow in Needful Things, but Sutherland puts his own unsettling mark on this style of character. Rutger Hauer has played quite a few vampires in films on drastically varying tone. As Barlow, he has an understated chilling quality. He is a tempter of desires drawing people into the darkness by offering them what they most want, but repaying their surrender with blood. He’s not there to scare you outright for the sake of scaring, but wishes to spread his brand of darkness into the very soul of this small town. Straker insidiously works into that agenda with vile glee. Hauer’s portrayed some amazing psychological characters from Blade Runner to The Hitcher, and while he has limited screentime here, he makes a striking impression as Barlow.
The supporting cast is very strong as well. I’ve regularly enjoyed Andre Braugher since first witnessing his Homicide: Life On The Street character of Frank Pembleton. That was a very intense role. Matt Burke brings out a more vulnerable, yet sharply intelligent and perceptive performance. Samantha Mathis is particularly strong willed and bright in the Susan Norton role, the aspiring writer that Ben connects with. James Cromwell does a fine job as faith-filled Father Callahan who has a problem with alcohol. Sheriff Parkins is given a strong depth of somber sadness later in the film by Steven Vidler. He grapples with his ability and commitment to protecting this town until he feels it has slipped away from him. Every cast member inhabits their roles with a lot of depth and strength making each character’s story evenly compelling.
I really, deeply love the look of ‘Salem’s Lot. It has rich darkness and a strong contrast of shadows which create a beautiful atmosphere. The blue tones and overcast skies create a cold wintry visual that compliments the story’s slightly grim tone. A snowy landscape has its wonderful beauty that I very much appreciate, and that adds to the appeal of this movie for me. There is also plenty of warmly lit scenes which accentuate the heart and humanity of these characters. Overall, this is just a gorgeously shot mini-series that puts a lot of production value on screen.
While the film is mostly a character driven story establishing tone and atmosphere from their inner fears, it does have its fair share of creepy, scary, and suspenseful segments. About halfway through it has a good series of such moments. I particularly like Floyd Tibbits squeezing through the air vent trying to reach Ben Mears in the adjoining jail cell. Maybe it’s just because it reminds me of an early episode or two of The X Files, but it’s sufficiently creepy and nightmarish. Of course, since this was a basic cable network production there is not much gore to speak of, and while that certainly could’ve improved the film, it does artistically work around those constraints. What make-up effects we do get from the vampires are very good. It’s nothing elaborate like the Barlow of the original mini-series, instead holding more to Stephen King’s more subtle ideas. However, the creepy yellow eyes gleam in the darkness, and the pale make-up on the vampires turned by Rutger Hauer’s Barlow is decently effective. It certainly lacks a more ghastly quality that would have been more impactful. I’ve praised the very original and striking vampire make-up designs all through this Vampire Week, and so, this vampire appearance hits a little lukewarm. They just look more like walking corpses than fearsome creatures of the night, aside from the creepy eyes. The digital effects are few, and are decent as well. Not bad at all for a 2004 television movie budget, and I’ve certainly seen far worse from large budget theatrical release films.
Of course, I like the story very much. It shows how the good and evil is tested in everyone, and how this darkness pushes them further towards one or the other. Many succumb or embrace this darkness, but the few that fight to hold onto their humanity stand strong in the light. How the town is slowly infested with vampires, turning the population into a band of bloodsuckers, is truly terrifying. It’s like a sickness that swallows them whole. The film starts out very domestic establishing these characters, their lives, and their little dark secrets. It builds relationships, attitudes, and an emotional landscape for them to trudge through. Jerusalem’s Lot has always had the dark looming presence of the Marsden house peering down upon them. It’s a constant reminder that this town is not safe from evil, and that it lurks in every direction. While some are skeptical about vampires stalking them, they all know something just as evil has been in their town for a long time. It’s an underlying knowledge that they have put out of their minds, but it lingers in their thoughts.
The framing scenes for the flashbacks in the hospital are very good. They create an unsettling, sad weight to the story knowing that things do not end well for Jerusalem’s Lot. It’s just a matter of how this grim, frightening series of events affected these people, and what damage it inflicted upon their souls. The ending surely has its hefty dose of pathos. Peter Filardi put together a hell of a teleplay based off of Stephen King’s novel. The characters are strongly fleshed out, and the various subplots are well balanced before converging into a singular main plot. Everything flows together very evenly for a consistent, steady pace that is just right for a three hour mini-series telemovie. Much praise to director Mikael Salomon for maintaining a solid atmosphere and elicit some equally strong performances from this cast.
‘Salem’s Lot is not a film that will jump out and scare the living hell out of you, but I feel it is an effectively suspenseful, atmospheric movie that invests you in the heart and soul of its characters above all else. It’s shot as a high grade feature with the acting talent and production values to back it up. With so many King film adaptations being horrendous failures, it’s special to find one that is a competent and artistically successful outing, and they didn’t need John Carpenter or David Cronenberg to do so. I’ve seen that this is generally regarded as faithful adaptation with only a few liberties taken, but of course, opinions can vary on whether those liberties are favorable or not. I know the Tobe Hooper original has its legion of fans, and I do not know what their general feelings are on this version. Thus, on its own merits, I believe this is a very worthwhile watch when you have a good three hours set aside for a moody, horror movie afternoon.