Salem’s Lot (1979)
written by Paul Monash, based on the novel by Stephen King
directed by Tobe Hooper
Rating: 3 / 4 – Good
Salem’s Lot (2004)
written by Peter Filardi, based on the novel by Stephen King
directed by Mikael Salomon
Rating: 1.5 / 4 – Mediocre
When I was around twelve, I caught a rerun of the original Salem’s Lot miniseries from 1979. This must have been in 1983 or so, and I was hanging out at my best friend’s house. While our mothers chatted in the patio, we sat down in front of the TV with my friend’s older sister and younger brother and tuned in to Stephen King’s scary tale of vampires in a small American town. I’m pretty sure our moms had no idea what we were watching, and if they did, well, then they were pretty shitty moms.
I remember being sort of nervous, but proud to be brave enough to be watching a vampire movie. Even then I already had an idea of who Stephen King was. So we all huddled around the living room, in the dark, and pretended to be adults.
About an hour into the movie, a vampire kid floats to the bedroom window of his brother and asks to be let in, rasping at the glass with his cold fingers.
We were scared shitless.
It turned out that was nothing. A short while later, a man locked up in the town jail is awoken by a strange sound. An eerie mist starts to spread (it’s unclear why vampires need this cinematic resource to make an appearance, but hey, it’s pretty effective). And the horrible, decayed, purplish-skin-with-yellow-eyes face of Barlow, the lead vampire, pops up from out of nowhere.
“Scared shitless” immediately stopped applying. Pee-in-your-pants, scream-at-the-top-of-your-lungs, run-out-of-the-room-terrified is probably a much better description. And it’s very possible that at that very exact moment, I became a horror fan.
Revisiting Salem’s Lot all these years later is a decidedly mixed affair. The film hasn’t dated very well – it’s long and plodding, rigidly acted, clumsy in exposition. Character development is largely absent (we don’t really get a feel for David Soul’s turn as an obsessed writer-turned-vampire-hunter, or James Mason as the lead vampire’s human bodyguard). The sets more often than not look like sets. All in all, it just feels like the made-for-TV-movie it is.
On the other hand, there’s the obvious affection for those awesomely scary moments – and they are still scary. The low-key effects and prosthetics remain effective, and for my money, no CGI comes close to on-camera handiwork. Director Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974) keeps the tension nicely wound where it counts, and I’m sure he succeeded in giving nightmares to a bunch of people – including me – for years to come. (He would do it again a couple of years later in 1982’s Poltergeist, but more on that particular trauma later. Damn you, Hooper!).
Having revisited the original miniseries, I was surprised to find out there was another made-for-TV adaptation, this one from 2004. I was actually excited to see it. Rob Lowe played the writer, Rutger Hauer was on hand as Barlow, and the special effects could only have gotten better in the twenty-five years that had elapsed… or so I thought.
Whereas the original had a measure of subtlety, the 2004 Salem’s Lot goes for a more complex narrative, over-the-top performances, and action sequences. Surprisingly, none of it works – the constant voiceover by Lowe’s character is irritating, Donald Sutherland hams it up in the James Mason role, and a continuous flashback to an earlier “evil” in the town couldn’t be more tedious. Worse of all, it’s not remotely scary… and that’s a cardinal sin for a vampire movie. I was so bored, it took me several sittings to get through the whole film.
Stephen King novels are notoriously difficult to bring to the big screen, and even more so when attempted as TV miniseries. I honestly can’t remember any that have actually worked. Stick to the original Salem’s Lot. And may Barlow haunt your dreams. He certainly still haunts mine.
Carlos I. Cuevas