Creepy Maine town, horrible childhood memories, dark hidden secrets... Judge Maurice Cobbs must be in Stephen King country.
In a small town, evil spreads quickly.
Horror fans will no doubt remember the immensely popular 1979 version of Salem's Lot, starring David Soul (Starsky and Hutch) and James Mason, and directed by Tobe Hooper. Since this version is regarded as a classic by many, the question here that cannot be avoided is "Which one is better?" And I will neatly sidestep that question by remarking that, just as the miniseries version of The Shining managed to avoid being overshadowed by its illustrious predecessor, this new Salem's Lot also establishes its own identity. The key, of course, is to remember that neither film is a "remake," but rather a new adaptation of the source material—and as such, this Salem's Lot is, for the most part, decidedly satisfying.
Facts of the Case
Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Ben Mears (Rob Lowe, St. Elmo's Fire) has returned to his hometown of Jerusalem's Lot (called 'Salem's Lot by the locals) in order to begin a book that will explore a horrific incident from his own childhood. But when Richard Straker (Donald Sutherland, M*A*S*H) and his mysterious partner, Kurt Barlow (Rutger Hauer, Fatherland), arrive in town to open an antique store, they bring with them an evil that threatens to consume the entire town. Soon Mears, along with waitress Susan Norton (Samantha Mathis), teacher Matt Burke (Andre Braugher, Homicide), Dr. James Cody (Robert Mammone, Man-Thing), Father Donald Callahan (James Cromwell, L.A. Confidential), and troubled teenager Mark Petrie (Dan Byrd, A Cinderella Story) must wrestle with their own personal demons as they unite to battle demons of quite another sort.
Salem's Lot could be compared thematically to Peyton Place: both explore the sinister hidden evil that can lurk just under the surface of the image of idyllic small-town America. And much like the denizens of that other infamous New England town, the residents of 'Salem's Lot weave a web of secrets and lies that ultimately destroys them all. Director Mikael Salomon clings to the theme of hidden secrets from Stephen King's 1975 novel in this adaptation, with great effect. The movie is much more restrained than its predecessor, and as such, much more suspenseful. Rob Lowe's voiceover at the beginning is a little overlong, but it does a good job of setting the somber tone of the miniseries. And it is somber, make no mistake—as beautiful as the scenery is (the miniseries was filmed not in Maine but near Melbourne, Australia), it is also dreary, wet, and cold. It's every bit as atmospheric as Transylvania, but a lot more unsettling, since it's practically in our own back yards. Adding to the atmosphere is the almost monochromatic cinematography and the moody score by Christopher Gordon (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World).
Rob Lowe is the anchor for this gloomy tale; he plays his part with a great deal of reserve. The weight of his awful secret has been pressing down on him for his entire life, and he is returning to his hometown in an attempt to throw off the burden. In fact, the entire cast is excellent; what else would you expect from fantastic actors like Braugher and Cromwell? If there's a problem with the performances, it's that there isn't enough time for the actors to get into them. Young Dan Byrd is excellent in the role of Mark Petrie, a teenager who may be just a little too tough for his own good. Rutger Hauer's portrayal of vampire Barlow is as good as it is unexpected. Although Barlow operates behind the scenes for much of the movie, when we finally meet him, he seems rather…normal. Disturbingly ordinary, soft-spoken and bespectacled, Barlow's appearance does nothing to hint at the dark and sinister nature he conceals. How could he not feel right at home in Jerusalem's Lot? Straker, on the other hand, is anything but subtle. Perhaps realizing that he could not match the urbane silkiness of James Mason's portrayal of the character, Donald Sutherland plays the part with sadistic glee, a nightmarish Santa Claus who knows exactly who's been naughty.
Salomon borrows a page from Hitchcock's book with the Marsten house, which squats on a hill high over the town like a malignant tumor, dominating the landscape much like the ominous house in Psycho. The house is a physical manifestation of the secrets that loom over the townspeople, a constant reminder of their own inner demons, or, as Mears himself describes it, "the mirror by which you judge yourselves." Mears saw something nasty in the Marsten house—he wanted to prove his bravery to his group of friends and wound up face to face with evil on a grand scale, scarring him for life—not only because of the hideous nature of the situation (which, to be sure, would be enough to scar anyone!) but because of his own perceived inability to confront that evil. Surely, that is what eventually links Mears with the young Mark Petrie—does Mark feel responsible for the death of his young friend, as Mears does for the death of the young boy in the Marsten house so many years ago? It would seem that each of them feels they must atone for their lapses in courage by relentlessly hunting the evil they were afraid to confront until it is eradicated.
Indeed, the entire town could do with an injection of courage; it is the townspeople themselves that allow Barlow to convert the town into a nest of bloodsucking horrors. These people succumb to vampiric plague because of their own corruption: Incest, infidelity, unrequited love, crushing fear, homosexuality, greed, and adultery all mingle to form a web that covers the deeper evil threatening the town. Soon, vampirism has swept through Jerusalem's Lot like a disease. These are not the beautiful vampires of the Ann Rice set; these vamps scuttle like vermin, like cockroaches, slithering into the dark crevices of the town during the light of day. They are repugnant, every bit as repugnant as the hidden lives of Jerusalem's Lot's residents.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Oh, the bane of every DVD fanatic everywhere: the barebones release. TNT is awfully stingy here, offering nothing to chew on after the movie is over: no interviews from the cast, no comments from Stephen King, no deleted scenes, no nothin'. I like some gravy with my steak and potatoes, by gum. Considering the large and interesting cast of actors that has been assembled for this miniseries, some behind-the-scenes material would have been just the thing. TNT has given us a better-than-decent DVD release here, with a good picture and very nice 5.1 digital sound; the extras would have made this an excellent release indeed.
Also, a three-hour miniseries? Why not just commit to that extra hour? Salem's Lot certainly could have used it; as it is, the ending seems rather rushed, as if Salomon suddenly realized that he was running out of time and decided to just wrap everything up in a hurry. The thrust of this version of the tale seems to want to emphasize story rather than cheap scares, so why skimp on the story? That extra hour might have gone to a bit of character development…some characters seem to be introduced for the express purpose of being victims—which is fine for an hour-and-a-half B movie but doesn't really work in a miniseries. Among those plot elements that seemed rushed was the "romance" between Mears and Susan Norton…if there was supposed to be a romance at all, which really isn't made very clear. Nor is the nature of the evil residing in the Marsten house ever fully explained, or how they finally managed to kill off the overwhelming swarm of undead that had taken the town over by the end of the movie. Did it take them weeks? months? Did they have to chase them down across the country? A little closure, please! The questions left unanswered at the end of the movie are enough to make a whole new miniseries!
In the vein of all good vampire tales, this one will quicken the pulse. The abrupt ending may drive some viewers batty, especially those who have a large stake in this, but the average viewer will enjoy sinking his teeth into Salem's Lot. Fangs a lot, TNT!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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