Small-town Bringdown

‘Salem’s Lot: adapted by Peter Filardi from the novel by Stephen King; directed by Mikael Salomon; starring Rob Lowe (Ben Mears), Andre Braugher (Matt Burke), Donald Sutherland (Straker), Samantha Mathis (Susan Norton), Robert Mammone (Dr. James Cody), Dan Byrd (Mark Petrie), James Cromwell (Father Callahan) and Rutger Hauer (Barlow) (2004): Very enjoyable, mildly unfaithful TNT miniseries adaptation of King’s vampire novel could use another 80 minutes (which would have made it a 6-hour rather than a 4-hour miniseries). Most of that extra time could have been beneficially front-loaded: as is, we’ve really only scratched the surface with the main characters before we’re headlong into the vampire narrative.

The most obvious change is that the story is now set in 2004 rather than 1975. There are the usual, necessary character conflations when dealing with a long novel (one sub-plot involving marital infidelity has been folded into the story of Dr. James Cody) and several pretty effective shifts made so as to show the viewer certain bad behaviours rather than explain different, more complicated behaviours, as the novel can do and a movie generally can’t without a lengthy bit of spoken-word exposition. The small town of Salem’s Lot comes across as more blatantly sinful than in the book, but that’s partially because of the narrative compression. In any case, the evil from without still manifests itself at least partially as a mirror image of the evil within.

Rob Lowe does nice, nuanced work as protagonist Ben Mears — watch this and an episode of Parks and Recreation to realize what a sharp actor he’s become, handicapped though he is by being prettier than most of his female leads. Andre Braugher — as Van Helsingesque English Teacher Matt Burke — is solid and dependable in a somewhat underwritten role, while Samantha Mathis, Dan Byrd and Robert Mammone also do solid work as the unlikely, reluctant, disbelieving vampire fighters. Donald Sutherland plays the vampire’s human henchman as a somewhat antic lunatic, more Renfield than the novel’s version. Rutger Hauer wisely underplays Barlow the vampire, and the miniseries doesn’t force him to deliver some of the novel’s Dracula-esque Barlow lines, easily the weakest part of King’s novel.

The filmmakers drop King’s homage to Tolkien — in the novel, crosses and holy water glow “with an elvish light” when a vampire is near. I think that’s unfortunate, as one scene that uses that glow in the novel seems perfectly suited to filming (Father Callahan’s confrontation with Barlow at the Petrie household). Creatures crawling across ceilings also don’t have the same zing as they once did. There is something cool about the movie’s depiction of vampire death, though, drawing as the visual effect does on a deflating balloon sputtering around.

Overall, there are a lot of good scares here and, because of changes made from the novel, a certain number of surprises awaiting King readers as well. Maybe the smartest decision made was to incorporate stretches of the novel’s third-person narration as the first-person narration of Ben Mears. It’s very effective, especially during the movie’s opening and closing scenes. Recommended.

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