Salem's Lot is easily the most terrifying of Stephen King's novels. A dark and evil tale that scares the crap out of you. King's book updates a bagful of Vampire clichés and revamps the myth. Instead of Transylvania, his vampire tale happens in small town USA. This second movie adaptation, as in the book, details characters - typical types in an everyday familiar setting . Then enters the vampire and all hell breaks loose turning the town from sunlit Americana to moonlit nightmare. This new adaptation changes some of King's original characters and ideas, but maintains the heart and soul of his book. The 1979 version directed by Tobe Hooper was critized for turning Barlow into a tangible monster instead of a more subtle beast as in the book and for some contrived and poorly written TVish dialogue but had one thing in common with the novel - it too was terrifying. This Stephen King tale returns 25 years after in a new version worthy of its source of inspiration.
The 2004 version has a new cast of characters and storylines. King mentioned in an interview back in the early 80s, that he envisioned a sequel to Salem's Lot, in which Father Callahan would be working at a homeless shelter in some urban setting and that's exactly how this film begins. Ben, a successful writer played by Rob Lowe shows up to the homeless shelter and there's a violent confrontation that sends both men to the I.C.U. The film flashes back a few months prior when Ben returns to his haunted hometown of Jerusalem’s Lot . The ‘Jeru’ is missing from the town sign, leaving only the words Salem-thus our title. Ben has returned to Jerusalem's Lot in an attempt to restore his declining fame by writing a story about his hometown. As a kid, something awful happened to Ben in the spooky mansion on the hill; now that he's back, the mansion is once again buzzing with ominous signs. He soon realizes that he is not the only newcomer to town. An antique dealer Richard Straker (Sutherland) has also arrived to open up a new shop with his silent partner, Kurt Barlow (Hauer). Soon after their arrival the town begins to change for the worse.
The director Mikael Salomon who directed the mediocre Hard Rain redeems himself here. He comes as faithful to King's novel as we could ever possibly expect with some surprising twists of his own; as in Donald Sutherland's obscene twist on his character, the town’s acceptance of “out” characters, the incest subtext and Lowe’s creepy childhood memories. Salomon’s paces the film fittingly – using half the film to introduce us to the townsfolk of Jerusalem's Lot, then strip them away to focus on the human vs. vampire element in the second half.
The first twenty minutes as narrated by the Lowe character brilliantly introduces the story's main players while asserting the movie's main conflict of good and evil. The irony and observations of the narration is indicative of the much improved writing in this version. The script takes time to develop its characters and their relationships while the action unfolds at a pace that seems steadily natural. Nothing seems pushed or contrived. By knowing more about the characters means that we care more for them when bad things happen.
Salomon also has a bit of fun making subtle references to other Stephen King’s works. In a local bar one of the characters is singing a karaoke version of “Stand By Me”, at another instance someone calls for their dog "Cujo”. His handling of suspense is very effective, leaving the visceral effects and special effects towards the second half of the film. He retains and does justice to his interpretation of the most memorable scenes of the 1979 version. The window sequence with Danny Glick and the mortuary scene with Marjorie Glick retain their effective creepiness with the advantage of better digital effects technology available nowadays. There is also a new sequence involving crawling schoolchildren on the roof of a schoolbus that will give you nightmares long after the film is over.
It is fun to see old pros such as Donald Sutherland and James Cromwell having a ball with these outlandish roles. Rob Lowe's measured, low key performance anchors the movie and Rutger Hauer as Barlow has some horrific highlights.
Although originally made for TV, the film looks like a big feature film. The physical production (shot in Australia) is convincing (it truly looks like Maine) and the special effects are modest but frightening and effective. The look of the film is superb- dark, brooding, cold, atmospheric and the ending is entirely faithful to the book. This new version of Salem’s Lot has a lot to offer. It's a very good movie on its own accord; it is scary, suspenseful and I am sure that any Stephen King fan will dig it.