Salem’s Lot: The Miniseries (2004)
Written by: Peter Filardi, based on the novel by Stephen King
Directed by: Mikael Solomon
Starring: Rob Lowe, Andre Braugher, Donald Sutherland, Samantha Mathis, Rutger Hauer, James Cromwell
Matt Burke: Uh, Mr. Mears, should anyone in their right mind trust an author?
Ben Mears: A good author illuminates truth.
[to Ruth Crockett’s raised hand]
Ben Mears: Yes?
Ruth Crockett: What’s the truth about this town?
Ben Mears: I used to think nothing happened here. But the truth is everything happens here. One has to look close in a small town. The beauty is in the details. You have all the horror of the Qalai Janghi prison right here in one battered child. All the beauty of Michelangelo in the alabaster calf of one shoulder-high waitress. The longing you feel for the boy or girl in the next row is equal to or greater than the longing your favorite musician feels for his favorite supermodel. Never minimize your feelings. Or this town.
On June 20, 2004, the TNT cable network aired Part One of Salem’s Lot, a two-part miniseries and the second adaptation of Stephen King’s 1975 novel about a small town in Maine terrorized by vampires. Starring Rob Lowe, Andre Braugher, Donald Sutherland, Samantha Mathis, Rutger Hauer, and James Cromwell, this 181-minute remake was written by Peter Filardi (Flatliners, The Craft) and directed by Mikael Solomon (The Long Road Home, The Expanse, Band of Brothers).
Like the Tobe Hooper-helmed 1979 NBC miniseries, the updated-for-the-21st Century Salem’s Lot follows a typical Stephen King “everyman” protagonist in a situation that pits him against supernatural and monstrous evil in the small Maine town where he grew up. In Salem’s Lot, this is Benjamin “Ben” Mears (Lowe), a best-selling author who spent his formative years in Jerusalem’s Lot – Salem’s Lot to its 1,319 inhabitants – but went off to the big city to study and become a novelist.
Years later, Mears is back in Salem’s Lot, hoping to cure a case of writer’s block and find a story among his childhood hometown’s residents. In town, he reconnects with his high school English teacher, Matt Burke (Braugher) and meets Susan Norton (Mathis), a former art student who returned to the Lot and works as a waitress.
Floyd Tibbits: Crockett’s paying us a hundred bucks to deliver this crate. If I said to you, Mike, I’d pay you two hundred bucks to come into the Marsten House, alone, at night, would you do it?
Mike Ryerson: Hell no.
Floyd Tibbits: Me neither. I find that humorous.
Mears’ homecoming coincides with the arrival in town of the mysterious Richard Straker (Sutherland), who buys the Marsten House and sets up an antiques store for his soon to arrive business partner, Kurt Barlow (Hauer). Straker is – to all appearances – cultured, witty, and weirdly gleeful, looking for all the world like an eccentric Old World gentleman with a mane of white hair and a prophet’s beard.
As Mears settles into his writer’s routine and begins a romantic relationship with Susan, Salem’s Lot’s dark secrets – including the sexual abuse of his daughter by a local businessman (Robert Grubb) and the deeds of a sadistic bus driver (Andy Anderson) who enjoys terrorizing the children he drives to school – show that small town life is hardly idyllic.
Ben Mears: The town has secrets, but sees through lies. Even the ones you tell yourself. What are you doing coming back to the place where you lived as a boy? Trying to recapture something that was irrevocably lost? What magic do you expect to recapture by walking roads you once walked and are now probably asphalted… and straightened… and litter-shot with tourist beer cans. Do you even know?
And soon enough, as the town awaits the arrival of the much talked about but yet unseen Barlow, things begin to occur. Dark, sinister, and troubling things. And before you can say “Vampire invasion,” Mears, Susan, and the town’s Catholic priest, Father Callahan (James Cromwell), find that there are other things that go bump in the night.
Back in 2004 when I lived in Miami, I watched more TV than I do now, but somehow I never heard about TNT’s Salem’s Lot. Back then I was heavily invested in such shows as 24 (a series that starred Donald Sutherland’s son Kiefer and in which, several years later, Salem’s Lot cast member James Cromwell would do a guest role as protagonist Jack Bauer’s scheming dad, Philip) and Star Trek: Enterprise, and we subscribed to TV Guide, but somehow I was inattentive and didn’t find out about the new version of Salem’s Lot until I bought the DVD in 2016 via Amazon, which was released by Warner Home Video in 2004.
Like every adaptation of a Stephen King novel, Salem’s Lot keeps the author’s themes and many of the characters and situations but makes substantial changes that may irritate the novel’s many fans.
Some of the changes, I admit, were good and even necessary. Whereas the original 1979 NBC version had a Barlow that had no dialogue and looked like a doppelganger for F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu, the Barlow conjured up by screenwriter Peter Filardi and portrayed by Dutch actor Rutger Hauer is more faithful – and therefore scarier – to the King Vampire (or, in King lore, a Level One vamipire) from the 1975 novel.
Dud Rogers: Say, aren’t you one of the fellas that bought the Marsten place?
Kurt Barlow: Very good.
Dud Rogers: Are there any ghosts in that old house?
Kurt Barlow: Ghosts? No. No ghosts.
The 2004 miniseries also updates the story’s setting to the early 21st Century and ditches the late 1970s accoutrements – costumes, cars, and hairstyles – from Tobe Hooper’s version that starred David Soul, James Mason, Bonnie Bedelia, and Lance Kerwin 25 years earlier. Here, things are still pretty much late 20th Century-looking, but we see cell phones and PCs in use, as well as more modern cars and outfits.
And as long as the script by Filardi is in accord with the source, the new version of Salem’s Lot is a decent – if perhaps predictable – retelling of Bram Stoker’s 1897 Gothic novel Dracula, which King has said is Salem’s Lot main point of inspiration, both in theme and structure.
What annoyed me the first time I watched the 2004 Salem’s Lot is that its frame story radically changes one of the story’s characters way too much and contradicts that person’s ultimate fate in the larger King mythology.
If you have not seen Salem’s Lot and are new to King’s Dark Tower multiverse (in which many of King’s works have connections), I’m not going to spoil it for you by saying who the character is and what happens in the frame story that irks me. Suffice it to say, though, that the powers that be closed off any possibility that Salem’s Lot’s story could lead into a TV series (a la Under the Dome). If you are one of King’s Constant Readers, you know that the author did write some short stories that were prequels and sequels to Salem’s Lot, and that several characters from the novel recur in King’s epic tale The Dark Tower.
Ben Mears: You’re a vampire hunter now.
Dr. James Cody: We’ll be home by midnight?
Ben Mears: No, that’s Cinderella.
There are other divergences from both the original novel and the 1979 adaptation. Some involve how certain characters were written and interpreted, while others involve plot points and characters that were tweaked for the 2004 version or left out altogether. And as I said earlier, some are good changes, while others may not be to other viewers’ liking.
The script overall is decent, and Mikael Salomon gets good, solid performances from the cast. The one actor who I think was a bit too hammy and jokey about the project is Donald Sutherland, but that’s balanced out by the more nuanced acting by Rob Lowe, Samantha Mathis, Andre Braugher, James Cromwell, and Rutger Hauer.
Overall, while I don’t recommend that you purchase Salem’s Lot on DVD (Warner Home Video really screwed the pooch here by not bothering to add any extras), I think it’s worth renting (for $3.99) on Amazon Prime Video. It is reasonably well-written, the ensemble cast is great, and the directing is solid enough to make Salem’s Lot entertaining.
 A constituency of which I happen to be a member. In fact, Salem’s Lot was the first Stephen King book I read as a teenager back in 1978, and for many years it was my favorite work by the author. My current favorite is 11/22/63.