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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Salem's Lot' with added bite

TNT's update of the 1975 Steven King scarefest is quite spooky, if a bit hokey.

June 17, 2004|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

Just when you thought it was safe to return to rural America, Stephen King's vampires-among-us novel, "Salem's Lot," is again lurking on television.

Gross and engrossing, TNT's two-parter that begins Sunday night is downright spooky. It's also more than a little hokey.

Be prepared to wince at lines like "literature has become elitist, like black-light photography" and "she's dead, or undead."

But fine performances from Rob Lowe as the tortured writer, Andre Braugher as the high school teacher with secrets, and Donald Sutherland as the creepy antique dealer in the big mansion serve up a heap of horror. In lesser hands "Salem's Lot" could quickly get campy.

Lowe's Ben Mears character -- the writer whose painful memories of the mansion on the hill lure him back to the tiny town in Maine -- also serves as the narrator.

"Beyond the postcard camouflage," Lowe intones, "there is little good in small towns, mostly boredom interspersed with a dull, morose, mindless evil."

This is not subtle stuff.

But these are quibbles. "Salem's Lot" grabs you, pulls you close, and then scares you silly. If it also clobbers you with the King-sized moral, well, what did you expect: Harry Potter?

The arrival of Lowe's curious writer proves providential. He's determined to make the town confront its grisly past and its buried secrets.

But young boys start disappearing and then reappearing as vampires. Is the writer responsible for bringing evil to the town? It's left ambiguous.

Everybody has secret vices in "Salem's Lot." There's a lot of Peyton Place here. The town tramp, the brooding Vietnam vet, the licentious landlord, the seduced doctor, and various Stepford-esque parents all contribute to the civic weirdness. James Cromwell as the boozy priest is the best.

The redux is quicker and more violent than the 1979 effort that had David Soul as the writer, Lew Ayres as the teacher, and James Mason as the dealer. It's been updated -- dotted with references to the Internet, the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban, war crimes, e-mailing, pornography, and a certain dog named Cujo.

One updating that works particularly well is that of the teenage boys: They're more devious, dangerous, rebellious and contemptuous of adults than in the original. In other words, more modern and realistic.

The cast is ensemble; nobody gets an excess of time on screen. There is not much character development; the themes are what count.

One theme that wafts gently by is that sexuality is second cousin to vampirism. The adults all have their sexual issues. Lowe's Mears gets involved in a triangle with a town lovely and her ex-boyfriend, a clueless blue-collar worker. The latter, wearing gloves, attacks Lowe and they both end up in the town jail.

"If that's what you wear to a fight," Lowe shouts at his rival, "what do you wear to bed?"

In this film's big cast, everybody has a sticky situation. A doctor gets seduced by a female patient, and the antique dealer seems to have an unholy relationship with the landlord. Nobody is pure in "Salem's Lot."

The story unfolds in flashbacks, including to Lowe's childhood confrontation with some ghastly/ghostly events in the mansion. Through it all, Sutherland is suitably weird and whether he's victim, victimizer, or something in between is part of the "Salem's Lot" puzzle within a puzzle. When the vampire battalion goes full throttle, the bodies begin to mount. In the final act, it may help to have a scorecard to separate the biters from the bitten.

"Salem's Lot" is early -- some might say classic -- King. Written in 1975, it was the second King novel to be filmed, after Brian De Palma's "Carrie."

The biggest improvement over the 1979 effort is the high-school teacher. Ayres was tired and bland. Braugher, best known for his tough detective in TV's "Homicide," is flinty, aggressive, and living on the edge, beset by a sexuality that dare not speak its name in the gossipy, unforgiving "Salem's Lot."

He bites into his lines like, well, you know.

*

'Salem's Lot'

Where: TNT

When: Part 1 premieres 8-10 p.m. Sunday. Part 2 premieres 8-10 p.m. Monday

Rating: The network has rated the miniseries TV-14LV (may not be suitable for children younger than 14, with advisories for coarse language and violence).

Rob Lowe...Ben Mears

Andre Braugher...Matt Burke

Donald Sutherland...Richard

Straker

Samantha Mathis...Susan Norton

Rutger Hauer...Kurt Barlow

James Cromwell...Father

Donald Callahan

Executive producers, Jeffrey Hayes and Mark M. Wolper. Director, Mikael Salomon. Writer, Peter Filardi, based on the Stephen King novel.

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