Salem’s Lot (1979) vs. Salem’s Lot (2004)

Rating: C/B-

Dir: Tobe Hooper (1979); Mikael Sorensen (2004)
Star:David Soul, James Mason, Lance Kerwin, Bonnie Bedelia (1979);
Rob Lowe, Donald Sutherland, Dan Byrd, Samantha Mathis (2004)

The journey of Stephen King’s novel to the screen was somewhat tortuous. His second published novel was originally slated as a movie, but the film proved too difficult to adapt, and became a TV movie instead (though a theatrical cut was released in some countries). It’s still very well regarded, influencing other genre entries as diverse as Buffy and The Lost Boys and, 25 years later, TNT had another crack at the source material, making it into a TV movie of almost exactly the same length. It’s interesting to compare and contrast the two versions.

The basic story is largely the same in both. Writer Ben Mears (Soul/Lowe) returns to his childhood hometown to write a book, and face the demons which were unleashed on his psyche by the Marsten House, a notorious local property. He finds the house has been bought by a pair of antique dealers, Richard Straker (Mason/Sutherland) and his mysteriously absent partner, Kurt Barlow. When kids go missing, and people start to fall sick, Mears eventually realizes the town is suffering from a vampiric plague, and it’s down to him, local lore-savvy teenager Mark Petrie (Kervin/Byrd), and a handful of other locals, to defeat the menace.

If there’s one main difference to point out, it’s in the nature of the threat. The 1979 vampire (Reggie Nalder) is a monstrous creature, right out of Nosferatu, bald and pointy. In 2004… Well, it’s Rutger Hauer. That’s both a much more “classic” look and, of course, reprises the role he had in the Buffy movie. Petrie is also rather different. The first version has him coming across, almost as if King painted himself as a young child into his story; the second has him older and more cynical, and also less of a social outcast. Each are forced to make editorial concessions for televisual reasons – for instance, the 1979 version combines the town doctor with the father of Mears’ girlfriend (Bedelia/Mathis) – but the new TVM is overall closer to the book, not least because Lowe is closer to King’s description of the lead character.

On balance, we preferred the new version, though each do have their strengths and weaknesses. In the latter category, for the 1979, we have to put Harry Sukman’s over-excited score, which insists on trying too hard, during even the least dramatic moments. However, this is countered by Mason, who is probably more effective than Sutherland at delivering the understated menace. Hooper’s direction is kinda all over the place: it may be telling that his most effective moment isn’t anything to do with vampires at all, though you could probably have worked that out from Lifeforce! Instead, it’s a far-less fantastic scene depicting what happens when a man catches his wife cheating, and the results aren’t good for her or the cuckold. But overall, it’s definitely a film where time has taken a significant toll.

For obvious reasons, this isn’t such an issue with the 2004 version, which certainly has much more impressive vampire deaths and also benefits from a less condescending approach to the female characters, with Mathis much better-rounded than Bedelia. However, the makers chose to make the schoolteacher a) black, and b) gay. Neither have any bearing on the plot whatsoever, so it seems like being PC for PC’s sake. It certainly hits the ground running, with Mears confronting a priest (Cromwell, another role significantly expanded here) and falling with him from a window; the rest of the story then unfolds in hospital, as he tells it to a nurse.

I suspect, if I’d seen the original when it came out, as a 13-year-old, it probably would have scared the bejesus out of me, and I’d be carrying the emotional scars to this day. Instead, it seems to stem from a much less polished time and those aspects, such as the music (Dum-dum-DUUUUUUM!) distract significantly. I’ve got to give the nod to the 2004 version, for a better tone overall, as well as being more faithful to the original source.