Director: Mikael Salomon
Release Date: 2004
To remake ‘Salem’s Lot was always going to be a brave or foolhardy move for several reasons. The original is a classic, the book itself is a classic and very few filmed versions of Stephen King’s horror stories (since the 1970s at least) have worked. There have been complaints banded around the net about this version; some protest that it is not scary. In truth I think that this is unfair. In memory the 1979 version was scary but on a re-watch a lot of the things that seemed scary as a child are simply not scary now, I love the 1979 version but it does not fill me with the same dread as it did as a child.
Others complain that this deviates from the book, but in fairness so did the 1979 version and this one is, in many respects, closer to the original novel. It does, however, modernise the story. Ben Mears (Rob Lowe) is a writer still, but he is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer of factual literature. He and Susan Norton (Samantha Mathis) do not simply meet and fall immediately in love, they have corresponded before by e-mail and they have some angst built into their relationship making it all the more believable. A major change is in the fact that Ben found, as a boy, the bodies of Hubbie Marsten and his wife. Whilst this is not as esoteric as the version written by King it gives a great ‘in’ to the fears that plague Ben.
There are minor changes also, which make this feel all the more modern and therefore all the more real. Mark Petrie (Dan Byrd) becomes a streetwise poor kid, Matt Burke (Andre Braugher) is still a teacher, and his role is very much closer to that described in the book, but the filmmakers made him African American and also gay. It is clear that Larry Crockett (Robert Grubb) is in an incestuous relationship with his daughter. Straker (Donald Sutherland) explains early on that the shop, which always seemed a little incongruous, was almost an irrelevance as the majority of the antique trading was done on-line.
The film very much concentrates on two things. When it comes to the vampires it concentrates on the need for invitation. Crockett has invited Barlow (Rutger Hauer) into the town, it was the realtor who bought the Marsten House and then, for a piece of real estate in return, gave it to the strangers. After a fight both Ben and the newly vampirised Floyd Tibbits (Todd MacDonald) end up in jail. Floyd tries to get to Ben through a grate, after night falls, but needs inviting into Ben’s cell. Invitation and faith are closely tied together, the vampire Susan confronts Ben on the doorway to the boarding house and states that he is not a religious man and thus does not have the faith to keep her out. Unfortunately this aspect is not well explored but invitation is a key element and ties into the other aspect the film concentrates upon.
The film has been criticised for concentrating on minor characters but I would say this. Firstly the pace of the film is much snappier than the original and secondly it is the characters that make up the town and the thrust of this is concentrating on the darkness that nestles in the heart of a town. Thus the need for invitation, it is a metaphor and shows us, not the darkness entering but actually escaping from the heart of the town.
The opening of the film is very different and yet to me works. We hear the haunting voice of Lisa Gerrard (of Dead Can Dance) as we see a scene of Detroit. We see a down and out Ben Mears looking into a soup kitchen and spotting a priest, Father Callaghan (James Cromwell). Ben goes in and he ends up chasing after Callaghan, who shoots Ben. Ben manages to grab him, they struggle and fall through a window onto the roof of a cop car. They are both rushed to hospital and the doctor with Ben wants to know why, as a Christian, he should not let him die for attacking a priest. Ben says two words, “Jerusalem’s Lot”. We see the Lot as a ghost town, in black and white, and then colour bleeds into the memory and it becomes as it was when Ben arrived. The story of the town becomes Ben’s death-bed confession.
There are some standout scenes. The "child at the window" from the original is homaged and yet changed. It is clear that they could not have got away without having the scene in place and yet were always going to be criticised by folks saying it was not as good as, or simply aped, the original. Instead we have two (rather than the original’s three) versions. The change comes between Danny (André de Vanny) and Ralphie Glick (Zac Richmond) and this is where homage comes into play as the scene takes place around the semi-transparent curtain of a hospital bed. The second time is between Danny and Mark and it is a scene that does work. However the film adds in two scenes of fear, concerning child vampires, that are all its own. The first is a brief scene of Ralphie feeding on Marjorie Glick (Rebecca Gibney) and then launching at his father. The second takes place on a school bus and, in case you’ve not seen this version, let me just say it is two and a half hours into the film and worth the admission fee on its own.
The death effects of the vampires are interesting. The vampires shoot up into the air and dust as they hit the ceiling. More interesting is the fact that they are driven by pure bloodlust. Floyd Tibbits, in jail and unable to feed, chews out his own wrists and drinks his own blood. He had been turned by Dud Rodgers (Brendan Cowell) who informed Floyd that he needed food for Ruthie Crockett (Penny McNamee). At the end of the film we see a group of vampires on the land-fill site scurrying around desperately looking for rats. Indeed, when Barlow force feeds Callaghan his blood he tells the priest that whoever feeds you is your god, underlining the vampires’ obsession with feeding. One thing I did like was Weasel (Martin Vaughan) explaining to Eva (Julia Blake) what it was like to be a vampire, “Its different is all. Its wonderful and strong.”
Unfortunately we see that one of the books Matt Burke uses for research is “Vampires the Occult Truth” by Konstantinos, an awful book that would have led the heroes right down the garden path!
The story of Callaghan is much more rounded; he plays a bigger role that is closer to the book although the filmmakers show his fate, not shown in the novel. This is, I believe, different to the fate King eventually wrote, as I believe the character reappeared in “The Dark Tower”. Cromwell’s performance as the drunken priest is excellent. Indeed I didn’t think there was a bad performance but special mention must go to two of the actors.
Sutherland is wonderful as Straker, with his shock of white hair and white beard he is less Santa Claus and more the devil. He plays the role with absolute gusto and brings a sinister quality to the part that Mason never did.
I must also mention Hauer as Barlow. Though the screen-time is limited, this was a Barlow much closer to the version in the novel and Hauer relishes those few lines he has. The dialogue in the Petrie house, when Barlow accuses Callaghan of being a shaman, is different to the book. I can’t remember Barlow telling Callaghan to “P*ss off.” However the line is delivered with such panache that perhaps King simply omitted it from the original novel! However, the best part of this version’s vision of Barlow is his death. We see the stake, in a very CSI style shot, penetrate his heart. Blood seems to slough off him and fly into the air. He screams as his shape shifts from victim to victim through the ages, as though their souls were finally released. Eventually he is naught but dust, except for a signet ring and that is very reminiscent of the Hammer Dracula movies and, I believe, a deliberate nod in that direction.
I must also mention the fact that, once Barlow is killed, most of the vampire’s seem slow and sluggish. There is no real explanation, but I think the hint was that, as most of the town had been turned, it was lack of blood that slowed them down, hence the vampires hunting rats that I mentioned earlier.
Some might complain that I intend to give this 8.5 out of 10, a whole point more than the ’79 version. However, I feel that it is a better paced, better cast version of the novel that captures more fully, despite the modernisation, the essence of King’s book. It might be that this will not achieve the classic status of its predecessor, and that is a shame, but I feel it to be a better film that has improved with each watch.
The homepage, with sneak peak trailer, is here.
The imdb page is here.
Sunday, July 23, 2006
Director: Mikael Salomon