Donald Sutherland with deep mascara and a Santa Claus beard! Rutger Hauer with fangs and a ponytail...and he's crawling on the ceiling! It should be a creepy, campy horror dream come true, but in TNT's new two-part adaptation of Stephen King's Salem's Lot, something's amiss. Or, at least, something's a-missing.
In this gray-gothic, small-town vampire thriller, journalist Ben Mears (Rob Lowe) returns to his childhood home of Jerusalem's Lot to face some personal demons and investigate a haunted house. Right away, he runs afoul of a pair of white-haired weirdos: pawnbroker Richard Straker (Sutherland), and the clandestine nightcrawler Kurt Barlow (Hauer). Then the kidnappings and animal mutilations commence, and we've got ourselves a mystery.
Instantly, director Mikael Salomon sets a dark winter's tone with stark, snowy landscapes and claustrophobic interiors. From there, though Salomon wrings exceptional performances from a cast of seasoned lead and character actors, he just can't break the confines of a script that privileges dialogue over action, and character over plot.
Right away, we have an effective cast and setting, but even before anything scary goes down, we're bombarded with a series of humdrum sideline dramas concerning local doctors, trailer-park hussies, a quick-witted waitress and a trio of cranky garbage haulers. It seems everybody in town has a story to tell, and we get to hear 'em all. From the drunken preacher (James Cromwell) to the gay black English teacher (Andre Braugher), everyone has some nifty yarn to spin before the paper-thin, blood-suck-heavy plot finally has a chance to kick in.
Eventually, the prolonged death sequences begin, and with them some quality special effects, but while the swirling winds, writhing corpses and stakes to the heart are all impressive, they are few and far between. Too many characters, too much slow, shadowy neck mastication, and too damn many questions about who just bit whom and who-all's left.
Then there's the minimalist use of the three stars. Lowe is effectively weatherworn and moody as the lead, and Sutherland and Hauer each attack their dicey roles with devilish glee. Unfortunately, we just don't see enough of them. Lowe spends most of his time contemplating his co-characters from afar, and while Sutherland peers around corners and waggles his tongue from time to time, Hauer, the lead baddie, is mostly absent.
Either out of respect or out of deserved reverence to King, Salomon just can't get the fringe characters out of the way fast enough to allow the plot to develop. Yes, Salem's Lot is creepy, and yeah, you'll think twice about opening your window at night, but the whole thing feels more like a condensed, mirthless snippet of Twin Peaks than a straight horror thriller.
8 pm Sunday-Monday, June 20-21, TNT.