King had his chance at the vampire genre more than thirty years ago in Salem's Lot, his second-published novel and his first to be turned into a TV miniseries. I think it was also the first to be remade as another miniseries, but that's another story. My friend Wendigo and I took a look last weekend at Tobe Hooper's three-hour film, which was broadcast in two parts on consecutive Saturdays in November 1979, then condensed into a 112 minute theatrical release.
Barlow (Reggie Nadler) brandishes some sharp claws while menacing Lance Kerwin, while Straker (James Mason) brandishes some broken furniture at his enemies.
There are many more inevitable differences. The hero's love interest is a much younger woman in the novel, for instance, and her father and a separate doctor character have been merged in the miniseries. Mears himself (David Soul in the miniseries) isn't a newcomer to town in the novel, but had been away long enough that many residents take him for a stranger. The novel has a strong New England flavor that the miniseries mostly misses, and King has more time to build a more detailed, complex map of characters than Hooper has. King makes clear what Hooper can only hint at, that the town's moral rot makes it a perfect target for the vampire as much as the insularity that makes so many people reluctant to trust Mears's warnings about vampires. Salem's Lot is so caught up in itself and cut off from the rest of the world, Wendigo says, that you might believe that no one would miss it if it were wiped out. It's a more degenerate version of the small, endangered community of Whitby in Dracula, the novel King was inspired to adapt to an American context, and you get a stronger sense in the book that the population is getting wiped out rather than simply running away.
However much Hooper's miniseries deviates from King, Wendigo still likes it quite a bit. There are several things the director does very well. While turning Barlow into Count Orlok may be going too far, the look of the other vampires is appropriately rotten, discolored, dehumanized. Their power to bedazzle people has nothing to do with any innate glamour. It doesn't sound quite as cool as King's current description of the ideal vampire, but killers and hunters they certainly are.
Normally when a Stephen King story gets its second adaptation it's meant to be closer to the source than the first try. Salem's Lot is an exception; Wendigo says that the remake is far less faithful to the novel than the Hooper miniseries, and just plain inferior as a story and a film despite a bigger budget. The Hooper, however, is a vampire film of a certain moment in time, just before the romantic vampire made its big move into the mass imagination. It's an advance technically on Dan Curtis's vampire tales and a departure from Curtis's tragic antihero characters, who probably had a greater influence in the long run. By now, and maybe by the time the remake was made, King's conception of the vampire as basically a bogeyman has become obsolete, his protests notwithstanding. It's hard to respect his complaint, since a vampire as a thing of fiction can be anything that suits our fancy, but there should still and always be room for the old-school unromantic vampire that many people now know only from Salem's Lot.
Here's the theatrical trailer as uploaded to YouTube by the no-doubt appropriately named TobeHooperFan.