It's been years since I read 'Salem's Lot, but it's one of the few books that I can remember giving me genuine chills. Appropriately, the 1979 mini-series that was made from it (starring David Soul) had the same effect.
Neither is scary the whole way through, but they both have strong moments. For the book, I don't remember details, but I still have this strong, chilling impression of sneaking around back of the Marsten house and feeling the evil coming off the place, especially from the cellar door. It's an entirely different scene in the mini-series: the fog rolling in at Danny Glick's bedroom window as his dead, little brother Ralphie floats outside and scratches at the glass, begging to be let in.
That probably doesn't come as a surprise. It's what everyone remembers from that series. The problem is that it's so overwhelming that it makes people forget the weak parts, like the lack of chemistry between Soul and Bonnie Bedelia, the lack of any acting by the James at 15 kid, or how cheesy Barlow looks. I appreciate the Nosferatu homage, but Barlow isn't frightening in the least.
The novel may not be scary all the way through, but there aren't any weak points. Even when it's just describing everyday life in a small town, it's interesting and makes you care about the people all this stuff is happening to. The mini-series is able to do some of that too, but the book's gradual, horrifying revelation of what's going on in the town is brought about too quickly in the series and loses credibility in the process.
Still, there is that window scene. And the scene in the cellar towards the end when James at 15 thinks he's all done killing vampires, but we see several slowly crawling towards him from behind. And then there's the terrifyingly feral way that the vampires' eyes are lit, making them stab at you from the darkness.
The more recent mini-series version starring Rob Lowe, unfortunately has zero chills. Barlow looks a lot better as a relatively make-upless Rutger Hauer and the acting is mostly better. Dan Byrd's (The Hills Have Eyes) cool, but frightened portrayal of Mark Petrie is much better than James at 15's wooden one, for example. I also liked Andre Braugher's (Gideon's Crossing) quietly persecuted version of Matt Burke more than ubiquitous '70s guest-star Lew Ayres' kindly-old-man performance. There still wasn't any chemistry between Rob Lowe and Samantha Mathis though, and Donald Sutherland, though more animated than James Mason, isn't nearly as creepy.
Though I liked Hauer's Barlow, I've got a big problem with how the vampires ended up in this version. They're cool at first, but by the end of the show, when they hit the street in droves, they give up the cool zooming around and walking on walls that they were doing earlier and take to shambling stupidly around the streets. It's like they've forgotten what movie they're in and are doing a zombie flick instead.
Still, some nice moments. I like how the story changes characters around to keep it fresh. Or maybe it was the 1979 version that changed characters from the book and this one's just changing them back. I don't remember. Either way, the same things happen in both versions, but to different people. In 1979, for example, the real estate agent is having an affair with his married secretary; in 2004, it's the doctor (who was Bonnie Bedelia's dad in 1979) messing around with a married patient. I also like the scene where Eva decides to marry Weasel, regardless of the personal cost to her, and I like most of the updated cultural references, like making Burke gay.
Didn't so much like the change in the framing sequence though. Ben and Mark hunting vampires in South America is much cooler than Ben getting his butt handed to him in the urban U.S.
And, of course, it would've been nice if it were actually scary.