Last time I was at the grocery store, there was a rack of bargain DVDs set up on the book aisle. One of the DVDs on display was 'Salem's Lot and there were several re-releases of Stephen King novels for sale, 'Salem's Lot among them. I decided to grab them both to compare them.
The TV movie isn't bad. Most of its weaknesses are due to the fact that it wasn't meant to be watched all at once (the two parts are not divided in this presentation). A lot of the events in "Part One" could stand to be cut out, such as the subplot about a woman's infidelity that amounts to absolutely nothing. "Part Two", which I mark as starting after the appearance of Kurt Barlow, the main vampire, rushes along a bit too fast.
I really have very few problems with this movie, though. My main problem is that our hero is so bland I almost didn't even notice he was on screen. The other good guys aren't much better. James Mason and Reggie Nalder come off much better as R.T. Straker, the henchman, and Kurt Barlow, the vampire. Mason is perfectly gentlemanly, arrogant, and threatening at the same time. Nalder makes for one of the best screen vampires of all time. Kurt Barlow is a monster, not an old-world gentleman, not a self-pitying loser. You get the idea he could take a more human form, he could speak to people directly, rather than through Straker, but why should he? People are his food; they are beneath him.
I can imagine how scary this movie must have seemed to families watching it in the 70s. While two men are trucking the crate containing Kurt Barlow to 'Salem's Lot, the crate keeps moving forward, toward the cab of the truck ... and them. Later, when Straker comes to let his master out of the crate, he finds that Barlow has let himself out by blowing the crate apart from within. Straker chuckles and leaves the offering he had brought -- a small child -- on a table for when Barlow gets back (easily the most horrifying, yet most low-key, image in the movie). Of course, there is also the image most people who saw this movie when it first aired remember: the vampirized little boy floating up to his brother's window, asking to be let in. Very strong stuff for 70s TV (I guess, I wasn't born until 1979).
The only big letdown is when Kurt Barlow, who has been portrayed as a powerful, irresistible, single-minded force of evil, is easily killed by our milquetoast hero -- after sundown, no less! Frankly, any force of evil that could be stopped by that guy is nothing to be feared.
Oddly, I found the original novel lacking in comparison. It has almost all of the weaknesses of the movie, like superfluous plot threads that amount to very little and the bland hero, and none of the strengths. Almost all of the strongest scenes in the movie do not appear in the book! The eerie truck ride with Barlow's crate, the offering of the child, the boy coming to his brother, Kurt Barlow attacking a man in the town jail, none of that is in the book. For the most part, the book is small-town soap opera oh-so-slowly building to something resembling horror. The buildup was so slow that I almost didn't notice when the vampires had finally shown up. Worse, the vampires themselves do very, very little. Characters keep talking about how evil, powerful, and scary the vampires are but they only show up every now and then to, basically, go "Rahr! Rahr!" and disappear. The novel's conclusion is a total bomb. For one thing, it moves the action out of the Marsten House, the old, evil mansion that almost seemed to be the true villain of the piece. After our extremely puny hero nigh-effortlessly kills the immortal monster, Kurt Barlow, he and the twelve-year-old boy run off to avoid the remaining vampires. A year or two later, after they keep hearing news of these vampires killing people in the surrounding towns, they finally decide to come back and burn down 'Salem's Lot. They could have done that in the first place! If nothing else, it would have spared me from reading all those pages devoted to their life on the run.
The novel suffers most in comparison to the movie in that the roles of the villains are drastically reduced. Straker's role, which all but carried the movie, is so small here I almost forgot he was around. In King's novel, Barlow does speak. In fact, he has most of the dialogue given to Straker in the movie. There's really nothing wrong with this version of Kurt Barlow but I find myself preferring the more monstrous movie version.
'Salem's Lot may be the only case of movie people taking a Stephen King novel and making it better.