TV horror with bite

Horror fans rejoice. It's time to hide behind the sofa again. For decades, vampires on television have been known to recoil from a mere whiff of garlic or the sight of a high school vampire slayer with a wooden stake in her backpack. About as scary as an episode of "The Munsters," in other words.

But a miniseries of "Salem's Lot" - based on the Stephen King novel - aims to revitalize a genre that's a little, heh, long in the tooth by combining the latest special effects with a script that rachets up the chill factor through old-fashioned drama.

"Our primary concern," says producer Mark Wolper, "was to try to do it the same way Stephen King did it in the novel, and that is in a very realistic way."

Like most King stories, the tale (which airs on TNT this week) is set in Maine. The hero is an author (played by Rob Lowe) who returns to his childhood home of Jerusalem's Lot - nicknamed Salem's Lot by its inhabitants - to write a book. But he discovers that the town is being taken over by the mythical, fanged creatures.

To make the script as realistic as possible, the word "vampire" isn't even uttered until the second night of the four-hour miniseries, which boasts the star power of actors such as Donald Sutherland, Rutger Hauer, and James Cromwell.

"Nobody would use the word 'vampire' in the real world," says Mr. Wolper. He says his team wanted to ask a simple question, "how would real people act if somebody came to them and told them there were vampires next door?"

It's only much later in the story that viewers finally glimpse the creatures. At that point, many of the film's 500 separate computer-generated shots come to the fore. The effects are a considerable improvement on those in an earlier TV adaptation of the book two decades ago.

"You couldn't deal with the horror and its intensity in 1979," says star Rob Lowe, a self-professed Stephen King fan. "When you go back and look, it's a guy in a mask walking around."

But the scary effects in this version aren't gratuitous. "It's not horror in terms of gore," says Wolper, "because that actually happens very little in this film."

The producer claims that intensity of the climax works because the miniseries builds its drama around the characters. Primarily, the story is about choices that people make - and their consequences.

Cast members say this is what drew them to the film. "We talked about what kind of horror we were going to make," says Lowe, who loves the minimalist approach of horror films such as "Signs" and "The Blair Witch Project." "I talked about the first time I saw 'Blair Witch,' where you didn't see any gore or any violence," Lowe says. "It was all about what was going on in the shadows. And those were the movies we wanted to make a companion piece to - not, you know, Jason and Freddy."

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