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Friday, June 18, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Kay McFadden / Times staff columnist
Vampires pale compared to reality


FRANK OCKENFELS
Rob Lowe is miscast as the conflicted antihero of TNT's remake of Stephen King's "Salem's Lot," the tale of a small town's moral decay, embodied by vampires.
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"Beneath the postcard camouflage, there's little good in small towns," says reporter Ben Mears (Rob Lowe) in the TNT remake of "Salem's Lot." "Mostly boredom interspersed with a dull, mindless, moronic evil."

For author Stephen King, this is a light mood. On the surface, King writes scary books; underneath, he gives heartland values a roughing up worthy of Sinclair Lewis. No hypocrisy goes unobserved, or unpunished.

King's approach is entirely appropriate to his vocation. Horror is an outlet for the shadow side of the human psyche. To spook society, you first need an acute eye for what ails it.

Unfortunately, the new "Salem's Lot," airing in two installments at 8 p.m. Sunday and Monday, is only a frightful mess. Weaknesses in the adapted teleplay, direction, editing and casting create a disjointed shambles.

But that's not the production's biggest problem. Like the recent big-screen bomb "Van Helsing," the failure of "Salem's Lot" raises a more interesting question: How can horror thrive in the 21st century?

Let's start with the story of "Salem's Lot," which is a pretty good one. We're introduced to a prototypical New England town whose pastoral surface masks afflictions that range from rampant capitalism to institutional failures: religious, legal, medical and communal.

The consequence of this malaise is vampirism. It comes from the outside, but is invited in — the unconscious death wish of an exhausted, corrupt community. Only Mears, the journalist and returning prodigal son, can spot the problem and lead a cure.

King's novel, published in 1975, was a perfect dark reflection of its era. The '70s were a time when faith in authority was collapsing. Cities were decaying, violent crime was growing and neighbors began locking their doors against each other.

It also was a period when anti-establishment types were seen as the antidote to such illnesses: the movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," the television series "M*A*S*H," the real-life drama of Woodward and Bernstein's toppling a presidency.

The TNT version of "Salem's Lot" labors faithfully to re-create the book's atmosphere of moral decline and indifference — a Peyton Place where Dracula would feel right at home. And therein lies the series' undoing.

The 1970s are not the 2000s. The kind of darkness that King unmasked three decades ago no longer fills us with uneasy recognition and a titillating anticipation of punishment.

The producers of "Salem's Lot" seem to have been aware of their challenge. They try to update Mears by giving him a Pulitzer for writing an exposé of military behavior in Afghanistan; in effect, modernizing his inquisitive, troublemaking nature.

But they're on the wrong track. To get a rise out of the audience, what they really needed to do was identify the thing lurking in the closet circa 2004.

Some might consider the task impossible in light of the past few years, which suggest fact has outstripped fiction's capacity to chill us.

I doubt it. The trail from Oklahoma City to 9-11 to Iraq is horrific, but millions were slaughtered under gruesome circumstances during World War II and that didn't derail public enthusiasm for scary books, movies and later, TV. The Cold War was inadvertently responsible for an entire paranoid sub-genre of horror.

Whether Hollywood's nightmare machine is up to the job is another matter. The past 30 years have been a steady march into literal-mindedness, from slasher flicks like "Nightmare on Elm Street" to bug-eating on "Fear Factor" to the endemic substitution of special effects for creativity, as seen in "Van Helsing."

TNT's "Salem's Lot" begins and ends with a notable lack of subtlety. That includes Rob Lowe, who is required to project an internal guilt and potential menace that he clearly doesn't feel. (A far better practitioner of the Stephen King antihero is Tim Daly.)

It's a major disappointment for those of us who love to be scared. Let's hope someone comes along soon to recapture that delicious, perverse experience of hiding under the covers, waiting for the monsters, and feeling that it's somehow your fault.

Tony Shalhoub stars in USA Network's "Monk."
Welcome back, "Monk"

From the somber side of the mind, we move to the sunny side of neurosis.

That's what you get in "Monk," returning at 10 tonight on USA Network. Tony Shalhoub comes back with all his character's foibles intact, in a season opener set in New York City.

Predictably, the experience of being in New York gives the episode a windfall of gags fueled by Monk's fears. He tries to pick up trash, he freaks out during a subway ride and his reaction to the visual bombardment of Times Square is to turn sidewalk preacher.

If you aren't a "Monk" fan, these devices may strike you as altogether shopworn. So let me try to explain the appeal of the show, which goes beyond Shalhoub's brilliant acting.

From a structural standpoint, "Monk" is a solid retro work that skillfully taps into the audience base that once adored "Columbo," "McMillan and Wife" and other character-driven detective shows.

But there's a little more going on. Internally, "Monk" allows viewers the luxury of being coddled in someone else's insecurities — and thereby content with our own.

The series basically says that there is no disability without its advantages; in fact, that disabilities mask genius. That annoying tendency to count the steps leading to the second floor of your office building will one day turn you into a hero.

Kay McFadden: kmcfadden@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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