June 28, 2004 12:00 PM

TNT (Sun.-Mon., June 20-21, 8 p.m. ET)

HORROR

Things American popular culture can do without: one more vampire tale and another film taken from the voluminous writings of Stephen King.

Of course, that’s a grumpy critic talking. Those who’ve been feeling empty since Angel ended last month may think this four-hour thriller fills a critical vampire gap. And the legion of King devotees will note that 25 years have passed since his bulky novel Salem’s Lot was first turned into a miniseries. Hey, TNT isn’t sucking the concept dry–it’s reinterpreting a masterwork.

Even though I didn’t approach it with a genre fan’s enthusiasm, I will allow that this remake offers its share of scares. But first we have to accept an absurd framing device for the flashback narrative. Right after getting shot and crashing through a window, a severely injured writer (competently portrayed by Rob Lowe) recounts his vampire-hunting experiences in gory detail to a hospital nurse. “Wait, there’s more,” Lowe gasps at the end of Part 1.

The protagonist’s battle with the blood drinkers begins when he returns to his small hometown and finds that the community’s obligatory haunted house has been rented by a suave but creepy antiques dealer (Donald Sutherland, lavishing style on a role too small). Turns out Sutherland is the front man for a nocturnal gent (Rutger Hauer) who effectively plays on human insecurities in recruiting new members for the undead fraternity.

The town’s growing vampire population can climb walls, fly through the air and otherwise take a man unawares, so Lowe needs backup from, among others, a high school teacher (Andre Braugher), an alcoholic priest (James Cromwell) and an attractive waitress (Samantha Mathis). Cromwell’s character is interestingly complex, while Braugher’s is under-written. We’d like to see Lowe and Mathis find romance, but there’s a time and a place, okay? These two start kissing a second after he tells her about a particularly gruesome murder-suicide.

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