Dead End Drive-In: Now Showing – The Lords Of Salem
Written by Gaz E
Sunday, 05 May 2013 03:30
The Lords Of Salem (Blumhouse Productions)
How bad was this going to be? With a no-frills DVD release in the UK just days after its theatrical opening in the States, and with conflicting reviews coming out of the US – yes, both bouquets and brickbats – much about Rob Zombie’s new film, The Lords Of Salem, pointed to it being a bit of a stinker. Straight to home video, seemingly rushed through with critics given a particularly wide berth, usually points to one four letter word – bomb.
Perhaps the naysayers were hasty to judge, to write off without even viewing. With Zombie’s new studio album, ‘Venomous Rat Regeneration Vendor’, containing a Lords advertising insert alongside its CD booklet, was it that hard to comprehend that the film’s most eager viewers (and purchasers, of course) would be fans of Rob Zombie’s music? To release the film on DVD – sadly, no Blu-ray – on the same day as the album in this country didn’t have to be the final nail in its coffin: no, reports of the death of The Lords Of Salem have been greatly exaggerated…..
The troubled production that accompanied Zombie’s movie debut, 2003’s House Of 1000 Corpses, hardly diluted its attraction to a conjoined RZ music fan and horror geek like me – in fact, the garish killeidoscope of the movie was exactly what I expected from the artist who had turned a love of horror into a lifestyle. Its follow-up, 2005’s The Devil’s Rejects, floored me: not perfect, yet its imperfections flawed beauty themselves, the film showed that Rob could make a career out of this movie lark, rather than just be a celebrity given the opportunity to make films.
His Halloween redux, however, didn’t do as much for me as its predecessor on his quickly growing filmography. Granted, I’m a card carrying aficionado of John Carpenter’s original so bias looms over my thoughts like The Shape himself. The remake’s sequel, 2009’s Halloween II, had been universally panned by the time I dragged myself to see it but, with expectations worryingly low, I found enough to enjoy within its running time to realise that I should truly trust my own judgement rather than run with the herd, a feeling that returned after reading similarly scathing reviews of The Lords Of Salem.
It’s obvious, within minutes of Lords flickering to life on (un)glorious digital versatile disc in front of me, why Zombie’s film has been put to the stake by some: it is wholly different to anything the man has ever done before, both musically and cinematically, and it confuses people, for the most part intentionally.
Revelling in its confusion at times, the film is rooted in Euro horror, Zombie bringing a previously undiscovered patience and subtlety to his work. Dario Argento’s Susperia, Kubrick’s The Shining, Ken Russell’s The Devils were all films that Rob namechecked on the journey from concept to screen, their influence on the tone and feel of the movie huge. Going for a retro look (and pretty much pulling it off), and honourably using not one digital effect – all of the SFX are practical – Zombie has made his best looking film yet.
Cinematographer Brandon Trost should receive great credit for translating Zombie’s vision so richly to the screen: static cameras offer gorgeous wide shots of exteriors that make full use of some inspired locations – Zombie possibly giving John Carpenter a tip of the hat a couple of movies too late – and the whole thing, because you know that something wicked this way comes, has a vibe that at times hangs heavy over the likes of ’70s horror behemoths The Amityville Horror and The Exorcist. There’s a brash line of dialogue that includes “cunting daughter” in a not-so-subtle homage to Friedkin’s masterpiece, but such heavy handedness is minimal throughout the movie’s running time.
Sheri Moon Zombie plays Heidi Hawthorne, a Salem disc jockey who receives a mysterious slab of wax in a symbol-smeared wooden box from an unknown band called The Lords which plays backwards and leaves her suffering from some pretty screwed up visions and fever dreams. When the record is played over the airwaves, alongside her DJ colleagues played by Jeffrey Daniel Phillips and horror royalty Ken Foree, the listening women of the town themselves are overcome by something they hear in the music. “The Lords of Salem” as Foree’s character dubs them, are just another rock band about to hit town they guess: not quite. The original Lords of Salem, a coven of witches led by the crazed Margaret Morgan (played with some previously untapped ferocity by Meg Foster), are coming back to wreak havoc on the town that put them to their deaths for their beliefs centuries before, the infamous witch trials not so much trials as hate crimes.
Hawthorne’s descent into apparent drug-fuelled desperation is the key to the whole cinematic venture, unknown to her yet lavished upon us viewers the fact that evil is but a few feet away at all times. With that in mind it’s obvious that the movie would struggle if Sheri Moon Zombie turned in one of the lesser moments of her acting career….and of those there have been a few. Impressively, she produces the finest work of her career to date: the slowburning pace of the film suits her delivery down to the ground and, for the first time, I can’t help but feel that she’s in the film on merit.
The patient, more thought out tone of the film is a first for Rob Zombie too, the in-your-face brashness of his previous work dismissed in favour of a creepy, brooding aesthetic that works well. The European horror, dare I say arthouse, influence is prevalent throughout, a more modern J-horror kink emerging on a couple of occasions, the first a generic multiplex jump scene that should have been ironed out, the second a fine creep-out scene that slowly crawls to a dark uneasiness.
The film isn’t without its flaws though, it has to be said. Zombie spoke in the run-up to the film’s release of his love of “what the…” moments of confusion in movies like Susperia but, dangerously, the confusing moments here are what have no doubt divided the audience into lovers and haters (the clued-in and the clueless is too harsh, I’ll stick with lovers and haters). The year that the story is set in throws up the first major confuseball: Heidi plays just vinyl, wears flares and works at a radio station whose outer wall is furnished with a massive ad for the J. Geils Band album, ‘Bloodshot’ – released in 1973 – and does so to a soundtrack of Lou Reed, Rush and Rick James, yet there are laptops and cell phones in certain scenes: have we become so desensitized to technology that we can barely remember a time without it? Did Rob simply think that the best plot device to make the movie feel of a different age was to actually smear it with hugely recognisable products from it? Either way, it’s a confusion that took my mind away from the film at times, an unwanted distraction.
The ending of the film too will confuse the bejesus out of many viewers, some lashing out at the movie in its entirety because of it, no doubt. This one is intentional though, Rob using stark imagery, twisted animation and ridiculously overblown visuals in an attempt to confuse: oh yeah, it works alright – an over-credits voiceover explaining just what in the hell happened. It’s a nice touch, and welcome, because the “what the…” moments at movie end may well have been followed by “…fuck made me waste an hour and a half of my life on this?”
The criticism is harsh on Zombie though, the man producing his most self-restrained and ambitious work yet. Even the who’s-who of cult actors and actresses that star in the movie has been reduced, RZ exuding a rare callousness when it came to leaving a few of his favourite performers on the cutting room floor. While the likes of Dee Wallace, Patricia Quinn, Judy Geeson (this trio being the stars of the show with excellent performances), the fan-favourite Barbara Crampton setting off every horror nerd alarm on my body, Bruce Davison, the aforementioned Foster, appear with love for the cinematic equivalent of train spotting, the likes of Michael Berryman and Sid Haig make the briefest of appearances, Zombie’s bandmates John 5 (creator of a fine score) and Piggy D also. Some weren’t even that lucky, cult stars such as Udo Kier, Clint Howard and Daniel Roebuck not even making the cut. Has Rob Zombie finally come of age as a filmmaker?
It’s a travesty that this movie wasn’t afforded a Blu-ray release in the UK, though understandable given the circumstances behind its appearance at short, curious notice…or lack of it. The eventual Blu release will be something to behold though, as The Lords Of Salem is Zombie’s finest looking film to date. A tell-all commentary to ease the confusion and the deleted scenes featuring the above-mentioned C, D and Z listers could make it one of the essential home video purchases of the year.
Going in the total opposite direction of what was expected of him was sure to make Rob Zombie a target for the internet warriors and binary code boo boys – in that respect he doesn’t disappoint. He has made a film that revels in its ability to take a basic story and slowly make it dissolve into a pay-off, that ending readied to confuse and poke at the senses. A couple of laughable moments aside, the criticism that Zombie is getting for the film targets the very things that he strived to make – the hate should bounce off like bullets aimed at the Hulk accordingly.
Love it or hate it, you can’t help but think that, in the future, The Lords Of Salem will be a Rob Zombie film that takes on a revered status, reassessed and respected.