Lords of Salem
Iím trying to think of a figure in the contemporary horror genre as divisive and controversial as Rob Zombie, and I honestly canít. Itís rare when a filmmaker so obviously talented comes along, but makes films so personal that they inspire a love-it-or-hate reaction thatís equally visceral and passionately argued by both camps. Despite the disagreement over the relative merit of his movies, one can still see the film-to-film improvements that the former shock rocker has made in his career as director.
This yearís The Lords of Salem supposedly represents Rob Zombieís swan song from the horror genre. Iím not totally convinced this is the case but if it is indeed Zombieís final foray into scarlet cinema he picked a high note to go out on. Despite the expected sidetracks into outright silliness, Lords of Salem is Rob Zombieís best film to date: ambitious, visually bold and emotionally resonant.
Salem, Massachusetts, 1697. Witch Margaret Morgan (an unrecognizable, dirt-smeared Meg Foster) and her coven are performing a ritual meant to bring about the birth of the antichrist. The attempt is foiled by witch hunter Jonathan Hawthorne (Jonathan Prine). Not content to let her defeat stand, with the flames of the witch hunterís pyre lapping at her feet Morgan curses Hawthorneís bloodline, vowing that that one of his descendants will bear the son of the devil.
Flash forward to the present day. Heidi Hawthorne (Sherri Moon Zombie) works at a Salem rock ní roll radio station as an on-air personality, along with co-hosts Herman Jackson (Ken Foree) and Herman Salvador (Jeffrey Daniel Phillips), their brand of scatological humour has proved a winning formula. Her public persona is only a disguise, however. In her personal life Heidi is miserable. She lives alone with only her dog to keep her company. A recovering addict, her nights are spent in quiet distraction. Her friend Herman (Phillips) loves Heidi and does his best to extend a lifeline to her, but his every attempt is rebuked by the overly guarded Heidi.
One evening, a package is left for Heidi at the radio stationís reception desk. Itís a record from a mysterious local band called simply The Lords (in a cringe worthy bit of dialogue, Herman (Foree) dubs them The Lords of Salem). The record is a droning instrumental that annoys most listeners. However, for a select group who hears the song (all women with deep family roots in the town of Salem), itís a hypnotic call. Shortly after listening to the record, Heidi is haunted by demonic visions of Margaret Morgan, and drawn to the supposedly empty apartment down the hall from her.
The curiosity of author Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison), a guest on Heidiís show, is piqued by the music and the name of the band. As he investigates, he uncovers a series of coincidences that suggest that the curse of Margaret Morgan might not just be a local legend. He attempts to contact Heidi but he is stopped by the three sisters who live in the ground-floor apartment in Heidiís building, Lacy (Judy Geeson), Megan (Patricia Quinn) and Sonny (Dee Wallace). These three self-appointed protectors of Heidi are members of Margaret Morganís coven and will do everything it takes to ensure that Morganís curse is fulfilled and Heidi bears the spawn of the devil. As Heidi descends back into the abyss of drugs, her resistances to their influence wane and she becomes the catalyst for Morganís ultimate revenge on the women of Salem.
Itís a pretty simple, uncomplicated narrative that Zombie uses to hang a lot of experimental imagery on. Filmed largely in a single location - Heidiís apartment Ė Lords is Zombieís smallest, most intimate movie to date. The reduced scope is likely a function of the small budget (Lords cost in the neighborhood of $2 million Ė a far cry from Halloween IIís $17 million). In this case less is far, far more. With limited resources Zombieís natural proclivities for self-indulgence are curbed. There are no scenes that exist solely as vehicles for cameos from 70ís grindhouse actors. Every scene contributes to the narrative of the film, so Lords has a much stronger narrative through line and better forward momentum than almost any of Zombieís previous films.
In Halloween II Zombie turned away from his usual wallow in depravity and filth and took his vision of the Halloween series into the realm of genuine human tragedy. Laurie and Annieís fractured relationship and the heartbreak of two friends drifting apart precisely when they need each other the most became one of the filmís central conflicts. Here, he employs a similar relationship: Heidi and ersatz boyfriend Herman. Herman genuinely cares for Heidi, loves her, but she is too damaged to know how or want to grab a hold of the lifelines heís continually throwing her. It makes the end of the film all the more tragic to know that Heidiís fate wasnít inevitable. She just lacked the courage to let her guard down and be vulnerable to another human. The motif of past evils being the root of current problems is a common one in the horror genre in particular, but I canít recall ever seeing it done in the context of drug addiction. Certainly not this well.
With Heidi Hawthorne, Sherri Moon Zombie give the best performance of her career. I suspect thatís because sheís essentially playing herself. Sheís more natural and at ease in front of the camera than weíve ever seen her before and, best of all, she drops the shrill affectations that made her such a chore to watch in House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devilís Rejects and which crept into the Halloween remake. Thatís super important considering that Lords is essentially a one-room, one-actor film. For an actress who has no formal training and no experience out of starring in her husbandís movies, she carries the film well. In fact, that might be diminishing her performance a bit; she does well. Period.
The last bit of the last act does descend into self-indulgence but, for a Rob Zombie movie, thatís actually pretty restrained. Even at a relatively Spartan 100 minutes (the movie proper is actually closer to 95), it does start to test the audienceís patience. Lords isnít more immediately accessible than, say, The Devilís Rejects but it is less immediately repellent. Zombie is still making personal films, Lords is arguably his most personal, but he seems more assured, less concerned that someone that doesnít live in a trailer park might enjoy one of his movies. Itís not subtle but itís not intent to bludgeoning its audience, at least not at first. Most gratifying about watching Lords of Salem is seeing Zombieís evolution as a filmmaker.
While I havenít liked all (or even most) of his movies, heís definitely grown as an artist and improved as a writer, though in the latter discipline he still has some very definite room for improvement.
Throughout his films, shock beats have consistently been one of Zombieís strong suits, but Lords doesnít employ many of them. Instead, Zombie opts for subtler scares: a light fixture swinging in an empty hallway, haunted figures lurking in the background. Wandering outside of his comfort zone, Zombie generates legit goosebumps. The film is loaded with awesome fall atmosphere courtesy of some seasonal location shooting. The exterior shots carry into the interiors and lend the film a cold dampness. The production design is superb, but the Georges Melies references would probably play better pre-Hugo. It would be fair to criticise Zombie for his overt visual references to Kubrick, Argento, Polanski, Ken Russell, and Mario Bava in Lords, but he filters the allusions through a thoroughly American sensibility making it feel far more refreshing than an out and out rehash.
The strange thing about Lords is how it can veer into outright silliness in one scene, yet pull the viewer right back into the grip of suspense in the next. Zombie employs a lot of surreal dream imagery and not all of it works in the way it seems it was intended. While withered ghost of Margaret Morgan or the outline of a clawed, hairy beast lurking in the backgrounds definitely deliver the requisite shocks, the images of zombie priests jerking off pink dildos inspire chuckles rather than chills.
In the final analysis, though, Lords works extremely well. Itís not exactly scary but Zombie has hit on a winning combination of visceral horror and subtle creepiness thatís not easy to shake off. This film crawled under my skin when I first saw it at a festival screening back in April and has resided there ever since. Itís been a long time since I could heap similar praise on a movie.
Well done, Rob.
From Spring Breakers to Only God Forgives 2013 has been a standout year for cinematography, Lordsí visuals can stand proud in such distinguished company and this Blu-ray does right by cinematographer Brandon Trost. Lords of Salem visuals are two-pronged: scenes set in the dreary reality of Heidiís Salem are shot in the grainy, soft, nicotine-stained 16 mm look of Zombieís Halloween II. When Heidi lapses into her fugue states Lords switches to a crisp, bright, primary-colored dreamscape. Both are appealing in their own way, and itís nice to see variety in the visual.
Although this disc doesnít utilize the full 50 GB available with Blu-ray, the barebones nature of the disc means the transfer has lots of room to breathe so, understandably, there are no compression issues to be found. Detail is strong, and Zombieís use of bold, primary colors really pops off the screen. This is a good looking presentation of a good looking film.
You can usually tell a movieís budget range by the audio mix. Itís often something thatís ignored in favour of the visuals. Not in this case. The Dolby True HD 5.1 mix would feel right at home in a $10 or $15 million movie. While there is the expected bombast and blaring rock music, thereís also a lot of subtlety as well. In the quieter scenes the mix avoids sounding desolate like a lot of low budget movies do. The surrounds remain active throughout the film with ambient noise and the overall mix is effectively enveloping. The operatic score in some scenes borders on being shrill and distorting, but thatís a creative decision on Zombieís part and not a defect of this mix.
Unusual for a Rob Zombie movie, the sole extra included on Lords of Salem is an Audio Commentary with the Writer/Director/Producer himself. The man is erudite and well-spoken as Iíve come to expect, though I wish heíd give listeners a bit more insight into his creative process and the decisions he makes. To be fair, most commentaries are recorded just after have post production has wrapped and the film is still fresh in the directorís mind, while the commentary for Lords was recorded months after the fact.
And thatís it for supplemental material. This is hugely disappointing, especially in light of the treatment lavished on Zombieís previous films, especially The Devilís Rejects and Halloween. We know for a fact that Sid Haig and Michael Berryman shot far more scenes than were included in the film itself (their appearance in the theatrical film are of the blink-and-youíll-miss-them variety). And given the material that was shared via social media as the film was being made, I suspect that thereís a lot of behind the scenes material sitting on a hard drive somewhere. Is a double dip in the future? Tough to say, but the lack of any other supplements on this disc is a pretty tough pill to swallow.
Lords of Salem is undoubtedly Zombieís most ambitious film to date. I count as his best, as well, though itís so idiosyncratic and indulgent that anybody who counts it as his worst has just cause, too. Itís still very flawed and often downright silly. Still, even among the uncharacteristically strong crop of horror offerings weíve had in 2013, Lords has haunted me more than any other film. Is it the best horror film of 2013? Maybe, maybe not. Whatever side of the question you land on, though, you have to admit that itís certainly one of the more interesting genre offerings to come out of North America this, or any other year in recent memory. I have a feeling that I will be revisiting this film often in the years to come. I can think of no higher praise than that.
Right on! I really liked this one too. Loved it actually. :D
I didn't read the review yet just looked at the scores since I have this on blu but havent watched it yet - but looking forward to it.
It sounds like something I will like and a good effort by Rob Z - I will have to make sure this is one of my October viewings <:
Great review...spot on!
I actually really enjoyed this one by Zombie. It was moody and interesting with plenty of great visuals.
I think "House of a 1000 corpses" was better but I liked this one, visuals were great and interesting plot, although probably "The Conjuring" will be the best 2013 horror film by far...
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