Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Movie Review – The Lords of Salem

***SPOILER ALERT***
I’m not yet sure how I’m going to write this one. But there will definitely be spoilers. I’m not sure I am going to do a full recap, but there might be a bit more than a regular review here.
I am a huge fan of everything Rob Zombie does.
Well, almost everything.
I’ve listened to the first two White Zombie albums – the ones before La Sexorcisto – once. And that was more than enough. I can safely say that I am not a fan of sludge core or whatever that is. I can also admit that there are a few songs from the guy that simply don’t hit the mark. His cover of “Blitzkrieg Bop” is terrible and the extra track on the Greatest Hits album – Blacktop something-or-other – sounds like “More Human Than Human” with different lyrics and less soul. Of course, the argument could be made that most White/Rob Zombie sounds an awful lot alike, but to me that’s not always a bad thing.
On the movie front I have pretty much loved Zombie’s stuff, though in a couple of instances it has taken repeated viewings.
            I saw House of 1000 Corpses on opening night and immediately loved it. The Devil’s Rejects took a second viewing because the tone was so different from the prior movie. But now it’s one of my favorites. We named our Boxer Otis because Bill Moseley was so amazing.
Zombie’s remake of Halloween impressed the heck out of me. I thought he did a very good job taking familiar characters and using them in an interesting new way. It was the same story, but with a distinct Zombie take. Very much like a successful cover song. The sequel didn’t do as much for me initially, but that was mostly due to personal bitterness over not being included in the film. You can read all about that in one of my most popular posts and the one that probably gained me the most new readers at once:
Once I watched it again without expectations of seeing myself in the party scene (called “Phantom Jam” in the movie! Seriously, Zombie – how could you leave me out!?!) I enjoyed it. I loved that after the opening sequence it was a complete departure from the original franchise. I think Zombie accomplished something unique and notable with this movie and Scout Taylor-Compton was outstanding as Laurie Strode.
The Haunted World of El Superbeasto was an absolute delight. I just reposted my original review from MySpace the other day with this review in mind. I wasn’t expecting much out of this animated feature, but what we got was one the very best adult-oriented cartoons I have seen. The quality of the voice acting, animation, and production was on par with what we’ve been getting out of Hollywood for the past twenty years or so.
I mention all of this previous work not only to pad out my word count, but also to give you an idea of where I stand with Rob Zombie. I am a fan. I got into a conversation on Facebook the other night with one of those people who poo-poo Zombie because of his mass appeal or merchandising or some other reason that basically equates to “He doesn’t make obscure grindcore or death metal”. I pointed out that I wasn’t defending liking the guy because I didn’t feel it was something that needed to be defended. He makes music and movies that are weird, interesting, and horror-infused; but that also appeal to the masses. To me that is the most impressive talent to have – being able to do something you love while making a shitload of money doing it. Appealing to the masses while still maintaining that vague thing known as “personal integrity” is admirable.
So I was very excited about The Lords of Salem. After two theatrical movies in a row that were adaptations of other people’s characters, I was ready for some more original Zombie. I went in knowing very little – only that Sheri Moon Zombie was the star (of course) and that it had something to do with witches.
Are you ready to hear what I thought? Hey ho, let’s go…
The movie opens with a bunch of gnarly witches performing a ritual. It’s amazingly blasphemous, but I would imagine that’s how Satan-worshipping witch rituals would go. These ladies are not Wiccans. Meg Foster plays the head witch and turns in an absolutely disturbing performance. Out of all the bizarre and disturbing imagery that this movie produces, Foster’s portrayal of that witch is the one thing that has really stuck with me. As the coven gets more and more vile and naked, the movie alternates between them and some pilgrim dude named Hawthorne. He is vowing to stop the Salem witches. The narrative here is a little muddy, but that kind of goes along with the rest of the movie.
Cut to the present day and a radio DJ named Heidi. More specifically, Heidi’s butt cheeks. She’s laying in bed asleep, naked but for some knee-high socks. That Rob Zombie sure does like to show off what a fine piece of ass he has at home.
Anyway, we see Heidi’s morning routine and also the fact that she has a dog, which fills me with concern that we’re going to see something terrible happen to a dog.
Our protagonist is part of a morning show crew consisting of herself and two guys, both of whom I believe were named Herman. I thought this was a weird choice, but whatever. Ken Foree plays Black Herman and some dude with a beard plays White Herman. The scenes in the radio station are a little hard to watch because Zombie is mocking morning zoo crew shows pretty hard. As the trio talk, spin records, and do their thing they also do all the stupid sound effects and pre-recorded catch phrases that one associates with the worst of such shows. The problem is that this movie isn’t a comedy, it’s a dramatic supernatural thriller, so that stuff comes across as grating rather than funny and gets old really fast.
But Moon, Foree, and Beardy have a good chemistry and definitely have the patter of such shows down. So their show comes across as believable, if annoying.
As the story goes on you see that Beardy has a crush on Heidi and that they might have even already had a little diddling in their past. It is also shown that Heidi has had a drug problem in the past but is clean now and attending meetings. This is done in a way that is unusually subtle for Zombie, as there is only one mention of her former habit in the dialogue and her visit to the meeting is just something that happens naturally. It doesn’t feel shoehorned into the plot or cheaply dramatic.
I’ll go ahead and say right now that Sheri Moon Zombie has come a long way since House of 1000 Corpses. In Salem she displays a lot more humanity and character than she previously has. We got to see a bit of this in Halloween 2, but in this movie she really gets to own the performance. The movie is all about her character and I have to say that she earned it.
Once the main characters have been established the story kicks in. A mysterious record is delivered to the radio station with Heidi’s name on it. The thing is in some kind of crazy wooden box and is labeled as being by “The Lords”. Heidi and Beardy take it back to her place and get drunk while listening to it. This does not go well for Heidi, as she gets a migraine/goes into a trance. Beardy just thinks it’s weird.
Side Note: Should a former junkie be drinking alcohol?
Other Side Note: The music on the record – which we hear several times throughout the movie – is creepy as fuck and pretty awesome. I didn’t totally buy that it was made by a bunch of 16th century witches (or whatever) but this is probably one of those times where I’m going to find out that it was recorded using only leather thongs, tambourines, and a bucket. I found out later that John 5 did the score for Salem, so I’m inclined to believe he would’ve wanted authenticity; what with him being one of the best living guitarists and all. I dunno.
This – as you might suspect – is the beginning of the end for poor Heidi. What follows is a vaguely interesting but utterly predictable story of Heidi being turned into Satan’s bride. It turns out she is a descendent of that Hawthorne guy and is destined to bear Satan’s baby because… reasons.
The movie introduces a guy that I thought was Rutger Hauer but was actually Bruce Davison. I thought he got turned into some kind of water slug a few years ago. Anyway, Davison plays a local expert on witchcraft. I don’t know why he’s so special. I bet you can’t swing a black cat around by its tail without hitting a local expert on witchcraft in Salem.
Davison goes on the radio show and there’s a lot of the awkward dialogue that Rob Zombie likes to pen. Seriously – if Zombie would get somebody to rewrite his scripts and take out all of the terrible slang and catchphrases that no human being would ever utter, his movies would be twice as good. I can totally understand where some people simply would not be able to get past the dialogue in Zombie’s flicks.
While Davison is on the show they play the record by The Lords. This time around not only does Heidi suffer ill effects, but women all over town go into some kind of weird trance. Davison is not particularly pleased with what he’s hearing. He can’t quite put his finger on it, but the music doesn’t seem right. I like the subtlety with which Davison’s character pursues his investigation of things. There’s no point where he goes all nuts and accuses people of being witches or starts smashing brooms or anything. The man is just mildly troubled by things and starts to put them all together as the plot unfolds. It’s a well-written character and a good performance.
As the movie goes on shit just keeps getting weirder, but at a very slow pace. I actually nodded off at one point while waiting for things to get as bugfuck crazy as I expected a Rob Zombie movie to get. They do eventually get that crazy and then some, but once again – as with the dialogue – Zombie’s desire to create his own brand of pop culture get in the way of a truly great experience.
It turns out that Heidi’s landlady is part of a modern-day coven with two other ladies. They are camped out on the bottom floor of Heidi’s apartment building and overseeing her descent into whatever state of mind you have to be in to bear Satan’s baby. Beardy does a great job of playing the concerned puppy dog that is trying not to be too pushy about helping. Ken Foree is kind of tertiary, but is fun to watch when he’s around.
There is a ton of wild imagery in the movie. Odd tree people in Papal outfits, midgets made of tendons and snot, goats. Lots of goat stuff. Also, Satan looks pretty much like Dave Grohl did in Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny, but with more hair. Like Chewbacca , kind of. I feel like much of the effectiveness the scenes of Satanic possession(?) and subversion might have had was lost by Zombie’s choices. One scene of Heidi in a massive church-like setting meeting the snot midget would have been much more disturbing if she hadn’t had her face painted like a skull. 
It felt like a music video. And the scene of Heidi’s final possession – full of insane and disturbing images that I admittedly can’t wait to watch in slow motion – was utterly ruined for me by the choice of wardrobe and the presence of a King Diamond stand-in. 
Heidi was wearing a plaid skirt straight off of HotTopic.com along with a death metal tank top and some knee-highs. At one point in the collection of images she is being dry-humped by a guy painted up like King Diamond while they both wave the metal sign and rock out.
I have to use a word here that I do not like to use, but that sometimes is the only appropriate word – this stuff was retarded. It killed every ounce of intensity and disorientation Zombie was trying to create. And it’s a shame because the build to the final scene is solid, if a bit drawn out. The movie earns its mad, freak-out climax. But some of the choices during that climax are the equivalent of yelling, “This is so rad!” right at the end of some great sex.
I can gladly report that nothing bad happens to the dog.

3 out of 5

I feel like Lords of Salem is Rob Zombie’s attempt at a homage to Ken Russell, Lucio Fulci, and maybe even a little Stanley Kubrick. It is much more concerned with style than substance, but it is certainly an admirable progression in Zombie’s skills. Aside from some intentionally blurry shots that felt more like mistakes than stylistic choices the movie is shot beautifully and possesses a creepy and tense atmosphere.
All of the actors put in fantastic performances, particularly Sheri Moon Zombie and Meg Foster as the head of the original coven.
There are some genuinely tense and disturbing moments in The Lords of Salem. I won’t ruin them here, but I did find myself on the edge of my seat, not breathing a few times. Zombie was doing his best to use stretches of slow pacing to emphasize short bursts of horror, but some of those stretches were too stretchy.
I’m not going to tell you not to see this movie, but I will say that it is quite different from what you might be expecting. Not much death, not much gore. Still plenty of horror, though.

-Phantom

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