Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Lords Of Salem (2013): Satan Is Renting Apartment 5

Well, that was different.

First off, let me get the whole Rob Zombie thing out of the way right now.  I like Rob Zombie. I have no problem whatsoever with him.  In fact, I may even love him.  Some of this stems from the fact that I respect him for being a major fan-boy of horror.  If you doubt this fact, you only need check out this video from several years ago from MTV's Cribs (which is a little shaky because I had to link the UK version since I could not find the US clip on MTV since they are too busy plugging Miley Cyrus's latest teddy bear adventure or what have you) in which Zombie gives a little tour of his own home, rife with all kinds of horror memorabilia, and I can guarantee he has more than you. The man is a true fan, and so I admire his adoration for the genre we share a love of.

 That said, I'm not saying he's David Cronenberg or even John Carpenter. But I think his films can certainly be characterized as being passionately crafted, whether or not they win the esteem of his peers or the admiration of horror fans the world over.  They bring a specialized vision: sometimes of gritty, white-trash violence; other times of gory, music-video-type storytelling with a grind-house style like no other director I've seen. Sometimes, it's a combination of both.  And I'm so damn tired of horror fans knocking his dick in the dirt. The majority of people that blast his talent or say he's a hack couldn't find their way out of a paper bag, let alone direct a film.  I'm sick of so-called horror purists and their condescending banter. Blah blah blah whatever.

In The Lords of Salem, you can still find the Rob Zombie you were looking for, but this film is something completely outside the (Zombie) box. It seems he combined a little David Lynch, a touch of Robin Hardy, and a generous helping of Dario Argento, along with elements of his own bizarre sense of style and groove. It's a trippy experience, one my husband could barely tolerate. I doubt he will ever watch the film again, and was all but swearing by the time it ended (this is after he fell asleep in the middle). And yes, it's trippier than Zombie's first effort: House of 1000 Corpses, which the hubby loves.

Before I go further, a few words about Salem.  The town, I mean.  Back in 1997, the hubby and I traveled to this picturesque town thirty miles north of Boston on vacation.  It is my most favorite city in America and I would love to live there. Being an incredible history buff as well as a fan of all things spooky, I couldn't wait to get there and see it.  And it does not disappoint.  We went in October, probably the best month to go if you're looking for all the pomp and circumstance of the witch history.  But Salem has a lot to offer, not just its (horrific) historical back story.  When you are there it is really hard to imagine something so awful actually happened there. With its brick lined walkways, beautiful old-growth trees, pristine homes that once belonged to sea captains and early American government leaders, and an alluring waterfront which was a busy seaport for hundreds of years.

But something bad DID happen there. As we all know, in 1692 twenty people were convicted of witchcraft and put to death. 140 people were accused of the crime and an additional dozen or so (besides the known 20) probably died in prison. When you visit Salem, you can go to all the kitschy tourist traps - but I recommend checking out the more valid historical sites while there. On that note, I'd love to tell you about the strange thing that happened to me in the Jonathan Corwin house (known simply as The Witch House because Corwin was a judge and conducted trials in the home), but we really must get to the review here.....

After all that digressing, I find it hard to actually put into words the experience that is The Lords of Salem. If you're looking for the gore-fest you usually get from Zombie, be prepared to be disappointed in that respect. The overall themes of the film are really not conducive to a whole lot of blood, in fact it would be poorly placed if it was added just for the sake of gore. There is some blood here and there, but to be honest I didn't miss it at all.

The first scenes of the film leave no doubt that we are dealing with witchcraft here. It's 1696 and a coven of witches is getting naked and getting in touch with their inner demon while the local reverend, Jonathan Hawthorne, details his plans to put an end to the evil in Salem.

In the present day, Sheri Moon Zombie stars as Heidi "LaRock" Hawthorne, part of a trio of disc jockeys - the other two being Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman (Ken Foree) - at a rock station in Salem, Massachusetts. She is leaving her apartment for work and notices a new tenant in apartment 5, who promptly ignores Heidi's greeting and slams the door. When she confronts her landlord, Lacy (Judy Geeson), to inquire about the new boarder, she adamantly denies that anyone has moved in.

We quickly learn Heidi is a recovering drug addict, as we see her at a NA meeting before work.  When she receives an unusual wooden box addressed to her at work that has a vinyl record in it simply entitled The Lords, she and co-worker/lover Whitey take it home and play it at her apartment. The bizarre tune seemingly puts Heidi into a trance in which she has visions of the coven of witches killing a newborn child. She is snapped out of the daze when Whitey turns off the music. Naturally, it's easy to see why Whitey and later Herman think Heidi may be relapsing into drug use, with her getting all hinky with a tune on the record player. If only.

The next day, the trio of DJ's are interviewing an author, Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison), who has written a book about the Salem witch trials. At the end of the interview, they decide to play the Lords record as part of their "smash or trash" segment. As the records plays, all the women of Salem who are tuned in to the station go into the same trance that Heidi experienced.

At home later, Matthias is disturbed by the record - both the chanting tune and the mysterious band, The Lords of Salem.  He finds some music written in a book he recalled and has his wife play the small refrain of notes written down. It is the same tune as the Lords' record. He sets about to get to the bottom of the mystery, and soon discovers Heidi's family tree extends all the way back to the witch trials.

Heidi begins to experience weird visions and after a tea party at Lacy's apartment with her and her two even stranger sisters (Patricia Quinn and Dee Wallace), Heidi is drawn to the mysterious apartment 5.  What she finds inside said apartment is beyond the realms of this earth, and the landlord and her sisters are the catalyst for the evil that is spreading across Salem.  Their hope is to deliver the descendant of Jonathan Hawthorne to the devil himself in order to fulfill a long-ago curse the seventeenth century witches placed on the family and the women of Salem.

I can't properly describe this film. Words escape me. While I'm not going to say it's amazing, there is no denying that the imagery in The Lords of Salem is a sight to behold, it is both beautiful and disturbing. Zombie has created, at least in my opinion, one of the most atmospheric horror films to come along in quite some time.  It's so moody, so dark and dismal at times, that it's not enough to say it's upsetting.
I found myself, after watching it, lying in bed trying to get to sleep and all I could think about were the visuals in the film, and I could only hear that bizarre ear-worm of a tune ringing in my ears.

As per usual, the film has a lot of elements that seem pulled from one of Zombie's psychedelic-style music videos. But this time, it's much less like House of 1000 Corpses and much more akin with a Dario Argento film. The use of color and style are nearly flawless here, even though it does veer off in the last ten minutes or so into rock-opera style that though mesmerizing did kind of fall off a bit for me.  But it didn't stop me from being utterly enamored with the whole thing. Like I said, it really crossed over into an Italian horror theme for me, with the style-over-substance approach so familiar from directors like Argento and Bava.

I won't say Sheri Moon Zombie is a revelation. I won't even say her acting's gotten any better than her last film. What I will say is that she does a decent job, with her brooding yet smoldering good looks and her always-present depressing funk she does so well. The three present-day witches are quite fun - just when you think their characters are a little too quirky, they turn up the evil and make you recognize. Meg Foster does an excellent job as the seventeenth century crone in charge of the coven, prancing around naked while chanting about her love of Satan.  Great stuff.  And Davison's Matthias comes off as probably the most realistic character in the film. In all, the acting is really quite secondary to the cinematography and style of the movie. May I just say again how darkly beautiful it was.

The soundtrack, as in most of Zombie's films, is excellent. With a great score by John 5 and several well-placed tunes by bands like Rush, Manfred Mann and Velvet Underground (from them comes two of the signature songs - and they are perfect), it's another fine example of Zombie's song-choosing prowess.  Even Mozart's Requiem makes a rather appropriate appearance. Who'd have thought it? Mozart in a Rob Zombie film?

I remember when I saw Zombie's Halloween II.  I wrote a scathing review of an unnecessary film that was one step away from unhinged trailer trash silliness.  I wondered if he could make another decent horror film. Now I can safely say yes, he can.  In fact, this may be a defining work for him. After all, there were very few elements that he always stuffs into his films - over-the-top gore and excessive foul language was missing,  irredeemable characters were at a minimum, and let's not forget this is an original work - always good in my book.

The Lords of Salem is a strange, dark film with a very ominous theme and disquieting symbolism. Zombie has made a memorable piece that will stick in the viewer's head, hesitant to allow your mind to clear. And any time a film can make me feel that way, I have no choice but to recommend it - and to give it another watch myself.  It won't be long until I do.


Nigel Maskell said...

I think I managed about 10 minutes of the film before it wore my patience out. Can't put my finger on why. Maybe it is because I am still locked in the 70s and early 80s horror aesthetic that Zombie captures so well in Devils Rejects and House of 1000 Corpses. Whatever it is, the film sort of lost me early on. Maybe I will revisit one day but as my attempts to connect with modern horror have been on disappointment after another who knows when that will be.

Christine Hadden said...

Hey Nigel,
I don't think Lords is for everyone, I'm sure there are a lot of people put off by the film. It was so completely different than what Zombie has previously done.

I did think his use of color and some of the themes were reminiscent of Italian horror, so maybe at some point you'll be able to return to it and perhaps appreciate it on a different level. But hey - maybe not! And that's ok too, of course!
My hubby all but hated it! :)

Thanks for stopping by!

Nigel Maskell said...

Come to think of it now I look at your screen captures I sort of wish I'd stuck with it. I think we knocked it off because there was an animal in it. I was watching with Mrs M and she has no time for stuff being done to animals so off it went. This is even the case where animal scenes as simulated, suggested or special effects. Now, I must admit, at the time I was relieved as the movie had lost me. Looking again at the stills with this review and your comment about a Euro aesthetic and I am a bit sorry I didn't carry on.

The Headless Werewolf said...

I haven't had a chance to view Lords of Salem yet (it's sitting on the shelf, awaiting revelation), but your defense of his aesthetic resonates well with me. House of 1,000 Corpses hit me initially like an unsculpted heap of gory ideas, but I've grown to appreciate it as the unholy paen to Halloween that it is. Speaking of Halloween, I've even come to appreciate bizarro Halloween II that tends to get so much derision. I might be naive, but I think that time might be kind to what amounts to an attempt to do something different and risky with a well worn formula.

Francisco Gonzalez said...

Your review spells "must watch/buy/have" for me! I've always been a fan of Zombies work, both musically and as a filmmaker, and I've been waiting for this one to finally arrive. I will be purchasing it this weekend and reviewing it soon, but great to hear a positive look on it, and also, I love the fact that he is influenced by some of my favorite Italianos.

Christine Hadden said...

Nigel: I do hope you give it another shot. Like I said though, it's not for everyone- and anyone used to Zombie's previous films will find this a pretty significant departure.

Werewolf: You're probably right about time being kind to H2. I may give it another look. When his first Halloween came out, everyone was so down on it because they felt the original was sacred. And I get that, but I still don't hate that film. I was never a giant fan of Carpenter's Halloween 2, so maybe that was in my head. I need to revisit.

Francisco: I think you'll find that you will enjoy LOS, in particular because you don't find fault with Zombie and his take on horror. Can't wait to hear your thoughts!!