The Lords of Salem: A Love Letter To A Lost Genre

salem


The Lords of Salem (2013)
Written & Directed by Rob Zombie
101 min.

Mild spoilers.

If there’s one movie trend I can totally get behind, it’s the “B Movie Love Letter”. It’s almost its own genre at this point. Recent examples include Neil Marshall’s Doomsday, Wright and Pegg’s Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz (and their upcoming The World’s End), Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained (really his whole catalogue), Ti West’s House of the Devil, Lexi Alexander’s Punisher: War Zone, and Peter Travis’ Dredd. And Star Wars and Indiana Jones are some not so recent examples. These filmmakers mine their inspirations for their best aspects and transplant them into modern productions—which are almost inevitably better than the movies they pay homage to, as the ‘originals’ were often made quickly and on the cheap just to provide cheap thrills and make a buck or two. Dredd was much talked about last year, and I’m hoping The Lords of Salem gets similar attention this year, because it’s even more fun.

Lords is quite the departure for Zombie. His first two directorial efforts (House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects) have both become cult hits in their own right, though neither really stuck with me. House, to put it simply, was ‘ bit much. Devil’s Rejects is definitely a better movie, but it didn’t offer much beyond the gory stuff. Then he made the Halloween remakes, which sit squarely amidst all the other gritty, grisly, characterless, exhausting horror flicks that plagued the middle 2000’s (from High Tension to Hostel to Wolf Creek and so on). I wrote him off after those, but nobody can doubt they made him a mainstay of the genre—the first Halloween remake still holds the box office record for Labor Day Weekend.

Lords of Salem doesn’t follow in those footsteps. It’s about as far from a horror blockbuster as you could get in 2013 (Paranormal Activity 5, anyone? How about The Haunting in Connecticut 2? Zzz…) and apart from a few isolated moments, it doesn’t really feel like a Rob Zombie movie either. It also doesn’t feel like a movie any major studio would touch with a 666 ft. pole, which I guess accounts for its tiny budget and limited release. Much like House of the Devil, Lords of Salem is a love letter to the Satanic shockers of the 60s and 70s. The plot itself is ripped directly from any number of Rosemary’s Baby ripoffs: a young woman is targeted by cultists to serve as the conduit for the coming of the Antichrist. Its visuals recall the symmetries of Kubrick, and in its craziest moments, Zombie seems to pull ideas from the hallucinatory freak-outs of Ken Russell’s Altered States.

Instead of the faux-grainy, undersaturated look of pretty much all horror movies lately, Lords of Salem is mostly gorgeous, with clean, wide (very wide) shots that linger on detailed, colorful, lived-in feeling sets (no CG or green screen here). The lighting is often built right into the set design, and there are lots of deep reds and bright whites, particularly when things get spooky (which happens a lot). It’s stagey, but dramatic and thematically effective too. The indoor shots are dim and moody, and the outdoor shots are warm and autumnal. I wasn’t too surprised to see it was shot by Brandon Trost (of Crank fame), considering how alive it looks. (However, Trost also shot one of the worst lit and most lifeless looking movies of the year, This Is The End, so who knows.)

Lords of Salem and House of the Devil are both reservedly paced, favoring mood and escalation over splatter. A local radio DJ, Heidi, receives a mysterious, anonymous vinyl record in a moldy wooden box that, when played, causes the women of Salem, Mass., to go all spaced out. The record’s producers turn out to be none other than the original Salem witches, and they’re back after almost four centuries to finish what they started. That’s pretty much it. The simplicity of the plot isn’t a point of fault though, because its steady, almost rhythmic crescendo provides a playground for Zombie to top himself over and over with ‘scares’ that are visually extravagant, if not particularly frightening. In fact, I don’t think I was scared once the whole time. But this movie strikes me as an exercise in style more than anything else, and I haven’t been actually scared by a movie since I saw Candyman when I was 11 years old, so I can’t really fault this movie for not scaring me now.

The opening scene is a coven gathering, in which the haggish Salem witches disrobe and dance around a campfire in the woods, blaspheming in cringe-inducing shouts. I really didn’t know what to expect from the movie tonally, but after about 3 minutes, it was clear enough. The witches’ performances are intensely non-actor-ish, and it almost seems like they had no idea what they were supposed to be doing. I stared aghast at the screen, until it cut to a goat, which slowly turns its head to look at the camera. The picture freezes just as his gaze meets the audience’s, and the title appears: THE LORDS OF SALEM. Whereas a lot these homages play it straight, Zombie surely chuckled his way through this production, and surely he expects us to chuckle along with it, if that first scene is any hint. The whole movie has a subtle, built-in sense of humor that I feel horror fans ought to pick up on. It comes across in the weird performances and the editing; the timing of cuts often produces a naturally comedic effect. You might find yourself chuckling at ostensibly frightening moments, but that’s not an accident.

The performances of the side characters prove that Zombie has come a long way as a director. Dee Wallace, Judy Geeson, and Patricia Quinn play a trio of quirky, creepy sisters (or are they…) and they are just a joy to watch as they bicker and banter and quip. You also get genuinely natural and likable performances from Jeff Daniel Phillips, as Heidi’s co-DJ with a mountain man beard, and especially from Bruce Davison, who plays a chatty, laid-back local author and expert on Salem’s witchcraft history. Lords of Salem has the sort of spontaneity, colorfulness, and lightness in its character interactions that so few horror movies have, yet is such an essential element to a successful horror movie. Characterization is difficult to pull off in genre films (and is usually besides the point anyway) but it’s nevertheless ever important that the characters are watchable and enjoyable.

Speaking of the performances brings me to the movie’s only real weak link, the elephant in the room, Sheri Moon Zombie. She can’t act, man. Not only can’t she act, she has this strange habit of spoiling the effect of whatever scene she’s in. The first time I watched Lords of Salem, I was too caught up in its engrossing sound and visual designs to really notice just how rank she is, but during my second viewing, it was hard not to be pulled out of the experience by her. Her expressions, her eyes, her voice, her inflections. They’re just so blatantly untrained. If I had let her, she would have totally ruined the experience for me. Rob, man, you gotta cut the nepotistic bullshit and hire a real lead actress for this kinda thing. I kept thinking back to how amazing Jocelin Donahue was in House of the Devil, and how much better Lords of Salem could have been with a real lead.

In any case, Lords of Salem is to 70s horror what last year’s Dredd was to 80s action. It’s stylistically bold, confident filmmaking that should thrill genre fans, even if it makes others scratch their heads. It’s also Zombie’s best movie by a decent margin. It feels like he enjoyed working on this a lot more than Halloween II, so maybe he’ll stick to the independent side of things from now on. That prospect has me excited.

3 1/2 out of 5 bringers of the end times.

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