Saturday, December 28, 2013

Catching up with 2013: The Lords of Salem

The Lords of Salem is something special. The type of outré experience found in the best European horror films — a film that made me giddy with anticipation for each scene. I haven’t felt that way in a long, long time in regards to a horror film, and I could easily see myself slotting The Lords of Salem into my regular Halloween viewing rotation. Rob Zombie’s latest isn’t going to be for every horror fan — it’s far too much of a slow burn for it to appeal to the masses — but it’s so visually and aurally on-point, I cannot fathom how some are calling the film boring. Despite the film’s old chestnut of a narrative (Satanism/witches) suggesting that the whole thing may be old hat, and despite the film being slower than most horror films (there’s a surprising amount attention paid to characters, and Zombie gets some good performances from his leads), The Lords of Salem is never boring. It reminded me of some of my favorite Italian horror films (especially Fulci’s City of the Living Dead) and some of John Carpenter’s early work.

Perhaps those that didn’t care for the movie were merely unengaged in the story of Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), a recovering drug addict turned popular late night DJ. Her co-workers, Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman (Ken Foree) help round out the popular trio known as “The Big H Radio Team.” Like all DJs, they have their bits and their shticks, and one night while doing their show a mysterious wooden box appears for Heidi from an unheard of band calling themselves The Lords of Salem. Once the record is played on the show, all sorts of odd goings-on occur. The music is a huge hit in Salem, and really strikes a nerve with on-air guest Francis Matthias (Bruce Davidson, giving a great performance) who is writing a book about the Salem witch trials. However, Heidi seems to be hearing something completely different than the masses, for every time the needle drops on the LP, she begins hallucinating.

Or so we’re led to believe.It’s never explicitly laid out whether this is all in the mind of a recovering drug addict who has relapsed, or if this is a straight-up horror film. So, I guess I can see why some threw up their hands in frustration with Zombie’s film or shook their head in disbelief over people like me drooling over the film. It’s a tricky, different kind of horror film. And for that, I am grateful.

The film’s intentions are elusive, which adds to the dread that underlines every scene; it may not be obvious and explicit dread, but there’s something unsettling about The Lords of Salem that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and I love it when a horror film displaces me in that fashion than just trying to scare me with schlocky jump scares and cheap looking gore effects.

I hate when people qualify aspects of filmmaking simply because it is found in a “lesser” genre film, but I’m going to do it here (forgive me): the acting is pretty damn good. Not just for a horror film, but for a Rob Zombie movie, too. Zombie is no different than Tarantino in that he likes to pay homage to the films he grew up with by casting actors from the B-Movies he grew up watching. Here, he casts Foree (Dawn of the Dead), Dee Wallace (The Howling), and Meg Foster (They Live) in various roles to great effect. His wife, Moon Zombie, as the film’s lead plays Heidi to great effect. Her recovering drug addict actually elicits some poignant moment, a rare thing indeed for a horror film.

One thing I have been noticing more and more with Zombie’s films: he’s pretty good at directing actors. But perhaps nothing prepared me for how well he paced the film. There are some moments where Zombie really slows things to down to develop characters, and for that I was grateful; it makes the ambiance and dread resonate all the more.

One of the best things about the film is one of the best things about the horror genre in general: the element of surprise. In The Lords of Salem, lots of weird shit happens, yes, but horror films don’t require a fool-proof narrative in order to be successful — sometimes weird shit happens “just because.” And that’s okay and the best kind of surprise a horror film can deliver depending on the context of your horror film. Lucio Fulci (post-Zombi 2) was only ever interested in the image and the displacement of the viewer via the succession of his images. Zombie seems to be cribbing from the same playbook here. But that’s not a dig; no, Zombie is showing himself to be a better director with each film he releases, and similar to Tarantino, he is more and more interested in making a much broader, varied pastiche, which I think gives his films more energy.

Rather than just making his version of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (House of 1000 Corpses, Devil’s Rejects) or just making his version of the slasher (Halloween and Halloween II, which was much better than his first attempt at being something more than just a remake), here the breadth of Zombie’s influences is greater as he seems to be making his version of The Shining, yes (the hallways of the apartment Heidi lives are like a more drab version of the hallways of  The Overlook Hotel), but also a Ken Russell film (in fact, Zombie stated that The Lords of Salem was conceived with the idea of being as if Ken Russell directed The Shining), and an Argento/Fulci type Italian horror film. And I don’t know about all of you, but out of that bunch, that last type of horror film is the most interesting to me.

Zombie and his cinematographer, Brandon Trost, are indebted to outré nature of Argento’s baroque horror films like Suspiria and Inferno, but even more so they seem to be heavily influenced by Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead (the mummified priests that pop up reminded me of another Fulci creation: Dr. Freudstein from The House by the Cemetery, which got me thinking: if anyone were qualified to remake a popular Fulci film, it would be Zombie). The way Zombie and Trost shoot the Salem exteriors is eerily reminiscent of the way Fulci and his cinematographer, the great Sergio Salvati, evoked dread with those great tracking shots through the doomed city of Dunwich.

So, yeah, visually, the film evokes the great Italian masters like Argento and Fulci, but I also saw a bit of Michele Soavi in there. I can’t be sure that Zombie is a fan of Soavi’s La Setta (The Sect), but there sure were parts of this film, especially the ending, that reminded me of Soavi’s own take on the whole women-as-vessel-for-demon-child subgenre. And about the film’s ending: man, is that quite the setpiece. Some disliked the ending, and even though I agree in that I found the lead-up (very Argento) to the film’s coda more intriguing than the payoff, I still loved what Zombie was doing with that ending. I know that final montage isn’t for everyone, but I loved it — it reminded me of one of those gonzo montages Ken Russell would put in one of his films (more specifically Altered States).

The Lords of Salem has a very Euro Horror rhythm to it, too. Zombie and his editor, Glenn Garland, take a page out of Kubrick’s book by building dread by marking days of the week with title cards, each coming on the heels of a key scene that introduces each day of the week with more dread than the previous (my favorite being when Heidi walks by a grotesque figure in her bathroom...and then it cuts to the title card for the next day). It’s similar to what John Carpenter did in his great Euro Horror-influenced film Prince of Darkness. And it’s a great way to build tension despite very little actually happening on screen.

I think it is in the editing — the pacing — of the film that I was most appreciative of. I’ve already re-visited the film, and it’s one of those horror films that has a way of getting under your skin — its effects sustaining for days after — and it’s why I think it is one of those films that I could see slotting into my regular rotation of must-see movies on Halloween. It got to me in a way that is very similar to City of the Living Dead: the film has flaws to be sure, but there’s just something about it that gets me, and I think the editing and the way Zombie just lets his atmosphere do all of the talking.

Aurally, the film is a masterpiece. Zombie collaborates with his guitarist, John 5, to create a truly unsettling score (especially once the needle drops on The Lords of Salem record that drives Heidi crazy). I love that Zombie understands how to use sound to his advantage, which is so crucial for horror film (this should come as no surprise since he is a musician). The music stings are sometimes so subtle—the opposite of what modern horror tells us is scary—that we barely notice there’s music there; however, like the Heidi’s downward spiral thanks to the bizarre record she plays, I felt a similar displacement every time that musical would hum or thump in the background. It seriously unnerved me, which is exactly what I wanted it to do.

Zombie has claimed that he is done with horror. That’s too bad since The Lords of Salem is just gorgeous to look at. Cliché “Satanism horror film” iconography aside, it's just a pleasure to bask in the imagery on screen. However, it makes me glad that he’s so willing to step outside of the genre he is associated with. I like that he’s willing to go outside of his comfort zone. In fact, The Lords of Salem is so well made and so damn gorgeous to look at and such an affecting experience, that Zombie could be a seriously great director, not just a good genre filmmaker.


  1. Brilliant write-up as always Kevin and glad I'm not the only one who digs this film so much... you've precisely articulated many of the things I dig about it myself (i.e. the Euro-horror vibe and an emphasis on image, sound and pure get-under-your-skin effectiveness as opposed to narrative) and also the ones that make it a hard sell for some.

    It's sad indeed that Zombie is apparently moving away from the genre... but having said that, if this really is the last horror film he ever makes then it's a bloody good one to go out on.

    And Zombie remaking Fulci? That sounds like a match made in movie heaven... can the Gods get together and make it happen please? I'm salivating at the very thought of it!

    1. Thanks, Simon. I missed the general discussion surrounding the film when it came out, so I was kind of surprised that it was so polarizing within the horror community. And, yes, I hope one day we get a Fulci remake. Tarantino has stated that he would love to remake Murder to the Tube of Seven Black Notes, but I don't think it will ever happen (although I would love to see Tarantino tackle the horror genre). And I just think that out of all of the those early '80s Fulci's that are so popular, Zombie could really do something with The House by the Cemetery or City of the Living Dead.

      People should just leave The Beyond alone, though, hehe.

    2. Must check out The Psychic asap myself as it's one I haven't seen (I predict a trip to Amazon in my very near future), and I'd love to see a QT directed giallo, be it a remake or a brand new one... though I'm not holding my breath on that one either.

      And I think you're spot on about Zombie having the potential to do an interesting remake of The House by the Cemetery or City of the Living Dead... I'd watch either but I'd be most curious to see his take on the former... though I'd approach it with a certain amount of trepidation... it being my current favourite horror movie and all.

  2. I just rewatched it this past weekend, and was staggered to find how much better it was on a second viewing, and the first viewing was already enough to keep it in the Best of 2013 conversation for me. Part of it might be the huge glut of Ken Russell watching I've done since February, which really clarified for me what Zombie was up to in the final third of the movie. I also think, weirdly, that part of it might be hearing the audio on my decent-not-great home set-up: something about the flatness and denseness of the sound in that context makes it much easier to think about how the soundtrack works on a moment-by-moment basis.

    For whatever reason, though, it actually scared me more on a second go-round than it came close to doing the first time, which shocked and excited me.

    Terrific write-up, as always, especially your discussion of the actors and character development. Astonishing how quickly and easily Zombie gets us to care about Heidi and understand what her life is like, especially compared to the rickety psychology in his first Halloween.

    1. Thanks, Tim.

      Now I'm curious: Which Russell's have you been watching?

      It really gets to you on a second viewing (even though you already know the beats), doesn't it?
      And I'm with ya on the sound. I don't have the greatest set up at home, either, and I think I benefited from having to crank the thing up louder than I normally do. But, yeah, I pretty much had the same reaction to it on each viewing that you had: shock and excitement and then being unnerved/scared.

      And, yeah, Halloween...Zombie has grown tremendously as a director since then.

  3. Fantastic review! Count me as a big, big fan of this film, which comes seriously close to displacing THE DEVIL'S REJECTS as my fave film of his.

    I really love the overall mood and atmosphere of THE LORDS OF SALEM - that autumnal vibe is achieved to perfection and really draws me in every time. I also like that Zombie decided to downplay the gore this time in favor of more atmospheric dread and an unsettling vibe that seems to permeate the entire film.

    If you get a chance, Zombie's commentary track is worth a listen - very interesting nuts and bolts look at how it was made and all the challenges he faced with his trademark dry, self-deprecating humor.