Wednesday, April 24, 2013

In Theaters: THE LORDS OF SALEM (2013)

(US/UK - 2013)

Written and directed by Rob Zombie.  Cast: Sheri Moon Zombie, Bruce Davison, Jeffrey Daniel Phillips, Ken Foree, Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace, Meg Foster, Patricia Quinn, Maria Conchita Alonso, Andrew Prine, Richard Fancy, Sid Haig, Michael Berryman, Julian Acosta, Torsten Voges, Lisa Marie, Barbara Crampton. (R, 101 mins)

Rob Zombie's stylistically ambitious THE LORDS OF SALEM is a departure from his sick hilljack horrors of the last decade or so, which seemed to indicate the origins of a career-long tribute to 1986's THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2.  Zombie managed to deliver a modern horror masterpiece with 2005's ferocious THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, a sequel to his awful 2003 debut HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, but he's been floundering since.  His 2007 prequel/remake of John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN was passable but unnecessary (do you ever feel the urge to revisit it?), and its 2009 sequel HALLOWEEN II was probably Zombie's career nadir.  It seemed as if Zombie said everything he had to say with THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, a disturbing, nightmarishly savage piece of white-trash horror that felt like Sam Peckinpah remaking THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.  THE DEVIL'S REJECTS established some much-needed bona fides for Zombie as a serious horror filmmaker rather than the object of fanboy adoration from the cult-horror scenesters.  Unfortunately, Zombie hasn't built on the momentum of REJECTS, and an element of sameness has crept in:  you'll get the same cast of B-movie horror and comic-con fixtures, a '70s aesthetic, several hundred F-bombs, and Sid Haig in a gravy-stained wifebeater.  There's no denying Zombie is a huge fan of the genre and loves what he does, but with each new film he makes, it's become increasingly evident that he may very well just plan on coasting on REJECTS forever.

So on one hand, the different directions he takes with THE LORDS OF SALEM are welcome.  But on the other, he's still cribbing from other directors and other '70s movies and the story here is thin, and worst of all, predictable. Salem, MA radio host Heidi LaRoc (Zombie's wife Sheri Moon Zombie) receives a promotional vinyl LP from an unknown rock band calling itself The Lords.  The music is droning and repetitious, and when she plays it on the air, it seems to hypnotize the women of Salem (or, the three that Zombie shows).  Meanwhile, local historian and witchcraft expert Francis Matthias (the ageless Bruce Davison) traces the melody of the Lords' song to a piece of music dating back to Rev. Jonathan Hawthorne's (Andrew Prine) burning-at-the-stake execution of a Salem witches' coven headed by the demonic Margaret Morgan (Meg Foster), back in 1696.  After being exposed to the music, Heidi starts having bizarre hallucinations, relapses into drug abuse, and falls under the spell of her sinister landlady Lacy (Judy Geeson) and her "sisters" Sonny (Dee Wallace) and Megan (Patricia Quinn), modern disciples of the reanimated spirit of Margaret Morgan, determined to use Heidi as the vessel to bring a reborn Satan into the world.

Zombie achieves a really good look with THE LORDS OF SALEM, with a vivid and unforced 1970s aura that brings to mind any number of Satanism-themed films from that era.  But perhaps most of all, Zombie uses this film as his own tribute to Stanley Kubrick, of all people.  Though set in the present day, much of THE LORDS OF SALEM looks like what might've happened if a 1975 Kubrick made a low-budget devil-worshipping flick that debuted at the bottom of an all-night drive-in marathon with RACE WITH THE DEVILTHE BROTHERHOOD OF SATAN, and MESSIAH OF EVIL.  The framing, the long tracking shots, the production design, striking visuals, and the droning score are all straight from THE SHINING (listen to the music when Heidi goes into Apt. 5 for the first time; it's that same repetitive beat when Jack goes into room 237 and finds the woman in the bathtub), and there's even some EYES WIDE SHUT stuff going on in a couple of scenes.  There's other bits that are blatantly cribbed from Roman Polanski (there's a big ROSEMARY'S BABY influence here), Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and even Michael Winner, as the finale recreates some imagery from 1977's THE SENTINEL.

THE LORDS OF SALEM looks terrific, but that only takes it so far.  Even with an effective performance by Sheri Moon Zombie (who really doesn't deserve all the "She's in his movies just because she's his wife" backlash), Zombie's script just doesn't have the substance to go along with the style.  There's flashes of well-constructed characterization, particularly in Heidi's platonic relationship with on-air partner Whitey (Jeffrey Daniel Phillips, surprisingly solid considering he's best known as the Geico caveman), but the whole film really shows some signs of post-production tinkering and indecision.  Depending on the scene, Salem is either a bustling suburb with enough of a radio audience to support a nightly show with three hosts (there's also a toupeed Ken Foree), or it's a virtually empty ghost town.  Heidi wakes up in the morning and goes to take her dog for a walk, but it's night when she walks outside.  Maybe that's being nit-picky, but it's sloppy construction.  Zombie revamped much of his script during filming, which led to several actors--including Udo Kier, Daniel Roebuck, Clint Howard, THE BRADY BUNCH's Christopher Knight, I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE's Camille Keaton, and the late Richard Lynch in what would've been his final screen appearance--seeing their work entirely Terrence Malick'd out of the completed film.  One of Zombie's better decisions with the actors is to let the three modern-day witches really tear it up:  Geeson and Wallace really sink their teeth into it in the third act, and it's great to see cult actress Foster and her distinct, ice-blue eyes on the big screen again.  Haig (natch), THE HILLS HAVE EYES' Michael Berryman, and RE-ANIMATOR's Barbara Crampton have blink-and-you'll-miss-them bit parts and there's also a small role for apparent cosmetic surgery victim Maria Conchita Alonso as Matthias' wife.

Zombie wears his love of B-movies and trashy horror on his sleeve, and that's great.  But it's not enough to carry a weak script that feels like its own writer wasn't sure where he wanted to go with it.  By the time Zombie gets to the climax, which resorts to decidedly unfrightening evil dwarves and other surreal, blasphemous, sub-Jodorowsky imagery, it becomes obvious that he was just throwing anything against the wall to see what stuck.  I like that Zombie tried something different and with little concern for mainstream, commercial appeal with THE LORDS OF SALEM, but when it reaches its crazed fever dream of a finale, you'll realize that Panos Cosmatos did this kind of thing much better with last year's BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW and accomplished it without resorting to things like cheap shock tactic shots of masturbating high priests.

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