Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
April 2013

The Lords of Salem

Witches' brew

Rob Zombie's latest effort is a fascinating frustration

The Lords of Salem
Momentum Pictures
Director: Rob Zombie
Screenplay: Rob Zombie
Starring: Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Bruce Davison, Ken Foree, Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace, Meg Foster and Patricia Quinn
Rated R / 1 hour, 41 minutes
Opened April 19, 2013
(out of four)

It becomes clear during the climactic scenes of The Lords of Salem that writer/director Rob Zombie has been hedging his bets. All of his impulses are in the right place, but he just doesn't take them far enough. Only in the end, when he discards any pretense of narrative cohesion in favor of a trippy melange of bold surrealist imagery, does the film finally show its true - and most interesting - colors.

It's just a shame it doesn't come to those stylistic conclusions sooner or with more regularity. For too much of its 101-minute runtime, it languidly pretends to be a plot-driven movie - and not an especially good one. It's almost as if Zombie is trying to lull audiences into accepting something more traditional (by contemporary horror standards, anyway) before pouncing on them with the abstract imagery he was more concerned with in the first place.

That kind of mixed messaging - trying to balance separate objectives, but failing to fully to commit to either - is a tendency you see a lot, especially with films that have commercial prospects. Whatever audience The Lords of Salem had in mind, it refuses to fully embrace its strengths until the final 20 minutes. For those 20 minutes, it is a surreal nightmare of a horror film in the tradition of the likes of (in particular) Jodorowsky, Kubrick and Ken Russell, not to mention Méliès, Polanski, Buñuel and even Monty Python. That's a group of influences hardly dependent on traditional narrative structure and logic, yet Salem spends far too much time trying to make sense as a straightforward horror story.

That story is an uneventful non-starter involving a Boston radio personality, a hypnotic vinyl recording and an author/witchcraft expert (a hackneyed prototype and not-entirely-necessary plot device) trying to ward off the cloud of dread swirling around Salem and its surrounding areas ever since the appearance of the mysterious recording.

The town's eponymous witch trials are the natural starting point, as the film opens in the late 17th Century amidst a small gathering of grotesque-looking witches dancing naked around a fire, burning their own flesh and pledging allegiance to the devil.

We cut to the present day and meet Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie), a sexy, dreadlocked local DJ and recovering drug addict who hosts a late-night radio program along with Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman (Ken Foree). One night a package arrives - an antique wooden box containing a record and addressed to Heidi, with no hint about its origins, except that it is a gift from "the Lords." The next night they play the record on the air - a haunting, grating piece of music that draws Heidi (and various other women around town) into a hallucinatory, trance-like state.

Equally eerie are the goings-on at Heidi's apartment, where she begins seeing visions of a presence in the unit across the hall, which her landlord insists is still vacant. And then there's the landlord herself, and her two eccentric sisters . . .

You can see where this is going, and to his credit, Zombie has some good fun with the sisters' collective presence, in particular a very funny, tone-shifting shot of the three seen through the peephole of Heidi's front door. The three eclectic performances - by Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace and Patricia Quinn - add a nicely sardonic air to the otherwise grim proceedings.

But that air gets sucked out every time we go back to the other subplot, which follows author Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) trying to decode the meaning and implications of the disturbing record.

There are hints even early on that The Lords of Salem is going into more twisted and abstract territory, from the grotesquerie of the opening witch sequence to various references in the film's set design. But I wish it had committed to those instincts far earlier than it does. The third act feels divorced from the rest of the movie; it's practically a standalone piece of filmmaking. And an impressive one at that - a richly composed series of visual ideas and references. Zombie distorts and conflates theological and sexual imagery (including one particularly perverse, and very funny, image), blending the demonic with the angelic, the spiritual with the nihilistic. If the film as a whole felt like as much of an accomplishment as the climactic sequences, this may have really been something. As it is, The Lords of Salem is a mostly frivolous attempt at horror whose sense of inspiration strikes far too late.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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