Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Come Forth From Your Blessed Abyss

The Lords of Salem (2012)
Director: Rob Zombie
Rating: 8 / 10
Seen via: Anchor Bay DVD

Love him or hate him, there's no denying that Rob Zombie has a knack for making films that divide the horror community. I'll admit that I've been paying limited attention to his career since the enjoyable mess of House of 1000 Corpses - many of his later films have been sitting in the dank corners of my to-watch list for years. But with Zombie in full creative control and under no pressure from studios looking to hawk franchise entries at lowest common denominator audiences, it seemed like the stars had finally aligned for him. I'm glad I took a chance on The Lords of Salem, because it's one of the most interesting horror films I've seen so far this year.

Heidi Hawthorne (played by Zombie's wife Sheri Moon) is a late-night rock station DJ in Salem who is trying to move on with her life after a bout with drug addiction. Things seems to be looking up for her until she receives a mysterious record in the mail from an underground band called "The Lords," who are promoting an upcoming performance. Despite consisting of nothing but a loop of oddly discordant strings, the song surges in local popularity. It also provokes a strange awakening in many of the women who hear it on the radio. Meanwhile, in her apartment building Heidi is haunted by sinister apparitions that manifest down the hall in the vacant apartment 5. Is she losing her mind, or has she fallen unwittingly into the plans of some sinister force? Furthermore, who are the Lords and what role do they play in the strange events occurring in Salem?

Zombie draws on a wide variety of influences to create a dense visual atmosphere in this film, but he's smart enough to avoid too many overt references. Languid pacing and a willingness to indulge in horrifying imagery often give it the feel of an old Italian horror film. The lurid parade of sacrilegious imagery evokes memories of some of Jodorowsky's dreamlike sequences, but with a more sinister bent. In lesser hands the outlandish parts of the film could have been a spectacular failure, but it all fits together here. The film is also populated with a cast of cult heroes, including Dee Wallace, Ken Foree, and Patricia Quinn.

Sheri Moon Zombie turns in a subdued performance that I'd never have guessed she was capable of after her role as the maniacal Baby in House of 1000 Corpses. The two characters couldn't be more dissimilar, particularly because Heidi feels like a human being rather than a giant caricature. While Zombie can't resist some occasionally lecherous camerawork (perhaps to offset the more geriatric female nudity in the film's prologue), Heidi is typically portrayed doing ordinary things: walking her dog, eating breakfast, going to work... all of which contrast wonderfully with the horrifying dreamscapes she's eventually pulled into.

With all the avant-garde ambition of this film, it's not too surprising that the weakest element is the plot thread that closely mirrors something you'd find in a more traditional horror film. Bruce Davison plays the horribly dull Francis Matthias, a local author who's just published a book about the Salem witch trials. After hearing the Lords' song during a guest appearance on Heidi's show, he becomes curious as to its connection with the trials. His mundane quest to uncover the identity of the Lords is an intrusion into the film's surreal atmosphere that doesn't blend well at all. Typically, scenes with Davison are as boring as his character. Thankfully (minor spoilers ahead) the resolution of his plot line is outstanding, and is a nod toward the obnoxious way his character's archetype typically causes the downfall of whatever evil forces haunt the film. Speaking of that scene, it's also where the talents of Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace, and Patricia Quinn get to shine as the trio of sisters with a sinister link to the Lords. They're all outstanding, and watching them play with Davison like a spider caught in their web is one of the film's highlights. (End spoilers.)

In a sense, The Lords of Salem is not so much a horror film as a satanic passion play. Rife with nods to paganism such as the maiden/mother/crone triad and ubiquitous lunar imagery, its underlying story focuses on Heidi's liberation from the male-dominated Christian world and her birth into a primal figure of maternal power. From the pulsing red light bleeding out of the doorway of apartment 5 (the number itself indicating Heidi is forsaking the domain of gods to live more fully in her own humanity) to the cavernous hallways through which she frequently wanders, this film is overflowing with yonic imagery. Where a lesser film would have demonized the pagan and satanic elements, there's no easy out at the end of The Lords of Salem. This is a revenge tale spanning centuries, in which those oppressed by Salem's Puritan past cast off their bonds and give birth to their own messiah.

I went into The Lords of Salem hoping for nothing more than something visually engaging and vaguely shocking. I was surprised at how much further Zombie took this film. I'm also impressed at his ability to pay homage to such a wide collection of horror classics while still keeping his creative vision intact. The Lords of Salem reexamines many of the tenets of older horror, particularly the unwritten assumption that Monsters Must Die for the Judeo-Christian tradition to live on. There are elements within this film that risk alienating Zombie's typical audience, not to mention many that effectively destroy its appeal to mainstream viewers. I'm thankful he was willing to take those chances.

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