Friday, September 6, 2013

Movie Review: The Lords of Salem

The Lords of Salem
Directed by:  Rob Zombie.
Written by: Rob Zombie.
Starring: Sheri Moon Zombie (Heidi Hawthorne), Bruce Davison (Francis Matthias), Jeff Daniel Phillips (Herman 'Whitey' Salvador), Judy Geeson (Lacy Doyle), Meg Foster (Margaret Morgan), Patricia Quinn (Megan), Ken Foree (Herman Jackson), Dee Wallace (Sonny), Maria Conchita Alonso (Alice Matthias), Richard Fancy (AJ Kennedy), Andrew Prine (Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne), Michael Berryman (Virgil Magnus), Sid Haig (Dean Magnus).

To me, Rob Zombie represents hope for American horror films. His debut film – House of 1,000 Corpses – was not exactly great; it was taken away from him after all, but contained some great moments. His follow-up The Devil’s Rejects was some sort of warped masterwork of the genre that reminded me of Quentin Tarantino. Than he stepped more into the mainstream, and made the fascinating remake of John Carpenter’s Halloween – which unlike most horror remakes didn’t just want to copy the original. His even stranger Halloween sequel was not exactly brilliant, it was certainly something different. I have faith that at some point, Rob Zombie is going to make one of the best horror films of this era.

But his fifth film, The Lords of Salem, is not that film. It is an interesting film, with a promising setup, and a great lead performance by his wife Sheri Moon Zombie, that pretty much completely flies off the rails in the last act, revealing the answers to its mysteries that turn out to be not all that interesting. Pity, because so much of the film is wonderful.

Moon Zombie stars as Heidi, a late night DJ at a heavy metal radio station alongside Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman (Ken Foree), in Salem, Massachusetts. You get no points for guessing this is a movie about witches, since it is set in Salem, and why else would you set a movie in Salem if it wasn’t about witches, and of course, the opening scene that takes place at the Salem witch trials – although we never actually see a trial, just a lot of burning “witches”. One night, as a guest, they have Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison), who has written a new book at the Salem witch trials, once again “debunking the myth” that any of the women were actually witches. That same night, a strange package arrives containing a vinyl record by a group calling themselves The Lords. Eventually Heidi will put the record on at home – and then on her show – but every time she hears it, something strange happens to her. More than that, I will not reveal – although you can probably guess where the story is going, and you’d probably be more right than wrong in doing so.

Most of The Lords of Salem is Zombie at his most restrained. His films are marked by their ultra-violence, although most of The Lords of Salem contains no violence at all. Instead, Zombie seems to be inspired more by Roman Polanski this time around – and wants to slowly build up suspense, and give his wife the type of role that Mia Farrow played in Rosemary’s Baby or Catherine Deneuve played in Repulsion. The most surprising thing about the movie may well be that Sheri Moon Zombie is more than up to it. She actually delivers an excellent dramatic performance here as Heidi, making her paranoia seem real. Sheri Moon Zombie has always been good in previous movies for her husband – I’ll never forget her truly demented work in The Devil’s Rejects, and she made an excellent white trash mother to Michael Myers in Halloween. But she has never been a subtle actress – because the roles required her to go over the top. Here, playing a lower key role for the most part, she proves she should be working far more than she does.

And her husband proves himself capable of making a horror film more based on suspense than gore. This isn’t to say that The Lords of Salem does not contain scenes of Zombie’s ultra-violence – it does – but for most of its running time, Zombie is more interesting in creating paranoia than anything else. And, for the most part, he succeeds.

But then, the last act hits, and things go to hell. Perhaps Zombie just painted himself into a corner, and found no way out, so he decided to go batshit crazy instead. That’s as good as an explanation as I can come up with, because the final act of the movie seems to have been imported from somewhere else, and quite simply is ridiculous. I admire Zombie for going for broke, but really, he couldn’t come up with anything better than that?

Yet, I still feel Zombie is destined to make a truly great horror film – in fact, after The Lords of Salem, I’m more convinced than ever. Even if The Lords of Salem represents perhaps the most flawed film Zombie has made so far, it still shows growth – still shows Zombie reaching for something different. Maybe next time, he’ll hit the mark.

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