Tuesday, March 12, 2013

THE LORDS OF SALEM (2012) movie review

Lords of Salem, The (2012) (1st viewing) d. Zombie, Rob (USA)

Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie), one third of a local late night heavy rock radio DJ triptych, receives an unsolicited wooden box containing a mysterious vinyl record. Believing it to be some independent artists’ novel attempt at promotion, Heidi and her cohorts (played by Ken Foree and Jeff Daniel Phillips) give “The Lords” disc an on-air spin, unwittingly releasing dark forces that slowly, inexorably descend upon our fair protagonist. Roused by the 33 1/3 chant, the spirits of a coven of executed Salem witches – aided by a trio of weird sisters (Patricia Quinn, Dee Wallace, Judy Geeson) – vie for Heidi’s soul, while an aging historian (Bruce Davison) attempts to halt the onslaught.

Is there a more divisive modern horror director than Rob Zombie? Even among his passionate following, the man has generated more heated discussions at horror conventions and online destinations than any other major player working in the industry today. From his Firefly family companion pieces House of 1000 Corpses and The Devils Rejects to his pair of Halloween reboots to 2009’s rambunctiously immature animated feature The Haunted World of Superbeasto, this is an artist who – regardless of individual opinions on the films in question – has resolutely refused to make the same movie twice...or even in the same universe. The result has been a body of work difficult to pin down; one that consistently challenges a fanbase that often embraces the comfort of familiarity. (Hello, franchise lovers.)

Well, prepare for another uprising. Zombie’s latest effort, The Lords of Salem, will once again split the dogged faithful, avoiding connections to his previous works (despite several recurring motifs) while aping other established horror tropes and styles (heavy on the Eurohorror and paranoiac devil worshiping flicks of the early ’70s). There are no guarantees as to who will respond and how, because the director continues his established M.O. of making pictures according to his personal sensibilities and no one else’s. In fact, Zombie revealed during last night’s U.S. premiere at South by Southwest that the deal with his financiers was that as long as he brought the completed project in under an agreed-upon budget, he could do anything he wanted. Anything. He. Wanted.

The result, unfortunately, is a picture that will satisfy no one completely – including its creator, who perplexingly proceeded to write an ambitious screenplay that exceeded his established coffers. For every inspired moment there is another that kills the buzz, with tonal shifts and nightmare visuals ranging from the haunting to the ridiculous. (It was presumably not Zombie’s intention to induce howls of laughter during a Ken Russell fever-dream climax, but when you trot out a midget wearing a wrinkly nude latex body suit, that’s what you get.) Throughout, I found myself metaphorically clapping with one hand against another clenched into a frustrated shaking fist; the wildly cacophonic score by longtime Zombie guitarist John 5, Brandon Trost’s moody cinematography and insane production design by Jennifer Spence and Lori Mazuer all deserve better than this muted applause, but they are ill served by their master’s wild abandon and penchant for including every unfiltered whim.

The white trash F-bombathon spewfests that have constituted the writer/director’s stock-in-trade are thankfully absent here, but the characters are just as thinly drawn and the dialogue as clunky. (Seeing as how this has been a consistent complaint for his entire canon, one can only wonder when the hint will be heeded and a co-writer sought.)

Even given their unwieldy assignments, the performances are universally strong: As revived witch Margaret Morgan, Meg Foster is a standout and Geeson, whose whining presence in innumerable ’70s genre efforts never failed to grate on this writer’s last nerve, dials it down to deliver a wickedly sly antagonistic turn. Davison and Phillips are pleasing and pleasingly ineffectual in their attempts to aid the forces of good (another common element), while Sherri Moon Zombie delivers a surprisingly appealing central turn. Even the haters will find little with which to take issue – it’s unfortunate that her spouse/director gives her little to do in the latter half than blankly stare, drool and flash her bare bottom because, prior to that, her Heidi is an engaging and empathetic construct. (For what it's worth, Sid Haig and Michael Berryman also pop up in blink-n'-miss-'em cameos.)

As with his 2009 Halloween sequel (which bummed me out more than overtly offending), there is no denying the man knows how to conjure a discomfiting atmosphere of dread or stunning visual – it’s his skill as a cohesive dramatic narrator that continues to be called into question. Classic vintage filmmakers such as The Three Roberts (Wise, Aldrich, Altman) often elicited the question, “Is there nothing they can’t do” with their adroit handling of varied genres and mood. With Zombie, the opposite question is raised – is he capable of producing a wholly successful feature? Within the pictures themselves, disparate elements are constantly jockeying for position, clawing open tonal ground set by the moment before.

While his all-over-the-map approach is intriguing and he continues to grow within the medium, he has yet to produce a single truly great cohesive effort. Likewise, by following his heart, he continues to frustrate and alienate – even among rabid devotees, there is no one I’ve met who loves his entire CV. I find this fascinating; here is an uncompromising artist often admired more than and occasionally in spite of his art. Even with serious issues regarding each of his films, I (along with countless others) continue to root for him even as he fails to deliver the goods over and over.

What witchcraft is this indeed…


  1. Throughout the film I kept trying to place where I knew Judy Geeson from. It wasn't until I got home and looked her up that I realized it was the notorious Horror Planet a.k.a. Inseminoid. Also, according to the IMDb, Barbara Crampton is in here somewhere as well. I could not for the life of me tell you where, though.

    1. Barbara Crampton was in the deleted scenes that hit the bricks after Richard Lynch's untimely passing.

      Geeson has been in a ton of Brit horror offerings. And she's always an insufferable whinging nightmare. This is seriously the first thing I didn't hate her in.