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Review: Unnerving ‘Lords of Salem’ Is Rob Zombie’s Best Film Yet

Review: Unnerving ‘Lords of Salem’ Is Rob Zombie’s Best Film Yet

The Lords of Salem” is probably goth rocker-turned-filmmaker Rob Zombie’s best film, though it does often prove that the cinephile writer/director is a gifted tyro. At the same time, as his most formally mannered and tonally tempered film, Zombie’s latest also proves his versatility. Set in modern-day Salem, Massachusetts, the film follows the seduction of a disc jockey (Sheri Moon Zombie, Rob’s wife), whose family was cursed by a coven of centuries-old witches.

Zombie follows his lead protagonist from a marked distance, and makes a point of showing that the fate his characters suffer is a product of their inability to recognize their place within a whirlpool of generic history. It’s a heady thesis, and one Zombie establishes in a number of ways, from his controlled Carpenter/Polanski-esque tracking shots to the evocation of both Kubrick and Lynch, particularly “Eraserhead” and “Eyes Wide Shut,” in the scenes where Moon Zombie’s character is under the spell of the witches. The relatively staid nature of ‘Lords’ makes the context — within which his frenzied and typically free-associative pastiche works — a bit hard to swallow. But ‘Lords’ is also probably his most ambitious film, and maybe even his most accomplished, as it’s his most unnerving.

As the lead protagonist of “The Lords of Salem,” Heidi Hawthorne (Moon Zombie) is slowly and deliberately overwhelmed by witches. She’s initially unaware of her relationship to these witches, nor does she know why she’s being singled out by these Satan-worshipping women, who were put to death centuries ago by the obsessed witch-hunter Reverend John Hawthorne (Richard Lynch) during the Salem Witch Trials. Heidi’s lethargic addiction-like symptoms are initially dismissed by her friends Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman (Ken Foree, of “Dawn of the Dead” and “From Beyond” fame) since Heidi is a recovering drug addict. As days pass, marked by austere inter-titles that mark the days of the week, the people that care most about Heidi only mobilize to do something once the witches already have Heidi under their influence.

‘Lords’ is as compelling as it is because it’s driven by a creeping, albeit perhaps over-determined, sense of atmospheric dread. Zombie ratchets up the tension slowly and decisively. Flashbacks of the pointedly ugly and frequently naked witches cavorting in the woods and then noisily being tortured and put to death are effective, in that they bludgeon you until you expect that something really sadistic and unusual will happen to Heidi at any moment. So the measured tracking shots that Zombie uses to further draw out viewers’ anticipation feel that much more cruel, though again, effective. This wouldn’t matter at all were Zombie not capable of producing simultaneously mysterious and frightening monsters to leap out at the encroaching shadows of Heidi’s apartment. In that regard, Zombie is still a master. What makes ‘Lords’ markedly, though not vastly, better than his previous four films, however, is the context within which his brutally effective ability to produce funhouse spooks is utilized.

So the good news is that watching Heidi fatalistically become the witches’ vessel is compelling because Heidi and her friends are rather sympathetic. As in “Halloween 2,” where Zombie sketches out back-stories for characters so that you actually care about whether they live or die, ‘Lords’ gives you a couple of genuinely moving scenes that establish the film’s stakes. A final phone call between Whitey and Heidi is particularly well-directed, performed and scripted, which is saying something, given that Moon Zombie’s range as a performer hasn’t significantly increased since “House of 1000 Corpses.” And while the modern-day representatives of the Salem witches are serviceably one-note (you can’t help but know them immediately when you see them), Francis (the typically charismatic Bruce Davison), a skeptical author and expert on the Salem Witch Trials, is thankfully a believable force of good, as is his woefully under-utilized wife, Alice (Maria Conchita Alonso).

The bad news is that Zombie’s still not a strong enough scenarist to provide a totally convincing context for his latest self-referential horror film. For example, the free-associative quality to his allusiveness in the film is sometimes distractingly conspicuous. Were the film not a relatively steady descent into madness, references to films like the fairly obscure film noir “Kansas City Confidential” and images from the equally cult-friendly Commander Cody science fiction serials would not be as bothersome. But, partly because his film is about the violent resurgence of the past, Zombie makes these allusions aggressively prominent. Footage from “Kansas City Confidential” is used in two different scenes, one in which it’s in the background, and one in which it is prominently used in the film’s foreground. Given the specific scenes that Zombie cherry-picks, these references often make an immediate kind of sense. But it’s still perplexing why Zombie chose that particular film to underscore the point he making in that particular way and at those particular moments.

More pressing is the way that the witches, when given a chance to talk, are fairly generic menaces. They don’t do anything especially surprising or memorably cruel. Then again, they don’t really need to, as they mostly serve to usher Heidi to a trippy, oneiric world of “Phantom of the Opera” references, monsters in cheesecloth masks and red pulsating neon crucifixes. “The Lords of Salem” is a product of Zombie’s better creative impulses, so it’s okay that it also features several of his worse indulgences, too. [B+]

This is a reprint of our review from the Toronto International Film Festival 2012.

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Comments

@$%351253gfaauj364)(

so, it proves he's a gifted tyro and proves he is versatile. got it. we have proof.

i'm confused, though. could you tell me how far a 'marked distance' is. exactly. i'd like to know how far back rob was while following his protagonist.

love this observation: their fate is a result of an "inability to recognize their place within a whirlpool of generic history". really, do you even know what that means?

"As days pass, marked by austere inter-titles that mark the days of the week…" i see. the passage of time is marked by titles that mark the passage of time.

might i say that this bit — ‘Lords’ is as compelling as it is because it’s driven by a creeping, albeit perhaps over-determined, sense of atmospheric dread. — is just too too. what type of dread, pray tell, is atmospheric? no, not just atmospheric dread, but the creeping kind. wait, there's more. it's not just creeping atmospheric dread, it's the kind that's over-determined to boot. (well, it's 'perhaps' over-determined, really. not, necessarily over-determined, just perhaps. maybe, probably, kinda over-determined). and!!!!…it's not as brass tacks as that — it's the 'sense' of a creeping (sorta) over-determined atmospheric dread. the sense of it. like, it's not really there but you sense it which makes it even more insidious.

duh duh dumm

could go on but… gotta say, your sentences are as florid as they are pointless.

keep it up playlist typists/writers. your work has as much creeping sense of intellectual smartness as it's ever had which, in turn, has the effect of making it more compelling than usually found paragraphs we read with our eyes every day.

Mike Smith

Not directly related to the article, but Rob Zombie is doing other cool stuff too.

We gave Rob Zombie's new album a pretty good review:

http://nowso.com/review-of-rob-zombies-venomous-rat-regeneration-vendor/

The fact he didn't really break new ground and stuck with his formula prevented it from being truly great.

Ushabye

Wow. Did we watch the same film? I was bored to distraction up in my projection booth, chanting, 'Get on with it. Get on with it.' to myself over and over again.

Todd

My comment is..I love Rob Zombie. His music is great and so we’re some of his movies, but this was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. I mean this was really terrible I wish I had my two hours of my life back. I cannot overstate how bad this movie sucks.

Nadie

This is one of the most fair reviews I’ve seen. There seems to be a love-hate reaction to this film. Some find it too surreal and stylistically divergent from their expectations to accept, so they reject it outright. Others, seeing the reflections of Kubrick, Polanski, and various Italian film makers (especially that of Dario Argento) as they follow our main protagonist’s decent into madness, they are intrigued, and wonder if these influences are woven into the fabric of the story, or are merely superficial cinematic devises.

Personally, I believe it is the former (whether conscious or not), because if it were a conscious cinematic choice, then Mr. Zombie would have probably have made a better film with more appropriate pacing, while creating a certain level of coherence between the depth of surreal experiences suffered by “Heidi” and the progression of (for lack of a better phrase) her hell-music induced hallucinations/visions leading to her eventual (attempted self-medicating) drug-fueled seduction by Satan.

Oh, and unless it was some kind of overt stylistic nod to Argento, the land-lord/sisters-witch-trio were so OTT obvious that it was like viewing scenes from “Rosemary’s Baby” after they’d been put in a blender with “Suspiria” and “Trauma”. Perhaps that was the intention. If so, then bravo Mr. Zombie! I love all of those movies and I don’t think even a frozen, vodka-soaked watermelon, combined with copious amounts of finely chopped fresh mint and like a slushy cocktail, could top that combination! However, I digress.

Anyhow, back to my point. This is a fair review. The film IS a “B+”. It’s very good and certainly surpassed my expectations by an extremely large margin.

However, low expectations are not difficult to smash. The true test will be whether Zombie can take the best elements of this work and develop a deep appreciation for the cinematic masters in which fans of “The Lords of Salem” have heard loud and clear echos.

He should study as many great film makers as he can, both thematically and stylistically. He should understand their directorial and cinematic methodologies, NOT so he might become some kind of clone who has nothing to offer but a pastiche of their past “best hits”, but rather to have an arsenal of skills under his belt from which to launch new and exciting projects which surpasses this film and builds on his credibility as a filmmaker.

I fear Mr. Zombie’s pride may be his downfall if he does not take stock of what made this film stand out from his others.

One is not diminished by giving due credit to those who have helped us become better at doing something we love. Humility is nobody’s enemy.

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” – Isaac Newton

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