Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Rob Zombie's THE LORDS OF SALEM (Review)


Directed and Written by
Rob Zombie

Cinematography by
Brandon Trost

Last night in Toronto, Rob Zombie’s new film The Lords of Salem had its world premiere as part of the Midnight Madness program at the Toronto International Film Festival.

After the film, while addressing a question about his artistic philosophy, Zombie made an off-hand statement that, in retrospect, I think explains exactly why he’s such a divisive figure in the horror and film community. About The Lords of Salem, Zombie said his intention was to fill the frame by “putting interesting things everywhere even if they don’t matter.”

Interesting things everywhere -- even if they don’t matter.

The Lords of Salem at Midnight Madness.
(L-R) Colin Geddes (Midnight Madness Programmer), Rob Zombie (director),
Sheri Moon Zombie (star),
Jeff Daniel Phillips (star),
Brandon Trost (cinematographer)

I don’t think I can come up with a more concise review of The Lords of Salem than the director’s own words. The Lords of Salem is a disappointing dud about witches and Satan worship amounting to a shallow sensory experience that proves conclusively that Rob Zombie’s natural state as a director is of style over substance and story. And surprisingly, for a horror aficionado like Zombie, style over scares as well.

(L-R) Colin Geddes (Midnight Madness Programmer), Rob Zombie (writer / director),
Set in modern day Salem, The Lords of Salem introduces us to Heidi Hawthorne, a rail-thin and tattooed late-night radio DJ played by Sheri Moon Zombie. One night, Heidi receives a strange wooden box. Inside is a record from a group called “The Lords”. On the same night she and her on-radio partners Herman and Herman (Jeff Daniel Phillips and Ken Foree) interview an author about the Salem witch trials (Bruce Davison turning in a fantastically flustered performance), Heidi decides to play the strange record on the air. As its eerie, discordant melody spreads out across the airwaves, it begins to have a puzzling effect on some of the women who hear it, including Heidi who soon falls into a nightmare-plagued and hallucinatory downward spiral. After the anonymous “Lords” announce a free concert in Salem, Heidi’s condition takes a turn for the Satanic as she falls victim to an ancient witch’s curse on the female bloodlines of Salem that is fated to bring about a great darkness over all mankind.

The Lords of Salem begins with a lot of potential. Stepping off the Halloween remake franchise and before stepping into his upcoming film about The Philadelphia Flyers, Rob Zombie had a chance to show he can write strong, original material and construct films that are more than music-video montages filled with references to his love for horror movies, black and white film, and Southern-style grindhouse sleaze. At first, The Lords of Salem seems to represent a maturation of Rob Zombie's film-making style. Zombie seems more restrained in his visual proclivities. Instead of bombarding us, he focuses on building a quiet, solemn world of characters going through their mundane lives. In this element, I can see the realism that Zombie could bring to his upcoming hockey period piece The Broadstreet Bullies, his first non-horror feature film.

 The cast is also exceptionally strong. Zombie assembles a great roster of lesser-known actors and actresses, many from the world of cult cinema such as Patricia Quinn, better known as Magenta from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Stealing the show, however, is Meg Foster as the witch Margaret Morgan who chills the spine with a feral performance and otherworldly vocal work reminiscent of the demonic cadences Mercedes McCambridge provided for The Exorcist (with a little bit of Gozer from Ghostbusters thrown in for good measure). Unfortunately, there’s no real story generating the momentum here. Worst of all, Sheri Moon Zombie, who is at her most tolerable, is shafted as a character into becoming little more than a visual prop for a series of meandering dream sequences.

And here’s the core of the problem with The Lords of Salem. Rob Zombie isn’t concerned about characters, story structure, or theme. He strike me as the kind of man who goes with his own instincts – what feels cool – and composes them into a series of self-indulgent visual vignettes. Without restraint, Zombie tries to pack the frame full of everything he loves even if it doesn’t serve the story he’s trying to tell. Unfortunately, when it comes time to cut the film, a lot of that gets left on the cutting room floor and probably does a disservice to what's left over. For example, the highly publicized fact that The Lords of Salem would feature Richard Lynch in his last role and also feature cult icons Udo Kier, Clint Howard, Daniel Roebuck, and Camille Keaton turns out NOT to be true. All their scenes ended up on the cutting room floor because Rob Zombie shot too much to fit in one movie. Could Zombie have done more to improve the core characters and story of his film rather than trying to cast every one of his cult icons that he can get to come on set? Perhaps, however, that’s not Zombie’s real problem. He may just be incapable of seeing the forest from the trees; can Zombie resist the urge to treat every scene like a separate project at the expense of the movie as a whole? His wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, seems to confirm that he can’t. “Before every shot,” she told the audience at Midnight Madness, “[Rob Zombie] was like, let’s get weird!” Doing so is even done at the expense of some scares when Zombie chooses to put a strange figure silently in the corner of the room or out in broad daylight with no other build-up or attempt to increase the tension. I guess he just wanted to be weird!

But is weird for weirdness’ sake enough? Some may make the claim that The Lords of Salem is Rob Zombie’s attempt at an art film since it is very abstract in places. I would counter, however, that The Lords of Salem is no art film; it’s Rob Zombie’s attempt to adapt his musical style to a visual medium. Like his albums, which feature a series of tracks dominated by chilling noise, punching grooves, and a camp/nostalgic reference for horror movies of the 1970s and before, the scenes in The Lords of Salem play out like a series of tracks, each sharing similar themes but being their own distinct work. Assembled together, however, they don’t tell a story. Just like you can pick and choose Rob Zombie tracks to listen to on their own and forget the ones you don’t like, you could cut individual scenes out of The Lords of Salem to appreciate them over and over in isolation. Put back in sequence, however, they don’t communicate any more coherent story or theme than they do on their own.

There is a quieter, more human Rob Zombie film buried deep within The Lords of Salem that I would have liked. However, I was left very cold at the conclusion of the movie, which seems to end with a shrug because it has nothing new or interesting to say. The Lords of Salem stands as an interesting premise and an interesting / powerful cast of characters that are abandoned so Rob Zombie can make a series of music videos about witches, Satan, and cult imagery. When you look past all the flashy images, The Lords of Salem is really nothing more than some interesting things everywhere even if they don’t matter.

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