(Contains Some Spoilers)
A long time ago, on one of my older posts, I ranted about how I would never watch the Rob Zombie remake of Halloween, as I knew I would hate it. Which is in hindsight, a stupid thing to say. I don’t even have the excuse of it being the arrogance of youth as I was in my 30’s at the time. I was just being a twat really. I just assumed since Halloween could never be bettered, his version would be sacrilege so why bother? At that point I had never seen any Rob Zombie films. Fast forward to now and I have seen them all. More than once. My boyfriend is a massive fan and he introduced me to them. I now consider myself very much on side with regards to Rob Zombie. House of 1000 Corpses and Devils Rejects are lovingly crafted 1970’s exploitation film homages (It also turns out myself and Mr Zombie share a massive love of the Marx Brothers).
In 2012 Zombie released Lords of Salem, to, it has to be said, muted indifference. Many of his hardcore fans dismissed it as being too boring, weird and a massive side step from his previous efforts while casual and/or non fans thought it also too weird and and that Zombie wore his influences on his sleeve too much at the expense of the film. And then of course, seeing as this is the internet, there were the subsection of devotees who set up camp on various forums just to sneer “you just didn’t get it” at anyone with a passing remark that bordered on criticism or confusion. Lords of Salem is very different from House of 1000 Corpses and Devils Rejects, and unlike those two films I feel it may require more than once watch to fully grasp the story, especially if folk were expecting another sleazy, gory jaunt in the style of the Firefly family. The problem is intriguing people enough on the first watch to make them want to revisit it.
Lords of Salem follows a radio DJ called Heidi Hawthorne (Sherri Moon Zombie), a recovering addict who lives in the town of Salem, Massachusetts. Salem is of course, famous for the witchcraft trials held there during the 17th Century (although if you’re an utter philistine like me the first thing you think of when you hear the word ‘Salem’ is the talking cat in Sabrina The Teenage Witch). She works on a well known radio show with her co-hosts Herman Jackson (Ken Foree, a Zombie regular at this point) and Herman ‘Whitey’ Salvador) Jeff Daniel Philips. As an aside, the scenes of them performing their rock show put my teeth on edge just a little bit, as I can’t stand forced, jolly radio banter complete with stupid sound effects, but precious little actual music. A curious wooden box containing a vinyl record is delivered to the station, addressed to Heidi. It is only marked ‘From The Lords’. She assumes it is from a local band trying to get some exposure, but when she plays it she is overwhelmed with headaches and strange visions of horrific events that took place in the town 300 years ago. The record has similar odd effects on the whole female population of Salem, although it only Heidi who is plagued by the nightmares and hallucinations of sacrificing babies and sexually deviant priests. Her landlady and her friends (Judy Gleeson, Patricia Quinn and Dee Wallace, a trifecta of genre favourites if ever there was one) are seemingly friendly and helpful but have darker motives. Her co-workers are actually friendly and helpful but are powerless to help Heidi as she descends back into substance abuse and total withdrawal from the real world. Francis Matthias (Bruce Davidson), a local author, is more proactive, determined to find out more about the mysterious ‘Lords’ and their monotonous,but hypnotic music. He is not rewarded for his efforts. The climax of the film is at a free ‘concert’ given by the ‘Lords’ in which it is proved that if one is going to get revenge, sometimes it pays to play the (very) long game.
Rob Zombie’s influences in this film are obvious. He himself described it as “If Ken Russell directed The Shining” and he puts noble effort into making his film as such. Other films such as The Devils, Rosemary’s Baby, Witchfinder General, To The Devil A Daughter, The Exorcist and Blood On Satan’s Claw and directors such as Dario Argento and Mario Bava also clearly make their presence felt. It is possible in trying to pay homage to so many classics that Zombie ended up rather over egging the pudding with Lords of Salem. The film looks gorgeous for the most part, with muted colours and a foreboding atmosphere (the scenes where Heidi walks through the streets of Salem with leaves blowing around her is straight out of The Exorcist). Heidi’s apartment building and within it the symmetry of the carpets and lights and the discombobulation this brings certainly brings to mind The Overlook Hotel. It looks very 1970’s, and I believe it was meant to be set in that era, but budgetary constraints meant that idea had to be abandoned. One one hand, I think this is a shame (although I do always appreciate films that rely purely on practical effects), on the other the lack of having a definite time frame for the film adds to it’s more ethereal qualities. As fitting as someone who directs his own music videos, Rob Zombie knows how to frame a shot. He also knows that a film with many surreal dream sequences means he can really let rip with the weirdness, which doesn’t always work. Case in point being the depiction of Satan and Heidi’s impregnation by him. It was much more MTV than horror film and mostly just looked a bit silly. Compared to similar scenes in the aforementioned To The Devil A Daughter and Blood On Satan’s Claw and considering how harrowing and yet simplistic they are the scenes in Zombie’s film are just too bombastic and lose impact in my opinion. It does seem slightly unfair to keep comparing Lords Of Salem to other (superior) films but Zombie does invite such comparisons by being so open with his influences. Zombie clearly loves these films, as do I, and I would definitely refer to such scenes and ideas as homages, as opposed to ripping off wholesale.
The acting is uniformly solid. Sherri Moon Zombie gets a fair bit of stick about her acting ability but I thought she did well in her first ‘lead’ role. Although Heidi is the main character she is fairly passive as things just happen to her, and around her. It is the supporting characters that move the story forward. Bruce Davison is what one would call the straight man of the piece, and he turns in a subtle, likeable performance. Ken Foree, although slightly underused here, is always good value for money and Jeff Daniels Phillips is sympathetic as Heidi’s co-worker and ex, unable to stop the inevitable. Judy Gleeson, Patricia Quinn and Dee Wallace have great fun devouring the scenery and taking no prisoners. Meg Foster, as Head Witch In Charge Margaret Morgan deserves plaudits for a visceral and earthy performance. Zombie knows how to get the best out of his actors.
For me, I enjoy the film more the more times I watched it. The atmosphere and overall tone are very effective. It’s a very Autumnal feeling film. The score and soundtrack by frequent Zombie collaborator John 5 are very well utilised, while the titular tune by the ‘The Lords of Salem’ is subtle but unnerving. While not particularly scary, it has it’s disturbing moments, which for me come from the more subtle moments, such as when Margaret Morgan stands motionless in Heidi’s kitchen, as opposed to the over the top theatrics of the final 20 minutes (Points docked for the annoying “This is a scary moment in the film, jump now!” music sting though). Rob Zombie has a very good grasp of the visual aspects of film making, and knows how to build an ambience and a world inhabited by well written characters. I understand why folk hoping for another House of 1000 Corpses/Devils Rejects ball outs gorefest would be disappointed by Lords Of Salem. It isn’t a perfect film, not by any means. It builds a great atmosphere but there is little pay off for it. The ending scenes at the The Lords ‘concert’ are frankly bizarre, as are some of Heidi’s visions, as mentioned. I much preferred the build up to the climax in this case. This was Rob Zombie’s first film with full creative control and while it seems slightly churlish to begrudge him the chance to really flex his creative muscles it has come at the expense of both a fully coherent story and the (possible) enjoyment of the audience. I definitely recommend the film though, if you like atmospheric and visually appealing horror films. And if you also like films that go for utter weirdness at the end, so much the better.
And as for Rob Zombie’s version of Halloween? I didn’t hate it. Which considering how convinced I was that I was absolutely going to loathe it with the power of a thousand suns is fairly impressive. He took on a classic and tried to make it his own. If there has to be remakes of films I would rather they were done by people with their own creative impulses and ideas and people who understand and love the source material. And Zombie does. So yeah, sorry for being a twat Rob (Halloween II can pretty much get to fuck though).