[PREFACE: Though this viewing is delayed, I finally decided to watch this movie tonight, marking the culmination of a predetermined caprice that was born when I’d first heard of its development. I was curious then, but not pursuant. I made a note on my phone two days ago to
download purchase the film illegally, and today I did so at the expense of thirteen, 1.2 mb/s-powered minutes $18.99 (MSRP). Tonight’s immediate impetus was a friend finishing it and remarking thus. I needed a break from the mundane, so it was as good a night as any. The significance of it being Friday the 13th is coincidental in my case, but I can’t speak for aforementioned friend.]
I instantly feel silly by writing: Rob Zombie is a talented director. But he is.
His nom de voix turns noses rather than entire heads, but c’est la vie. It’s not for me to sell the man’s work. Of course, everyone’s a right to their own judgments, and if commerce should ensue following my appraisal of the movie: great. If not, I won’t lose any sleep, or if I did it would be owing to the film itself, but certainly not from the prospect of my failure to convince.
This is an unsettling work, to be sure, and deals rather profanely with subjects of a theological vein. Monsignor Zombie’s previous films have been rather overt in their attempts to shock or otherwise disturb his viewers. House of 1,000 Corpses, as a debut production, was not exactly the cinematic masterpiece of its day, but a celebration of a sideshow freak niche via homages to esoteric (and dated) horror favorites, a work so seemingly personal to its creator it’s hit or miss with his audience — the proverbial shot in the dark. It left me without its mark, unfortunately, but I was grazed. Its subsequent ‘sequel’ (The Devil’s Rejects) was a spiritual departure and a superior film overall; at times feeling knee-deep in pre-Union Americana and evoking an almost Western, outlaw tone, it showed flourishes of social commentary, untethered (to monster mythos) ultra-violence, and a keen eye and ear for the art of pairing licensed music to the film’s visuals, all further establishing its desired themes and motifs, etc.. A well constructed movie, if I say so myself. Halloween and its own sequel were re-imaginings (not remakes) of classics that also fell (for the most part) in the category of the monster film, despite the (biological) humanity of its legendary antagonist. Lords of Salem, however,is a different beast entirely and more of an abstract, psychological challenge.
The film opens four centuries hence and treats us to rather gritty footage of some of Salem’s choice female denizens playing at witchcraft, oblivious (or not) to the fact that they have probably situated themselves in the most inauspicious location for such a profession. They’re led in their arcane ritual by a woman of savage countenance and terrifying presence: Margaret Morgan, a central character. At this point, in the opening scene, the audience is still allowed its courage. We know what happens to women accused of Satanic ritual in Salem, Massachusetts and we can collectively venture a guess as to the fates of these women. And yet then again… we’re not so sure. Their conviction is such that it derails your own encyclopaedic knowledge of cinematic trope and by the end of the prologue you realize you have no fucking idea what you’re about to watch. You’re staring into the abyss, and I can’t think of a better way to start a horror film.
Cut to present day. Zombie’s muse, starlet, wife, lover, and fellow-lunatic Sheri Moon (née) plays Heidi and is our lead here, navigating our course through the movie. I’m admittedly unfamiliar with her previous credentials, but whether or not she’s classically trained, you get the impression she and her husband share a vision, or in the very least, speak the same language, so she is perhaps the best-suited candidate for the role. Heidi is a third of a terrestrial radio triumvirate at a local Salem station and rubs shoulders with horror legend Ken Foree and Dave Grohl (not really; Jeff Daniel Phillips). Their show is an offbeat, (seemingly) occult-oriented production, replete with zany sound effects, wisecracks, and Foree’s best George Takei impersonation (sans stylish homosexuality).
Following the radio appearance of a local (witchcraft?) historian, Heidi receives a strange record at the station’s reception desk, enclosed in an ominous wooden box. Assuming it’s a demo in need of airtime (senders/musicians being “The Lords”), she takes it home with her. After first sampling the track in private, it later receives some local traction on their show, where it is distributed over the airwaves in its trial-by-fire debut and has an eerie effect on the women of Salem.
I’d be remiss in revealing much more about the plot at this point, and so I’ll wax vaguely on the strengths of the picture from here on. The marriage of the sacred and profane is on display throughout, but in a more explicit, metaphysical exhibition, eschewing Durkheim’s sociological ambiguity; the forces of good and evil are very much at odds in this film, despite unequal representation. The kind of biblical, taboo forces at work are poignant and terrifying in the mere supposition of their existence — nightmarish, theological beliefs inherent in a vast amount of the world population. The film’s tone is strangely sexual at times, though not erotic or gratuitous; there is a celebration of the body but not for its traditional, aesthetic curvature or popular pornographic purposes — this is no parade of anatomically airbrushed mannequins. No, it’s something more earthly and primitive, a natural freedom rooted in Pagan and Wiccan culture, images which themselves are visually chastising and uncomfortable in our uptight, modern age.
And the imagery only begins there. Sacrilegious to the scene, this film is not for your Sunday churchgoers, believe you me. This blasphemous viewing should upset and disorient the most devout and non-believing alike with its absurd and ugly religious representations, and I found myself relishing in it for this fact. It is bold, but with a purpose. It is not a manifesto, some hare-brained credo of Satanic alignment, but a visually compelling and challenging picture, if only challenging your sense of propriety. There are artistic shots reminiscent of Kubrick’s Shining — long corridors covered with hedge mazes-in-wallpaper tapestry — and the set designs exude a kind of patchwork modernity, thematic but sparse. It doesn’t assault your senses so much as seeps through them and takes root somewhere deeper. Lords of Salem engaged my subconscious in its own way, in a way your average horror movie (these days?!) does not even attempt to do, and it succeeded. Here I am, rambling about it like a ravening Lovecraft character suddenly stumbled upon an ancient cult. That’s the kind of shit you’re dealing with in this movie. An original but archetypal mythos. I can dig it, man. Check it out.
(I was also soaring at Icarian heights for the duration thanks to a local spice trader.)