The Heart of Salem

Rob Zombie is an anomaly. Not as polarizing, or as generally reviled as Eli Roth or Tom Six, as unfairly neglected as Greg McLean or Neil Marshall, nor as easily forgotten as James Wan and Darren Bousman, he is a horror filmmaker who has been nailed to many different crosses. Though most of us still remember when he made his living making metal music and the kooky videos that went with them, his switch from music to movies wasn't as inevitable (or, ahem, misguided) as the transitions made by Prince or Madonna, as enigmatic as David Byrne, nor as left-field and misguided as Fred Durst or Mr. Oizo. Zombie's a director without a steady cult, someone who's never made a film that we can all agree on. Unlike Roth or Wan his movies have gotten steadily better as he's steadied his craft and figured out what sorts of stories he wants to tell, even as he's often constrained by the demands of an increasingly horror-phobic studio system. But this past year, to my gratitude, the money was on his side, and he was given total creative autnomy on a project of his choosing and the result is Lords of Salem, a witch-burning film that despite clearly attempting to make it look and move like many others, speaks in a voice that could only be Zombie's. Mixing ghastly psychedelic imagery with disarming, effecting realism, Lords tells the story of a woman who falls prey to an ancient curse brought on by a coven of witches (played with Gleeful abandon by the always welcome Dee Wallace, Meg Foster, Patricia Quinn and a truly awesome Judy Geeson) and a satanic vinyl record. In other words, this movie speaks an old language. The question is, who's fluent these days? Lucas Mangum and I both gave it a whirl. 
Lucas Mangum So what did we think of Lords of Salem?

Scout Tafoya Even as I was aware of what was going wrong from a narrative standpoint, even as a few lines of dialogue struck me as Zombie trying a touch too hard to sound unforced and normal (which...what ambition!), even as he goes too far in his penultimate freak out into Altered States territory than the film can quite handle, I was equally aware that I liked the film too much to let the problems outweigh the overall effect. Or to put it simply, I'd decided I was going to love it and I did. I like Zombie. I like him as a person as well as an artist. 

I'll now refer everyone to my writing on Zombie's Halloween Films here only because Lords of Salem is the film I was wishing and hoping for when I walked out of Halloween 2. It's a horror film but the mean-spirit of his previous work has been channelled into something a little more watchable and understandable (drug addiction and sacrificial murder, as opposed to senseless murderings for the helluvit) and thus a more ambient, lived-in movie emerges. It's basically horror-as-status-quo, which is, far as I can see, kind of its own genre. The Witch Who Came From The Sea and Maniac are sort of up this alley, but they go from straight to crazy with no discernible attempt to shift the tone accordingly. Suspiria nearly achieves something similar, but I thiiiink that's because Dario doesn't speak great English or concern himself with, as he puts it, "Cartesian storytelling." Zombie is basically making an old-fashioned slice-of-life film, or maybe a better analogy is that he's making a 70s crime film, but he's replaced a heist with witch burning. Sidney Lumet efforts like The Anderson Tapes or Dog Day Afternoon jump out, because again, it's the lives of the robbers that makes the action worth watching.

I also share that piece above because I stand by the sentiments and think they apply to Lords, even if he has begun to learn from his mistakes. He's mostly maintained that beautiful unrehearsed acting style from his players, and given some of my favourite forgotten actors a chance to play it more or less straight - Ken Foree is perfectly cast, Bruce Davison and Maria Conchita Alonso don't strike me as the perfect married couple, but individually their performances are excellent and I liked the idea that Zombie thought they could convincingly play married. He's actually a far more romantic filmmaker than anyone gives him credit for - his depiction of married life is, when it's not relevant to show otherwise as in the case of Mr. and Mrs. Myers, idyllic and lovingly detailed. Also, dig the way he shows the hopeful romance/friendship between his leads. That wide shot of Whitey on the docks is heartbreaking, not to mention beautiful in that early John Boorman way.

And the Boorman quote brings me to the film's strengths. It takes its reference points in stride (the exception being the Ken Russell nods, which stick out more than they should, but, whatever, that's more a problem in mixing music video theatrics, Animation and Live action when the live action has been up to this point very well grounded - Zombie evidently didn't realize how well he'd been doing) and creates something purposefully familiar but also spins it in a way we've never seen. The compositions, those purposeful zooms, the truly bad-ass images of the witch sabbaths, we recognize them from staples like Argento, Carpenter, Coscarelli, Kubrick and Boorman (I love the shoutout to the Zardoz head!) but also lesser known influences like Mark of the Devil or Otakar Vávra's The Witch's Hammer. But the reason the appropriation works, for me, is because they're presented just outside the fringes of lives I buy, ones that involve flirtation, record players and NA meetings. He believes in his characters and their environments and sells them flawlessly. Even the villains are believably clique-y and lovable. That they're also played by genre regulars given straight roles to go to town with, the thing I liked best about his Halloween films, is icing on the cake. He's an actor's director, even if it looks like his images took years to dream up and choreograph. Just look at Dee Wallace and Patricia Quinn! They look like they're having so much fun! Wallace's hair alone is more shading than many characters get in their own movies. And how fearless is Meg Foster?! Furthermore, I feel like Sheri Moon, at this point in her life, wouldn't just take her clothes off just because - she's gotta love her husband and believe in his ideas. The space he gives his actors delivers a sense of his world view and what a giving director he is, to cast and audience alike.

In preparation for writing this I watched a film called Reverb, which takes a different approach to a similar idea. Made and shelved in 2007, it concerns a rock musician and his girlfriend given a cut-rate deal at a swank recording studio because a friend works there. They become obsessed with a song and in the wake of hearing it and falling under its spell the guy feels a creative breakthrough and follows his muse to strange ends. His girlfriend, freaked out by his obsession, finds out the origin of the phantom song and the creepy dude who wrote it. It's mostly nonsense, the studio's too clean except for a token echo chamber/kill floor, no metaphor emerges about the recording process (which is especially pathetic considering how easy that would have been) and the filmmaking's far too slick. In short, I don't know anything about the director from watching this movie. I know loads about Zombie from his few films and his muscular stylistic/grammatical evolution. He was out to provoke at first, but his worldview has since emerged through his constructions. I know the movies he likes, but I also know his opinion of people, his humanity, his ideas about what makes for a good life lived well, how far people can fall and still be up for forgiveness. And the more I learn about him through his movies, the more I like him. Plus...I mean, come on. Vinyl as the messenger of Satan? Witch burnings? Ken Foree as a DJ? Paisley wallpaper as a sign of impending doom? This thing was made for me.

Did you take to it as much as I did?

Lucas First, I have to mention that what stands out the most in the film is Zombie's adoration, not just of horror, but of film. From the wallpaper in the apartment to the camerawork, this is a guy who just loves the art of filmmaking. As much as I enjoy his music, I almost wish he would've devoted his earlier years to film, so we could have a larger body of work to explore. The dude is clearly educated on the medium and isn't afraid to show it. Hopefully we won't have to wait another four years for his next film.

I'm not sure if I like it as much as Devil's Rejects, because that film had so much to say about moral ambiguity and how a quest for revenge can really twist somebody. Lords of Salem, to me, was just him telling a story, which is fine because it was a damn fine story. If I don't like it as much as Rejects, it definitely comes in a close second. While his love of film and horror is ever-present, it never takes away from the story, never slides into being a mere tribute to the movies he likes. I'd dare say that the first two thirds are perfect. I liked the gray tint that the film has and even though I couldn't help but shake my head when I saw that Sheri Moon's love interest looks suspiciously like Rob himself, I really liked the two main characters and their dynamic. Their back and forth really revealed the complexity of their relationship and I felt like they were people I knew, which is a golden ticket for me whenever I'm reading about characters in a book or viewing them on the screen. Though he borrows liberally from Kubrick, Polanski, Argento, and even Paranormal Activity's Oren Peli (who also produced Lords of Salem), it never once feels derivative. Again, I think that's because of character, but that could just be the writer in me.

I had mixed feelings about the third act. I mean, I liked what I saw, but only because I'm a huge Rob Zombie fan. The freakout scene with the goat-riding, the grinding black metal dude, and the melting Jesus face could have easily come from any White Zombie video. So as a Rob Zombie fan, I liked it. As a movie fan, I'm kind of up in the air. At least when it comes to how everything played out in the end. I did like the final shot of Sheri though. There was something very humanistic about showing her that way after experiencing all the horror. It also gains points for being very deliberate, which a few years ago, his detractors would've surely said he wasn't even capable of pulling off. The three witches were great. The concept was fun. And the protagonists are likable, especially Sheri, who shows us that she is more than capable of playing a dramatic role. I'd say it's a winner.

I plan to watch it again and again, because there was something really refreshing about it.

Scout Agree, though this is definitely my favourite of Zombie's films, by a comfortable margin. Those compositions are...epic. Those alone place this in my tentative top ten for the year without breaking a sweat. As for your reservations, I concede that the Altered States style animation and the black metal dude were missteps that take us out of his leading ladies believable and perverse suffering, but these are forgivable sins, I think we can agree, because after all he's trying to unseat us. He just also accidentally unseats the narrative for a few seconds.

I think you're right to make mention of Peli. That guy evidently had enough money to produce a whole fleet of horror films (hence the slew of James Wans coming out left and right...jesus that man annoys me) and chose to fund a Rob Zombie in amongst the Chernobyl Diaries and Insidii (the plural of Insidious, of course). This is the smartest thing he's done since making Paranormal, and I like this film far better than Paranormal because I feel like that film took a little time and calculation and Lords took a lot of very specific detail and a very peculiar sensibility honed over many years. Again, I don't know shit about Peli from watching his movies, but I'm grateful that he chose Zombie to make something that ultimately has nothing to do with his particular brand of films. Brave choice considering how commercially iffy Zombie's been in the past and since it gave me this film, I'm grateful.

The more I think about it the more this film and its rhythms, sexuality drenched in hopelessness and the grainy look, the more it reminds me of the kind of outre desert horror films made in the early 70s. The title appearing next to the goat head is what first alerted me to the similarity, but the priest scene is a great example of capturing a feeling of hopelessness inherent in the films being made in the first place. The Wrong Way, Blood Freak, Bloodsucking Freaks, things that make Al Adamson movies seem not just professional but safe. Movies with no one who ever made another film in the cast, so there's no proof they weren't actually killed. I recently bought a Vinegar Syndrome double feature DVD whose A-side was The Suckers, the apparently legendary lost porn-version of The Most Dangerous Game. That film has the same kind of hopelessness but of course in the Zombie it's intentional, whereas in the past it's been because I've looked through the story (what little there is) and into the lives of the creators. There's always an edge to movies like that, like they shouldn't exist; like some bikers killed a guy for a camera and the resultant film was a confession.

Zombie captures a bit of that quesy magic here, more so than in Devil's Rejects, which is a little too production-designed to ever lose itself entirely in the mileau. No film with that ends with "Free Bird" could ever fool anyone into thinking there was any real murder in it. Lords has a kookiness to its images that occasionally takes you out of the professionalism and those delicious tracking shots and into the weird America of yesterday. You can't make a movie like The Suckers today because the danger and mystery of the production can't be faked. You cannot get lost in this country today; you're always accounted for. Lords harks back to a time when the 70s seemed especially long because movies would just appear in drive-ins and grindhouses with not a single name you'd heard before. It gets close to achieving that very much missed sense of despair that can sometimes come of watching American roughies of a certain vintage. And I think he gets there by not making this a routine scare-a-thon. He's not trying to scare us with his repeated image of topless, goat-headed women, or of witches flailing away by fire-light, he's just trying to fill our heads with evil, the way the catholic league of decency always assumed rock music did.

What do you think Zombie's ambition was for this film? Clearly it was sort of a commission, even if the ideas were all very obviously his, but do you think he was after something, a place in some particular canon?

Lucas I think he was going for something classic this time around. Not classic as in throwback, but I think rather than take the paths of more recent horror efforts, he was in it to give us a simple yet effective horror film. Horror over the last ten years falls into three categories for me. The first category is that of some sort of endurance test for the viewer; films like Saw and The Collection fall into this category, and Zombie himself has been guilty of it from time to time. The second category is the tribute/parody/remake where you have your Cabin in the Woods and Evil Dead. Then you have the low-budget stuff, which at best gives us Absentia and Paranormal Activity; at worst we get the stuff that just seems like a couple of drunks bought a DV camera and decided to run around an abandoned house with the night vision on. The most recent efforts that Zombie's film is comparable to would be Ti West's House of the Devil and The Innkeepers. I mention those films, because like Lords of Salem, they seem to really stand out from the majority of today's horror films. They look to the past, but rather than copy it, they pick up where the greats left off before the three aforementioned categories became such staples in the current state of the genre.

That's what I feel Zombie set out to do.

Scout And I think he achieved it, with flying colours.

Lucas You're absolutely right. It was a truly refreshing experience, and I think it will get even better with subsequent viewings.

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