Sheri Moon Zombie - Heidi Hawthorne
Bruce Davison - Francis Matthias
Jeff Daniel Phillips - Herman "Whitey" Salvador
Ken Foree - Herman "Munster" Jackson
Judy Geeson - Lacy Doyle
Patricia Quinn - Megan
Dee Wallace - Sonny
Meg Foster - Margaret Morgan
Maria Conchita Alonso - Alica Matthias
Genre - Horror/Supernatural/ArtHouse/Witchcraft
Running Time - 101 Minutes
Ever since his directorial debut with 2003's HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, musician Rob Zombie has become quite the polarizing figure within the horror community. Either you think he's brilliant, or you think he should just stick with music. I know people who love anything this guy does. I also know people who think he's a hack who focuses too much on the white trash culture and steals ideas from older films and turns them ugly. Regardless of your opinion on the guy, you have to admit that he has left a lasting impression in the world of horror.
Personally, I'm not Rob Zombie's biggest fan as a filmmaker. But I'm not a hater either. I still think 2005's THE DEVIL'S REJECTS is a fantastic movie and I still consider it his masterpiece. HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES grows on me each time I watch it. I think his 2007 remake of HALLOWEEN is one of the better ones in our modern era, although I like it less and less for its second half. And while I dislike 2009's HALLOWEEN II, I do appreciate the film's visual style. I also liked THE HAUNTED WORLD OF EL SUPERBEASTO. So I tend to favor Zombie's film works, although I feel his screenwriting could be a lot stronger.
So it's no surprise how divided the horror community has become now that Zombie's latest film, THE LORDS OF SALEM, has had its limited release in theaters. Some have called the film brilliant. Others dislike it, not sure what to make of it. THE LORDS OF SALEM is really a film that will divide an audience because it needs to be judged and interpreted individually. Personally, I thought it was pretty damn good and an interesting homage to 70s Euro demon/witch horror cinema.
Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie) is one third of a trio of radio DJs at a local Salem, Massachusetts station that focuses on classic rock. A former drug addict, Heidi is faithful to her dog, good friends with Munster (Ken Foree), and possibly in a relationship with Whitey (Jeffrey Daniel Phillips). She also lives in a strange apartment building, with a friendly but kooky landlord named Lacy (Judy Geeson). However, things seem to be going well for Heidi.
One day, Heidi receives a strange package at work. Inside is a vinyl record that's a personal gift to Heidi, sent by "The Lords". She plays the record, hearing a strange and creepy tune that seems to do strange things to her mentally. As she continues to hear the record, the music begins to hypnotize her and give her flashbacks and eerie images of 17th century witches, led by Margaret Morgan (Meg Foster), and their rituals for Satan. The record is eventually played on Heidi's radio station as well, hypnotizing other Salem women.
As Heidi becomes more and more confused, she starts relapsing back to her drug habit. When Lacy and her two sisters (Dee Wallace and Patricia Quinn) involve themselves in helping Heidi, stranger things start to happen all over Salem. Are these three sisters witches? Is it all in Heidi's drug induced head? Or are there more sinister things at work?
While many have an issue with this and wish this was more accessible, like recent horror fare like the EVIL DEAD reboot, I think it's actually genius that Zombie went against what people were expecting. It makes THE LORDS OF SALEM stand on its own, separating itself from mainstream horror Hollywood loves to shove down people's throats. It's obvious that Zombie was inspired by ROSEMARY'S BABY, SUSPIRIA, and other classic demonic and witch horror cinema from the 60s and 70s - cinema that is so far from what is popular to modern audiences. In fact, I saw a lot of Dario Argento and Mario Bava homages and influences throughout this film, as well as some Stanley Kubrick as well. THE LORDS OF SALEM is more of a psychological horror film - one meant for the mind and for the eyes - rather than a visceral experience like Zombie's previous works. There's no Michael Myers stabbing a helpless nurse a million times to get some kind of point across. This is classic horror, one that implies things rather than just showing them. Some horror audiences may find this boring, disappointing, or lame. But I love it and shows that Zombie has some real chops here as a filmmaker who can create a special kind of movie for when those mainstream films grow tedious to watch and talk about.
- The direction. If you can take away anything from THE LORDS OF SALEM, it's that Rob Zombie definitely has a great eye for horror. It's been great watching him grow as a director. I always felt HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES was a music video disguised as a horror film, which is probably why it's grown on me after multiple watches. Along the way, Zombie went from gritty grindhouse inspired visuals to a much more arthouse way of expressing his story. You got the first taste of that in HALLOWEEN II, which in my opinion, are the only moments in that disappointing sequel worth mentioning. But Zombie totally expands on that here in THE LORDS OF SALEM, giving the story an effectiveness that would have been lost if this film was shot in a much more MTV/mainstream way.
In many ways, the visual presentation in THE LORDS OF SALEM resembles a drug trip. It's as if Zombie puts us in Heidi's shoes, making us wonder what the hell is really going on here. Sure, it's pretty easy to explain on the surface. But experiencing it visually just makes things pop out more. The colors in Apartment Number 5 resemble an Argento visual wet dream. Bright reds, blues, and yellows take over the visual senses, making Heidi's hallucinations and nightmares seem so beautiful and stunning. The way Zombie composes and frames his shots are fantastic, really capturing an eerieness that makes one feel sort of uncomfortable, yet intrigued. Having figures and props pop up out of the blue may be cliche at this point, but it still makes things mysterious and creepy. And I love the shots of the apartment building's hallways. The deep focus and the slow moving dolly towards that mysterious Apartment No. 5 really give these scenes a lot of life.
I also loved how the dreams and reality would blur, making you wonder if what you are seeing is actually happening or not. I think the best example is the scene where Heidi goes to a church and encounters a priest who wants to help her. Instead, he curses her out on her sin and forces her to give him a blowjob while he's delivering a sermon. Then all of a sudden, the priest is asking her if she's okay and she just runs out of the church. It's so bizarre, yet edited so well, that you think what Heidi is experiencing is real on the physical plane. But we learn quickly that "The Lords" are really doing a number on her mind, making her question God and religion in general.
We also get moments involving goats, Satanic priests who seem to be missing facial features, and a creepy Beelzebub that's kind of funny to look at - but also very disturbing. While we don't see it, the appearance of Beelzebub seems to imply a ROSEMARY'S BABY moment. Just a lot of surreal imagery the audience must infer for themselves.
I also loved the flashback stuff, which are shot differently than the present day scenes - with more grain and dullness in color. I also loved the finale, which is just twenty minutes of insanity put on him. The way it's shot, edited, and paced is perfectly done. I wish I could reveal more, but I'm trying to keep this review as spoiler free as possible.
I think Rob Zombie has really matured as a director, which makes me very happy. Instead of having the story be told in an in-your-face manner, Zombie holds back and uses subtlety to his advantage. I think it's a great move and I really hope he continues to make trippy films like this for as long as he can.
- The soundtrack. If you know anything about a Rob Zombie movie, you'll know that the soundtrack never disappoints. John 5 did most of the score, which was obviously inspired by music in ROSEMARY'S BABY, THE OMEN, SUSPIRIA, and so on. The music always lends to a creepy vibe, which complimented the strange visual style perfectly. We also get some classic music from Rush, Velvet Underground, Rick James, and Manfred Mann's Earth Band. Just great stuff.
- The acting. I didn't think the acting in the film was honestly that bad in THE LORDS OF SALEM. I know a lot of people complain that Sheri Moon Zombie stars in her husband's films, feeling he could hire a much better actress to convey the character's emotional highs and lows. And while Zombie is clearly not the best actress in the world, there is something about her that makes her very likeable and endearing to watch. Plus seeing her nude doesn't hurt either. But Zombie is good as Heidi, doing well in emoting during the more stressful and chaotic moments in the film. Would a "real" actress done better with the lead part? Probably. But Zombie makes it work for the most part and I think this is her best and most mature thespian work to date. She has really grown as an actress since HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES.
And you have got to love Zombie's casting choices. Bruce Davison is very good as Francis Matthias, the man who starts figuring out what "The Lords" are up to. Ken Foree and especially Jeff Daniel Phillips bring a human side to the film, playing realistic and grounded characters. I thought Phillips and Zombie had some good chemistry when they were on screen together. The three sisters [Dee Wallace, Patricia Quinn, and especially Judy Geeson] were great. I loved how all three actresses played their parts so differently from the other, yet they complimented each other quite naturally. Meg Foster [those eyes!] was almost unrecognizable as main witch, Margaret Morgan. She was pretty creepy. And it's always nice to see Maria Conchita Alonso, Sid Haig, and Michael Berryman in cameos as well. Very cool cast.
- The improved screenplay. I think prior to watch THE LORDS OF SALEM, my doubts stemmed from Rob Zombie's history when it comes to his storytelling abilities verbally on a script. This was especially evident on those HALLOWEEN films. But it seems Zombie realized his flaws and really focused on tightening his scripts into something more cohesive and understandable. In fact, I think this is Zombie's best script that he's ever written.
For one, I actually liked all the characters in the film! Were they all developed fully? No. But I knew enough about each of them through their actions and how they reacted to each other and to the situation around them. I was expecting white trash characters cussing up a storm like in Zombie's previous films. But nope - they all act like normal people who only cuss when the situation calls for it. I thought the are-they-aren't-they relationship between Heidi and Whitey was done well. I liked the three sisters and how different they all were. I liked how smart Francis was and how quick he picked up what "The Lords" were planning. I believed what Zombie was telling me here, which probably hasn't happened since THE DEVIL'S REJECTS. I wish he had done this for those two HALLOWEEN films, but hey - he's doing it now and that's all that matters.
The dialogue was also very realistic and quite subtle. There was probably one real scene where a character just went off on a cuss storm. And it worked because I wasn't expecting it and made the scene effective. But for the most part, these characters speak naturally and the dialogue moves the story along rather than giving exposition to fill up time. I was very impressed that Zombie managed to rein himself in here, allowing the visuals to tell the story instead of distracting us by how disgusting the characters speak. Everyone had their own voice, and I appreciated that. Here's hoping Zombie continues writing down this path because it was a pleasant surprise.
- Minor things. THE LORDS OF SALEM is fine as it is, but a part of me wanted more out of certain things. For one, I wish it were a bit scarier than it was. Sure, there are jump scares and creepy moments. But I found the film more kooky and intriguing rather than nail-biting and worthy of goosebumps. It didn't really bother me while watching it, to be honest. But I found the films Zombie were paying homage to much creepier than this one. Then again, maybe I'm just desensitized to certain horror these days.
Also, I would have loved to see more of the three sisters in the film. They were all very interesting and livened up the film whenever they were on. More backstory to the three of them would have been nice as well. Hell, I wouldn't mind a film about these three at all.
Like I said, these issues don't really effect the film in a negative way. But I think certain things could have been expanded, story wise. Still, as long as I can understand everything I'm watching to a certain degree, I'm fine with the storytelling. Besides, THE LORDS OF SALEM is a movie that's more style over substance - and it had both.
THE FINAL HOWL
THE LORDS OF SALEM isn't for everyone. Mainstream audiences will probably dislike the film, or scratch their heads wondering why they spent 101 minutes watching it. However, Rob Zombie fans and lovers of the 60s and 70s demon/witch subtle Eurostyle horror will appreciate the film for what it's trying to do. Rob Zombie, tired of pleasing studio heads, has finally made a film for himself again. And we've been invited to travel down this trippy journey of witchcraft and Satanism that could be described and interpreted in multitude of ways.
I get why some didn't dig this film and I totally respect that. However, I thought it was pretty great and as I took days to really think about the film and absorb what I saw, I started to like the film even more. Rob Zombie went against the mainstream and created a horror film that stands out from the rest. I'm honestly surprised this even got a theater release [even if it was 300 theaters], but I'm very sure this will receive a lot of attention [and hopefully love] when it hits DVD, Blu-Ray, and VOD. Ambitious, surreal, memorable, and a vast improvement over his three previous films, Rob Zombie may have created a film that will divide opinions within the horror community for years to come. And for that, I respect the hell out of Zombie for going against the Hollywood norm and giving us a damn good film to boot. It's not a film I can recommend because the reaction to it will be completely subjective. But I dug the hell out of it and I hope audiences will dig it just as much as I did.