Directed by: Rob Zombie
Produced by: Jason Blum
Screenplay by: Rob Zombie
Starring: Sheri Moon Zombie
Jeff Daniel Phillips
Maria Conchita Alonso
Music by: John 5
Cinematography by: Brandon Trost
Editing by: Glenn Garland
Studio(s): Entertainment One
Distributed by: Anchor Bay Films
Release date(s): September 10, 2012 (Canada, Toronto International Film Festival)
April 19, 2013 (United Kingdom, London)
April 19, 2013 (United States, limited)
Running time: 101 minutes
Country(s): United States
Production budget: $1.5 million
Box-office revenue: $1, 165, 882
Aloha, what's been occupying me for the past couple of days is drumming up a new Curriculum Vitae. It's been a while since I've actually had to do one, and the fact is I surprised myself how much I've got done over the past few years. Looking at it, it's like "hey, I've actually got the qualifications prospective employers are looking and now, despite all those years of hard work to attain gainful employment, they're still going to turn me down, so thanks for asking!" Cynicism aside, one of the things that doesn't change is the fact that I'm fanatical about films, and so, for all the latest and greatest in the movies, keep your eyes posted.
Today's film up for thorough digestion (why I always use food metaphors when my diet is way out there is beyond me) is The Lords Of Salem. The latest film from Rob Zombie, it came out in the United States in 2012 but was released on these shores in Spring of this year, and therefore I can review it as a 2013 film. For those of you who don't know, I'm a Rob Zombie guy through and through. Having been a fan of both White Zombie and his solo work as a musician for many years, I'll admit though to not being too privy to his filmography. House Of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects are unfortunate blips in my many years of movie watching, and the only film I have seen of his is the 2007 remake of Halloween, half of which is a bold retelling of the Michael Myers mythos, the other half a tired remake of the original film. However, with Zombie there is something about his aesthetics that even in it's weaker incarnations agrees with me, so, with that being said, here comes the plot synopsis: in Salem, Massachusetts, Heidi Laroq (Sheri Moon Zombie) works as a DJ at a hard-rock station with her co-workers Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman (Ken Foree). She receives a wooden box addressed to her in real name, which contains a record that when played, causes Heidi to experience horrific visions and from this point on, all manner of strange things start happening. That's not me being lazy, by the way, I just prefer for people to discover it themselves. If you want to know the whole plot going in, there's Wikipedia for that!
So, starting with the good, as I've mentioned, aesthetically I'm very much in sync with Rob Zombie, but I have to say I maintained objectivity throughout. Despite this, I think that from a directorial standpoint this is a bold, audacious horror picture that operates with a unique identity, not holding back from any current trend or tradition operating in much of the scourge that is contemporary horror cinema. Zombie also has a respect for the art form, and there are clear steps towards the grandiose vision a la Ken Russell that I believe he will achieve at some point with his filmmaking. Obviously, with the central plot, it invokes the likes of Suspiria, Witchfinder General, Haxan and various films of the like, and most clearly it has similarities with the folk devils and moral panics of Arthur Miller's The Crucible. However, instead of a socio-politcal picture, Zombie goes for a cerebral rain of blood, immersing us completely in the atmosphere of the story. In this regard, the movie has many strong points. Some of the editing techniques, oftentimes simplistic by design, are surprisingly effective. The use of freeze-frames and intertitles, presented in stylistically basic black and white, make the film feel like something very unadulterated and with a prescient sense of dread. Also, the sound editing of the movie is interesting, the mixing playing with you on a level that ensures the audience has an awareness of it, but it is subtle enough to work on an almost subconscious level. In this way, it conjuncts well with the musical score by John 5, so that you are (appropriately) unaware of what is the score and sound design/editing. The most interesting thing about the music in the film is that it does operate on a traditional composition level, but that the sounds are different, with much of it being a drone-based work, voices being tweaked in the editing suite and instruments such as the guitar being altered so dramatically to the point that not only is not near unrecognisable, it's downright alien aurally. Also, The Lords' theme itself is a genuinely demonic bit of work, reminding atmospherically of the atmosphere that comes with the band Painkiller, in terms of inducing a palpable sense of real nastiness. Finally, some praise must be garnered on Sheri Moon Zombie in the lead role as Heidi. In terms of a physical embodiment of a character, she moves around with a power that gives Heidi a legitimate credence and presence. The character has to go through a lot, and she (as an actress) keeps in sync with all the movements rather well. It's a believable and genuine performance.
While I will gladly heap praise on certain aspects of The Lords Of Salem, it is deeply problematic in other regards, which do drag it down from being the horror masterpiece it aspires to be and Rob Zombie could quite possibly have achieved. The first of the two major issues I have to flag up is the script by Zombie. Don't get me wrong, he is a director with a real vision, but the fact still remains that the script is pretty dire. The plot moves in rather predictable ways, going into the proverbial mouth of madness without a shred of deviation from the formats we have come to expect (perpetual awakening from dream-states tend to lose their effect five times over). Furthermore, the characters are not thoroughly fleshed out, with their arcs lacking something really meaty and the sense of the conflicting forces in the film just acting as serviceable tropes to get the film from point A to point B. This is a real shame, given that the final movement is a wonderful example of pure cinema, but you have to get through a lot of boring, perfunctory scenes to get there. Rob, I love your work, but I can't help but think what someone like Clive Barker would have made of writing a screenplay from Zombie's central story. Furthermore, although I loved the final movement, much of the film is badly lit. The cinematography by Brandon Trost is, ever during the daytime, shot as though The Turin Shroud has been thrown over the top of the camera as a lens filter. Don't get wrong, there's darkness films to create atmosphere, but not only does it already have that, this film is so dark that a lot of the time though you feel something, you can't tell what it is that's there. This was a problem of Trost's present in This Is The End, and it translates over unfortunately to The Lords Of Salem. Finally, although I think at times cinematic space is used well, the design and set decoration feels small, not in the sense of claustrophobic but rather boxy and weak.
Ultimately, because of a combination of it's praiseworthy qualities (direction, sound design/editing, musical score and central performance) and some inherent problems (script, cinematography, boxy production design and set decoration), I came out of The Lords Of Salem with mixed feelings. Zombie describes the film as "if Ken Russell directed The Shining," and while I have to admire him for his audaciousness, Zombie never reaches the heights of said film and Russell's masterwork The Devils, which the movie is clearly in dept to. An atmosphere will only go so far without the fundamentals of a solid structural base, but as it stands it's a decent enough work.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 5.5/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Flagellating (my brain. Listening Painkiller's stellar Guts Of A Virgin/Buried Secrets EPs)