Sunday, January 19, 2014

Worst of Horror Films in 2013: Rob Zombie's Lords of Salem

Lords of Salem, written and directed by Rob Zombie

While Rob Zombie’s House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects had interesting things to say about families comprised of serial killers and their hapless victims, his latest effort, Lords of Salem, fails on nearly all fronts. Salem features Sheri Moon Zombie as Heidi Hawthorne, talk-radio DJ whose work, along with her co-workers’, consists mainly of deriding guests on their show. Thus, the first clue for viewers that all is not well is a protagonist with whom they cannot sympathize.  Then the off-kilter music starts—literally.

An anonymous party leaves a mysterious record at her radio station Curious, Heidi gives it a listen, absorbing the weird drumbeat and chanting. The appearance of this weird, satanic music is a nod to the emergence of heavy metal bands such as Black Sabbath and the theme of the music of the devil. Nonetheless, Heidi digs the music, so much so that she trances out each time she hears the tune.
This creepy theme of transfixing music aside, Salem is not scary at heart. However, it tries hard. At times, Zombie stuffs many a shot with unsettling tableaus such as a revolting, grisly old, nude witch hovering in the background or a figure hovering in the corner of the room. For good measure, he redundantly throws in flashback scenes starring the same witches, back in their witch trial heyday. The only problem is that these present-day intruders feel like mere wax figures—they never do anything. Instead, they lurk menacingly in the background. The acting in the foreground, though, is passable. 
Sheri Moon Zombie in Lords of Salem.
The heroine is portrayed by Rob Zombie’s wife, who also appeared in Corpses, Rejects and Rob Zombie’s remakes of Halloween I and Halloween II.  Sheri Moon Zombie was good in those as a victim or sociopath, depending on your fancy. In Salem, Moon comes across as convincingly as a lonely radio personality with a modicum of local fame and a sketchy past. In short, she is believable and, at times, pitiable. However, Moon is skinny to the point of emaciation. She is less sultry than in her previous outings. Perhaps her gaunt physical presence is meant to supplement her characterization.  While this may be an objectionable objectifying comment, her boney frame still drives the viewers to distraction. She looks like she needs someone to get her a sandwich, to paraphrase Tommy Lee Jones in Captain America.  As well, her co-star, oddly enough, resembles Rob Zombie himself.
Herman, as portrayed by Jeff Daniel Phillips, in purely physical terms, seems a geekier, more awkward version of Rob Zombie, replete with unkempt beard and piercing, haunted eyes. Just as Bradley Cooper in Midnight Meat Train resembles a young Clive Barker (the author of the short story Midnight Meat Train) so does Philips resemble Rob Zombie.  The director has inadvertently (or perhaps, intentionally) inserted a weirdly fictionalized version of himself into a film with negligible plot.
While light plot is fine—there are fine plot-less horror films out there— Salem‘s conclusion seems inevitable. Several cameos of famous or infamous horror film actors such as scream queen Barbara Crampton (who appeared in such films as Re-Animator and From Beyond) fail to elevate this effort. These appearances merely add self-referential novelty. Horror film buffs can proudly pick out these cameos.  After a scare-less depiction of leafy Salem environs and somewhat self-absorbed characters, including one who falls off the wagon, the ending arrives in all its incoherently edited glory.
The climax, a series of slap-dash contrast of religious iconography and horror and disarming masturbation and bodily horror is presumably meant to shock viewers. While this visual aspect of the ending is unexpected, the montage imagery is not particularly frightening. Moreover, the march toward a conclusion seems predictable. The character of Heidi acts as a mere stick figure carrying out her prescribed duties of a doomed heroine.
Perhaps Zombie, knowing scares were scarce, went for the gross-out instead. His approach reminded this reviewer of Stephen King who famously advised such a course of action in Danse Macabre, a collection of his essays on the craft of horror writing. King wrote “. . . and if I find that I cannot horrify, I'll go for the gross-out. I'm not proud. ” In this respect, Zombie does get some gross-out factor, but by then viewers might not care one way or another. Instead of experiencing frights, viewers get to meditate on masturbating religious figures, physically contorted witches, and bodily violation. Call it art school meets Polanski meets horror. And after all the curtain falls, of all times to finish strongly, Zombie does precisely that.
For this reviewer, the scariest part of Lords of Salem was the closing credit sequence. With spooky mood music playing, Zombie depicts black-and-white shots of eerie Salem neighbourhoods—panelled houses, glowing streets, lampposts and leaf-cluttered avenues, all cast in dusk light under a foreboding, bleak sky. These residential scenes are probably not far from the witchy tourist industry that is the economic reality of Salem. Zombie gets a win for accomplishing an eerie close. If only the director could have tapped into that unease for the rest of the production, and tapped into some heroic heroes or, at least, sympathetic heroes.
Editor’s Note: This film review also appeared in a different form on the Postscripts to Darkness website.

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