Rob Zombie is extremely frustrating as a filmmaker. The man has obvious talent, but outside of THE DEVIL’S REJECTS, he can’t seem to harness that talent for an entire film. All of his previous works have shown flashes of what he can do, but he is too prone to visual excess at times, and has difficulty building characters of substance. His latest release, THE LORDS OF SALEM is his most mature and restrained film to date. This doesn’t mean it’s his best, as the film’s ending undid much of his hard work building atmosphere and tension. This is such a shame, because the film could have been something far beyond average.
For the entire run time of the film, THE LORDS OF SALEM is a slow burn. A film that is broken up into chapters which are marked by the days the week. It opens rather eerily amidst a pagan celebration in the year 1696, and ratchets up the tension bit by bit until the disappointing, and somewhat over the top ending. As a horror/thriller, with a distinct throwback vibe to it, THE LORDS OF SALEM absolutely succeeds with its tone and mood, but the overall narrative and resolution will leave you wanting. Such a shame, because up until the last five minutes, Rob Zombie flirted with producing a remarkable film.
The premise is simple, but strong. The backdrop of the infamous Salem Witch Trials is an excellent place to begin, and there aren’t many good films about witches around. Anyone who feels the need to bring up the CRAFT, you have to leave this article, right now. Back in 1696, a coven of witches, led by genre icon Meg Foster, are put to death at the hands of the townsfolk, led by the Reverend John Hawthorne (Andrew Prine). As it usually is bad mojo to mess with witches, a curse is placed, a curse that will take a few centuries to come to pass.
The main events of the film begin when Heidi receives an album in the mail from an unknown band known simply as “The Lords”. Later that evening she plays the album, and immediately feels unwell. This sets off a chain of ever worsening visions of disturbing events, that will lead her to question what is real, and what is a hallucination. Later in the film, the album is played on air during her show, and it immediately has a strange effect on many of the town’s women as well. Heidi also has to deal with her landlord (Judy Geeson) and her two “sisters”, Sonny (an awesome Dee Wallace), and Megan (Patricia Quinn), who have suddenly taken a keen interest in her. There is also the matter of her being strangely drawn to a supposedly unoccupied apartment at the end of the hall. Attempting to help Heidi, is a local author named Francis (Bruce Davison), who slowly uncovers the legend behind “The Lords”, and their plot. I’m not going into spoilers, as not to ruin the film’s reveals.
The narrative focuses on Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), a local radio personality, who hosts a show along with Herman (Ken Foree) and Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips). Some of my favorite character building parts were with these three. Their banter feels authentic, and the three have great chemistry, and I fully believed the characters had existed prior to the camera rolling. This was very important to selling the film, as it is primarily a character piece. It’s great to see Ken Foree in anything, but I hate to say that out of the three, his tendency to over emote made him the least likeable of the trio. Jeff Daniel Phillips was great as Whitey. He played him with an earnestness and humanity that gave the character life and soul. I was very impressed with his work here.
Of course, the true focus is on Sheri Moon Zombie. I’ve had mixed feelings about her as an actress in the past, and was skeptical going in that she could carry a film like this. Thankfully, she answered the bell, and was very solid in this. Solid, but not great. When I watch her perform, she doesn’t come across as a natural actress. She has talent, but it’s still very raw. Many of her scenes in this film felt like they were rehearsal takes, where the actor isn’t going full-bore, rather than final takes. She just comes across to me as someone who is still trying to figure the whole acting thing out, and learning on camera. Not helping is continually being cast in her husband’s films. Rob Zombie isn’t known for his strong character work, and I’d love to see what a stronger director could bring out of her. That said, she does creepy very well. Her character isn’t written as deeply as I would have preferred, but she does a good enough job fleshing out the little character details. By the end of the film, I did care what happened to her, and she sold her character’s descent very well. Color me suitably impressed.
The film is an interesting mix of 70′s visuals and aesthetics, combined with a heaping of enough Christian and Pagan symbolism to make any heavy metal music video director jealous. The problem is that much of the intentionally blasphemous images lost their shock value in the 80′s, so Zombie’s retro fetish can work against him at times. The visuals are most effective when he sticks to a more muted palette, and keeps his garish visual nature in check. The subtle flashes of entity’s inhabiting Heidi’s apartment and dreams are far more effective and unnerving than the gaudier, more in your face visuals that are featured during the finale. It’s as if Zombie couldn’t contain himself any longer, and then erupted into full on Oliver Stone, NATURAL BORN KILLERS, excess mode during the closing minutes.
The ending is such a jarringly different visual style and tone, that I disliked it intensely. Not for content, but for execution. I loved the slower pacing, and the more psychological heavy elements of the film. When the end gives way to symbolically heavy content, it just didn’t quite fit. The settings were magnificent, but some of the creatures shown were laughingly silly for a film of this nature. I also wish that he wouldn’t have left so much of what happened in the theater during the ending to the imagination. It felt rushed because of it, and failed to drive home the true depths of evil at work. What should have been haunting, was rendered too vague and lost its teeth as a result.
The jury is still out on Rob Zombie as a filmmaker, but it may be time to arrive at a verdict soon. You can only bank on an artist’s potential for so long before realizing this is all he’ll be. Horror fans, myself included, have been waiting for him to make a truly great horror film for years now. He has the tools, and the necessary love for the genre to succeed, but he just can’t seem to put it all together for an entire film. Outside of DEVIL’S REJECTS, each of his films has left me frustrated at what could have been. THE LORDS OF SALEM was no different. Except that he came so close this time. A better and more restrained ending would have got him there. Back to my Rob Zombie stock mantra…maybe next time. For horror fans, there is still much here to like, but this is a firmly planted genre movie with limited mainstream appeal.
The video quality overall is excellent. Many of the scenes have an intentional grain about them, that was clearly an aesthetic choice. My first impression was that the disc was a lower quality transfer, but when the imagery shifts to the brighter, flashier neon color schemes, the disc absolutely shines. The image is sharp and defined, with no noticeable digital noise. The sharpness is excellent, and the blacks are deep and crisp. An excellent job, that won’t disappoint.
The audio also measures up quite well. The dialogue levels were clear and stable. The mix was well done, so no drop off or shaky transitions between the harsher score and softer spoken moments. The soundtrack is loud and jarring at times, but that is intentional. The side and rear channels didn’t get that much of a workout, but the audio still provided plenty of ambience. Overall, an extremely competent production job.
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An avid (some would say psycho) movie collector and fan, Eddie is driven to share his passion for all things film with anyone he can get to listen. Incapabable (or is it unskilled...?) at guile (unless he's buying you a drink, then his motives can be suspect)...the unfiltered truth of his id is what you'll get from him. He also stands as a self-proclaimed expert of movie trivia that would rather not have to grow up if he has any say in the matter.
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