APRIL 20, 2013
Earlier this week I had the displeasure of seeing Oblivion, a sci-fi film that stole ideas from any number of genre films (primarily one I can't say the name of without spoiling its central twist, though it also "pays homage to" Phantasm, of all things), but never found a life of its own. It looked nice, and the score, while also a "stew" of other, better scores, was enjoyable enough to listen to on Spotify once or twice, but at no point did I stop wishing I was just watching one of those other movies instead. Rob Zombie's The Lords of Salem, on the other hand, similarly cribs from any number of films and filmmakers, but Zombie puts his own stamp on it - I never forgot I was watching one of his films, whereas the only thing to learn about Joseph Kosinski from Oblivion it's that he's got decent taste in movies.
Of course, it's easy to keep Zombie in mind when he casts his wife in the lead role. I don't think Sherri Moon is the greatest actress in the world, but she's a lot better than she's often given credit for, as if it's ONLY because she's married to the guy that she gets the roles she does. Even though the budget is the lowest he's ever worked with, I still don't think the guys putting up that money would sign off on her taking the lead role if she wasn't capable of doing so, especially with a number of other female roles she could have taken instead to fulfill any sort of assumed nepotism. And she's solid here, playing a much quieter character than she did in the Rejects films or even his Halloween - it's only in a few moments at the end we see her indulging in the sort of "girl from a music video" type behavior she was originally known for.
She's also glammed down, sporting hipster glasses and unflattering dreadlocks in her role as a DJ from Salem, MA who receives a mysterious record, plays it, and begins to see things, feel sick, and eventually start using drugs again (she's in recovery at the beginning of the film). Supposedly helping her through this tough time is her landlord (Judy Geeson) and her strange sisters, played by Patricia Quinn and Dee Wallace. Yes, Zombie has once again cast his film with a gaggle of genre vets - Andrew Prine cameos as John Hawthorne, and Ken Foree plays one of her fellow DJs (Sid Haig and Michael Berryman also have super quick cameos in a flashback). But the real shocker is Meg Foster as the head witch, almost completely unrecognizable in prosthetics - only those eyes give her identity away.
At this point I might as well mention that the film has been considerably reworked; if you read the credits you'll see names like Udo Kier and Clint Howard being special thanked, due to their roles being excised. Barbara Crampton's role has been reduced to one shot during a montage of women hearing the strange record (I guess everyone in town listens to this station), and I have to assume that Haig and Berryman weren't hired to be anonymous dudes who never even get a closeup. I know Zombie had to trim from his script given the low budget (it's such an unusual film, I can easily see why he'd have trouble securing enough money to completely fulfill his original vision), but it seems it was further modified in editing - hopefully the DVD will have some of that material, but if not we can at least read his novelization (linked below) that is based on his original script.
Don't get me wrong - it's not an incoherent, Dimensionalized mess as a result. I never felt too confused as to what was going on (I assume SOME confusion is part of the design, given the heavy influence of filmmakers like Dario Argento and Jean Rollin), but it definitely feels a bit "cramped", with certain plot points never given much room to breathe. At one point the band (the Lords of Salem) is said to be coming to town for a show, but this subplot never really comes to life - Foree's character just says they're coming and then it's never mentioned again until Sheri Moon arrives at the venue on the final night of the movie (in a nod to Shining, we have titles for each day of the week, starting on Monday when she gets the record and ending on Friday when the band is supposed to come). And the fact that the song only affects women is not only unexplained, but it's never even clear that only women have showed up for the show - were Salem's men turned away, or did they just not care?
Also making it feel a bit small is that they clearly didn't shoot the whole movie in Salem, but on sets elsewhere (Los Angeles, in this case). So whenever someone goes outside, we get a quick shot of them wandering down a very New England (read: gloomy and colonial) looking street which is actually Salem (I recognized some of the locales), but those moments are few and far between, and the shots are compact, like they only had permission to get a few feet on either side of the house and not much else. I mean, it's certainly better than the horrid attempt at passing off Canada as the town in The Covenant, but given the town's unique history and relatively untapped potential for film productions, I was a bit disappointed to see that Zombie and his DP just had Sheri and co-star Bruce Davison quickly walk down a few streets before grabbing a few generic establishing shots and heading back to LA.
However, all of this actually has a benefit - it lets the film be noticeably quieter than anything else Zombie has done, focusing on character over shock value. Not only does this allow those bursts of violence or insanity to really pop and resonate (unlike in Halloween, where we were numb to the brutal violence before Myers even became an adult), but it also lets us give a crap about the characters - something that has never really happened in his movies. I liked Brad Dourif a lot in his Halloweens, and of course Danielle Harris could be playing Hitler and I'd still find her appealing, but otherwise I hated just about everyone in those movies, and the Rejects/Corpses films were populated either by degenerates or people ruthlessly trying to kill those degenerates. But here, almost everyone - even the damn villains - are likable and charismatic, not to mention NORMAL. Davison's character in particular is like nothing I've ever seen Zombie try before - a normal, intelligent guy who is interested in finding out more about the "band" and in helping Sheri's character. Usually everyone in a Zombie film looks like they just crawled out of a gutter, but not here - the three witches just enjoy their tea and take pride in their scones like regular old birds. After the Halloweens I wasn't sure if Zombie had it in him to just make NORMAL people, but he proved me wrong here - he even keeps the F-bombs to a minimum.
He also keeps the violence to a minimum - there's only, I think, one on-screen death in the entire movie. Yes, this means that the movie can and will be considered "boring", but it's hardly surprising given the movies he was paying tribute to - Suspiria, The Devils, The Shining... none of these films are exactly wall to wall violent. Even when it doesn't always work (perhaps because of the budget? The moment where she first hears the record is severely underplayed but maybe they couldn't afford to do anything crazier because they needed to save the dough for when it mattered - i.e. the end), I had nothing but respect and surprise for the restraint he was showing.
It's also pretty creepy; there are some dumb jump scare attempts (a witch who appears in corners and such like something out of Insidious), but it's positively drenched with ominous atmosphere, and that bit of music is as haunting as "Tubular Bells" or the piano in Eyes Wide Shut (another film that might pop in your head while watching). Again, it's not too violent, but it's UNSETTLING, which is better anyway. That this was working on me in the most toxic theater in all of LA - an AMC inside the tourist trap ghetto that is Citywalk - made it even more impressive. When this hits Blu-ray, and you're watching around Halloween-time, it's gonna get under your skin if you can get past the minimalist approach.
Some of it feels pretty juvenile, however. The backstory of the town witches and their prosecution by Hawthorne is all fine, but near the end Zombie starts tossing in some of his music video imagery, like a Jesus painting turning devilish and Sheri dancing with a goat - it's like he remembered the desecrated Mary statue from Exorcist and decided to use it as a launchpad for an entire sequence. I also didn't quite get their music show - they do it at night and have guests, but they also play goofy sound FX and talk about each others' sex lives like it was a 2nd rate Howard Stern morning show ripoff. And why is it so popular? As with Halloween, it seemed like Zombie was trying to make a period piece and just chose to ignore it when the plot required a modern touch; no one has a cell phone until near the end when someone needs to call Sheri, and it's not until Thursday or Friday that we see a computer. I thought for sure the movie took place in the early 90s (the year of the Witch Trials being 1693, I thought it was a straight "300 years later" kinda deal) until the final reel when these things popped up. So it exists in a world where a local radio station can still pull in a huge audience and folks still "tape" things (Davison's wife records his broadcast on a 90 minute TDK cassette! They even sell those anymore?), but they have modern laptops with wifi too.
But that's a Zombie thing, I guess (Rejects also felt simultaneously like 1977 and 2005), and again - I like that he was able to inject his own personality in a film that was, by design, a love letter to other films and directors, all of whom had their own very distinct touches that make the usual copycatting that much easier to spot. Zombie's a smart guy and a die hard fan of the genre - he's not exactly trying to pass any of this off as his own idea, and if I were to interview him about it he'd probably gladly namecheck a few influences I didn't spot. I can't wait to read the novelization, because I'm sure some of the more obtuse story points make more sense, and maybe we can get a better handle on the supporting cast, but the film itself is a challenging, uniquely entertaining entry in his output, but retains the polarizing effect he will (hopefully?) always have in his work. Some folks call it boring, but to me a boring Rob Zombie movie would be the one I DIDN'T have 12 paragraphs of stuff to talk about afterward.
What say you?