Horror movies are a tough nut to crack for a lot of film makers. Some people just confuse the term “horror” with “gore,” and assume that buckets upon buckets of blood is some how going to scare it’s audience. Gore isn’t inherently scary. Sure, a gruesome scene can do wonders to act as a psychological gut punch, but only if used carefully. If the gore is poured on in droves you slowly become desensitized as the proceedings go on, and it stops making it’s intended impact. Becoming more of a joke, really. That’s not to say that I don’t ever enjoy a good gore fest. Sometimes gratuitous violence is fine, but it very rarely ever makes for a good movie. Especially, when it comes to horror flicks.
Horror of the “slow burn” variety is what i really enjoy. I like things that are drenched in atmosphere, have methodical camera work, fantastic art design, good pacing, and above all a good script. It’s a tricky thing to pull off. A lot of times when people attempt this style they end up being just boring. “Slow burn” doesn’t mean lifeless, but some film makers are under the impression that if nothing happens for most of the running time that when they actual start throwing stuff at you it will be all the more shocking. The problem with this is that we won’t care by the time we get to the “good stuff,” because we’ve checked out already, and are empathy can no longer be expected to bother(Sometimes our empathy can be a total dick.).
So, what was the point of all that, huh?(Well, hold on a god damn second… Jesus.) Rob Zombie, as a film maker, has always leaned toward the more “shock and gore” style of horror. I mean, there is some interesting character stuff, but we’ll talk about that in a bit. With The Lords of Salem, he has made a concerted effort to bridge the gap of these two styles. It a visceral slow burn, if you will. Unfortunately, it’s not an entirely successful venture, but there is something about it that I found really appealing. Even though I was underwhelmed, two days later I’m still thinking about it.
The Lords of Salem has a real old school aura about it. It reminded me of a lot Rosemary’s Baby( A personal favorite of mine.) in pacing and tone, but it doesn’t suffer because of the comparison. This movie has a real sense of it’s own identity, and even though it’s quite a bit different than the rest of his filmography, it never doesn’t feel like a Rob Zombie movie. This movie feels like it had no compromises, and for better or worse, this is exactly the movie he set out to make. I can’t imagine a studio asking him to go the places he goes in this film.
As the title of the film implies, this movie is about witches, and, weirdly enough, they skew to a more stereotypical representation than I would have imagined. If you were to think about the perception of witches back when the actual Salem Witch Trials occurred that gives you a pretty good idea of what the witches in this movie are like. That’s not a knock though, and is a real testament to the performances( Meg Foster being a real stand out.). The actresses that portray the witches really go for broke, and totally commit to it. They have no shame, and when they whip themselves up into a satan worshiping fervor it’s hard not to totally buy into. I would say that it’s the most successful element at play in the film. A lot of times in movies, representation of witchcraft ends up usually being more silly than not, but not here. They claw, growl, and spit their dialogue, but never do they ever cross the line into being totally over the top. It’s a fine line, but they walk it with aplomb. I was even a little unsettled by the depiction, and I can’t say that I’ve had that experience in a good long while. Well, when it comes to movies anyways. I was recently tricked into watching a video of two elderly gentleman blowing each other in a show. That was pretty unsettling. I mean, I’m not homophobic or anything, but I can’t imagine any body really seeing that, and saying “Oh, how nice. How nice for them.” Well, I guess it would be nice for them…. I digress….
Another really impressive element is the art direction in this movie. The world of this movie is a very recognizable one with a bit of a muted color palette. The thing about this is that when the movie goes into some hallucinatory sequences they really pack a punch, and some of the imagery really stays with you. The juxtaposition really works, and doesn’t feel pointless. It’s a calculated measure , and you can see all the work that went into this methodical approach. The imagery is always striking and interesting. A lot of credit should be given to the cinematographer. The effectiveness of this imagery has a lot to do with how they are framed in a shot. The camera work is really fantastic, and has some of the better steadicam work I’ve seen in awhile. Some of the camera work is really reminiscent of a few scenes in The Shining, but like I said before, it doesn’t ever feel like cheap imitation.
One of the larger issues this movie has is that it’s characters feel slightly under written. You do get a sense of the people, but other than the main character, we’re kind of left hanging. None of the side characters really get paid off in any way, and by the end of the movie you’re left a little puzzled about some of their motivations. Also, the fact that this movie takes place over the course of only a few days makes some of the things they do even more puzzling. Every character does get a small moment or two to show us who they are, but because the movie kind of loses them for a long stretch, their role in the end doesn’t really work in a “satisfying narrative” way. Then there’s the main character, played by Sheri Moon Zombie, and the biggest hurtle that the writing faces in terms of her is the fact that she’s played by Sheri Moon Zombie. Listen, she’s not a horrible actress, and really has come leaps and bounds from where she started out in House of 1,000 Corpses, but she’s not good enough to get across the subtleties that the character requires. She’s slowly going crazy, and her character never comes across like a real person that’s worth our empathy. There’s a weird disconnect with her, and it’s probably the movies largest failing. I do like the fact that Rob Zombie keeps putting her in his movies, and pretty much tells the critics to “Fuck off.” It’s his movies and he doesn’t give a shit what you think. I dig that attitude, but at the same time, it’s to the detriment of his films.
There is also some fantastic practical effects in this movie. I’m not certain of this, but I don’t know if there is any CGI in this film at all. It showcases it’s monsters drenched in specific lighting, and uses shadow and silhouette to create something in your mind that is probably more terrifying than what’s actual on screen. Suggestion is a powerful tool, and more often than not, the movie uses it successfully. There is a certain “creature” that doesn’t really work though, and it’s a real doozy. It’s a moment in the film that is supposed to really get to you, but ends up being unintentionally funny. I’m not sure this can really be helped, though, considering what it is. I’m not going to get into it it, because it would spoil something fairly major.
I read some reviews for this movie awhile back when it premiered at a festival, and all of the writers kept saying how esoteric it was, and that the end is a “total mind fuck” that is drenched in ambiguity, but I really don’t know what they were talking about. It’s really pretty straight forward if you pay attention, and I couldn’t really see what was so ambiguous about it. Yeah, there is some esoteric symbolism thrown in at the end, but that doesn’t make it ambiguous. That was just writers being hyperbolic. The funny thing about it is that whether the review was positive or negative they all seemed to come to the same conclusion. Meh. Horror movie journalism usually reads like it’s written by high school students anyways. Seriously, have you ever been to Dread Central, or Shock Till You Drop…( I probably really shouldn’t talk though…)
At the end of the day, The Lords of Salem is a total niche film. I really don’t think most people, horror fans or otherwise, would really like it all that much. This movie was made for one person. Rob Zombie. He’s fully trying to please himself, and that’s kind of why I “kind of” liked it. This may be one of the least pandering films I’ve seen in awhile, and it’s interesting enough to give a go if you’re the adventurous type. If you were ever curious what it would look like if Rob Zombie made an “art film” than this would quell that curiosity.