Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Satan! Come to us! We are ready!

I saw a matinee of The Lords of Salem after an overnight shift, and I'd been awake since the previous afternoon. This was the perfect way to watch it, I think, as much of the movie is from the point of view of a protagonist who spends much of the movie slipping in and out of nightmares until it's unclear where dreams end and reality begins. Her name is Heidi (Sherri Moon Zombie, in her strongest performance), a radio DJ and recovering addict who receives a strange record - a repetitive, atonal series of notes - that places her and any woman who hears it into a trance-like state. Heidi soon finds herself haunted by flashbacks to a 17th-century coven performing bizarre rituals and visions of demons. The story allows writer-director Rob Zombie to let loose with the hallucinatory imagery and inventive sequences he excels at, with the film's low budget meaning he's not constrained by the commercial compromises that came with directing two installments in the Halloween franchise. This is Zombie's best movie since The Devil's Rejects, and his most wildly imaginative - by the film's batshit climax, The Lords of Salem has less in common with any American horror movie in recent years than with European horror and its embrace of abstract dream logic.

It'd be easy to simply list the directors that are overt influences on Zombie and call it a day (for the record: Kubrick, Polanski, Carpenter, Argento, Fulci, Jodorowsky, Ken Russell and probably a dozen others I can't remember at the moment). But The Lords of Salem works as well as it does because of the way Zombie internalizes these influences and makes them his own. The many overt similarities between Heidi and Laurie Strode in Halloween II suggest that Zombie is preoccupied with female protagonists overcoming some sort of personal trauma, especially if they have dreads and decorate their bedrooms with vintage movie and rock posters. What makes Zombie unique is his sincere empathy for his characters; it's rare to find horror films that, even as the story finds his characters being stocked and terrified, have such a deep sense of sadness about their misfortune. The unrequited relationship between Heidi and a co-worker, Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips), feels authentic, and Whitey's understated concern for Heidi is unusually affecting for a horror movie. As crazy as Zombie's movies can get, they work because of his underrated ability to populate them with people, not human-like avatars who kill time while we wait for them to get naked and get killed. This is the second horror movie of the year, after Evil Dead, to draw a line between addiction and possession, and there's a moment near the end of the movie, a look between Heidi and Jeff as she closes a door, that is as affecting as anything I'm likely to see in more "serious" movies this year.

As it's a Rob Zombie movie, The Lords of Salem is populated with beloved genre character actors and B-movie stars - Judy Geeson, Patricia Quinn and Dee Wallace are a lot of fun as a modern-day coven, with Wallace's character drawing on her own real-life work as a self-described spiritual healer (between this and a similar character inspired by Wallace in The Innkeepers, it's interesting that she's left such a lasting impression on the horror directors she's worked with). Meg Foster is also, um, memorable and very creepy as the head of the 17th-century coven. Zombie's tendency for occasionally awkward dialogue and broad comic relief remains, but overall, The Lords of Salem is surprisingly mature and restrained. Zombie has continued to develop his talent for mining tension out of negative space and building suspense in the eerily quiet, still moments between scares. And though most of the movie was shot on sets, the exterior shots filmed in Salem do as great a job as any movie I've seen of capturing the uniquely chilly, eerie atmosphere of New England in the fall.

There are scares in The Lords of Salem that are as subtle as anything in Rosemary's Baby or The Tenant, including one instant classic where Zombie plants a terrifying detail in the frame, waiting for us to notice it. It's a very effective slow burn that builds to a completely insane climax - without spoiling anything, it reminds more than anything of William Hurt's hallucinations in Altered States. The Lords of Salem is the second movie this year, after Spring Breakers, where it seemed completely unbelievable that I was watching it in a multiplex - I can't imagine this movie playing well with a Friday-night teenage crowd, and even fans of Zombie's other movies might be baffled by it. But for horror fans who get excited about the genre's wildest possibilities, The Lords of Salem is well worth checking out.

Sidenote: Horror fans have poked a lot of fun at Zombie's tendency to let his camera linger on his wife's body in various stages of undress. But isn't it sort of sweet, after five movies and years of marriage, that his wife's butt is still one of his favorite subjects? I bet they're a great couple.

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