The Lords of Salem (2013)
Dir. Rob Zombie
Starring Sherri Moon Zombie (God, I never thought I’d have to type THAT phrase) Bruce Davison, Dee Wallace, Ken Foree
|Man, KISS really let themselves go.|
I wanted to write about this one when I first saw it, but never had the time. Then later, I remembered that I actually did write pretty much everything I wanted to say over at www.outlawvern.com, so I figured I’d just edit it and bring it over here to run up my numbers and for posterity. I saw this in theaters almost by mistake. I don’t think I ever saw a trailer for it or anything, I just noticed one day it was at my local cinema. The theater had three other people in it; an elderly black guy sitting in the third row by himself, and two (I think) homeless women sitting in the middle having a nonsensical conversation about Jesus at normal conversational volume right next to the exit, surrounded by bags and blankets and so forth. At first I was afraid that their constant talking would bring me out of it; then, I realized it was the exact correct way to watch this particular movie. All three people bailed by last 30 minutes.
I sort of loved this movie. If BARTON FINK and THE SHINING had a baby who was a Sammy Hagar fan, it would be LORDS OF SALEM. It’s dumb as rocks, but man, does it want to take you there. Only Zombie would have the hubris to want to make his own version of THE SHINING except someone smokes meth halfway through. I loved every insane but entirely necessary touch, including but not limited to the inexplicable bigfoot, the TRIP TO THE MOON imagery, the evil baboon statue*, the masturbating baghead bishops, the bleeding pop art, the turnkey-basted midget with the EDWARD PENISHAND tentacles. Full-frontal naked old withered witches. Name another contemporary director who would dare.
|Happy Thanksgiving, Charlie Brown!|
I can’t defend the end, though, which is pretty heartbreaking in how bad it wants to blow your mind and how ill-equipped it is for the job. You can almost see Zombie’s frustration with his limited imagination for deep horror manifested on the screen. He knows what he wants, but he just can’t quite create it himself. He’s trying to create something surreal and psychological and bizarre, trying to make his own version of a Ken Russel or Cronenberg or Jodorowsky movie. But the problem is, he’s not Russel or Cronenberg or Jodorowsky; he’s Rob Zombie. And Rob Zombie likes images but he doesn’t understand symbols or subtext, let alone psychology. So he can’t quite take it there, and you can just feel his frustration mount. He just keeps throwing ending after ending at you, hoping the cumulative effect will be enough to get you there. But ironically, it might have actually gotten there if he’d held back a little instead of doubting himself and saturating you with lame imagery. Take the final 15 minutes and cull 3 minutes of genuinely disturbing dreamscapes from it, THEN you’ll have the classic you’re after. It’ll still be dumb as a rock, but at least it will have focus enough to get the job done.
Being dumb as a rock AND failing to find any real symbolism or meaning does pose one weird problem, though: for all the Christian symbolism Zombie profanes with penises or nude old women, his film makes a weird case for the Christian witch-hunters actually being right. I don’t think this is Zombie’s intention, I just think he didn’t really think this one through very well. I mean, you’ve got the standard horror movie depiction of depraved, sadistic Michael-Berryman-looking witch-hunters (a rare case of a Michael-Berryman-looking fucker actually played by Michael Berryman) horrifically murdering young women at the stake. But it turns out, they were right to do it, these women actually are witches, and if anything the problem is they didn’t kill them hard enough.
|Man, it sure was smokey in the past.|
Seems like Zombie wants to have it both ways: brutal, unpleasant Inquisition-like Puritan witch-hunters, but also genuine evil witches. So we know that the witch-burners are right, witches are a real danger that must be dealt with brutally, but he doesn’t exactly make their persecutors sympathetic either... I mean, the three Puritans were supposed to be played by Richard Lynch**, Michael Berryman, and Sid Haig. Not the actors you really get if you’re trying to evoke heroes. On the other hand, the movie is also overtly repulsed by the witches’ perverseness (particularly the old-lady nudity) and isn’t the least bit sympathetic to them and the fact that they were murdered by a lynch mob (in this case, a mob which was supposed to be literally organized by Richard Lynch). I take this as further evidence that Zombie didn’t really think through the message of his film, and just kind of filled in the blanks with horror tropes he remembered from other movies. But it makes for an uncomfortable message which is especially hard to ignore given that it’s actually set in Salem, the site of genuine witch-hunts which the movie’s plot paints itself into actually condoning.
The other thing that doesn’t really work here is the entire anti-narrative regarding Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie) gradually having her brain taken over by witches. The scenes are cool, but unfortunately Ms. Zombie never has any idea what’s happening to her and no tools whatsoever to stop it, making her one of the most passive protagonists in living memory. Seems like all she ever does is sleep! Bruce Davison (fantastic in the role, of course) is much more active in the plot, but he’s a minor character who gets (SPOILER) Hallorann’ed a bit before the big climax. So we’re just left to watch a bunch of stuff happen to Zombie’s character without there being any tension about if she can stop it or not. Lots of good images, but narratively pretty inert.
|One of these days, Alice...bang, zoom. A trip to the moon. Also maybe witches will take over your mind.|
I thought this was the end of the discussion, but someone pointed out that there’s an odd subplot about Heidi’s coworkers (Ken Foree, bearded dude #1) worrying that she’s being drawn back into a meth addiction she had apparently overcome prior to the events in the movie. And indeed, just as things start to turn bad for her, she does indeed retreat to a meth-fueled antipathy for the remaining runtime. As such, there has been a suggestion in some quarters that the movie has a subtext about the paralyzing effects of addiction, and that Heidi’s narrative loss of agency is actually an addict’s withdrawal from control of her own future. Maybe so, but even if that’s true it’s too underveloped to really add much here, and Heidi (though actually played with surprising care by Ms. Zombie) is too underwritten a character for us to really gain much insight into, making the whole thing kind of a mildly interesting wash. That, and I still don’t think Zombie actually understands what subtext is.
I can’t defend this as a great movie, but I gotta appreciate Zombie’s obvious desire to make something classic. His ambition is all over this thing, and there are innumerable small and wonderful details which mark it as a labor of love. It doesn’t really work; in fact, he’s so close that unfortunately you can also see how heartbreaking far away he still is. But god damn, how often are you gonna get to see something this fuckin’ WEIRD in cinemas? Even if logic dictates we must regard it as an interesting failure, I gotta say that I love it unreservedly, exactly as it is. As Zombie so eloquently says with his visuals: fuck logic, now look at this bigfoot standing in front of a neon cross.
|Now that I think about it, this is probably the second best movie ever to have Bigfoot in it, after ABOMINABLE.|
PS: Wikipedia says that Clint Howard is in here somewhere, along with Udo Kier and Richard Lynch, I guess in the fictional Frankenstien movie someone is watching on TV. I have no memory of this whatsoever, but if that’s true, awesome.
*Editor’s note: as of September the same year I have no memory of this, but it sounds awesome.
**Lynch died before he could complete the role and they had to re-shoot with Andrew Prine