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rochefort [Celluloid 03.17.13] history

Us geeks can be a pretty despicable lot sometimes. We complain, a lot, about the lack of quality stuff out there. And many times when we get it, we enjoy it in secret, like Salieri, while publicly damning it with faint praise or judging it according to a ludicrous set of standards, many of them often so specific to our own tastes as to make our criticisms essentially meaningless. Other times we can be so protective of a guilty pleasure that we rate it far, far higher than we would if it didn't affirm some dark corner of our own tastes. One incredibly frustrating side effect of this geek elitism is that it can result in a kind of topsy-turvy creative climate where fan service and pandering can occasionally be more revered than risk-taking and obvious storytelling chops. Even more frustrating is a film like director Rob Zombie's The Lords of Salem, one that tries to do all the above, and succeeds at each only enough to make me wish a different director had been in charge.

In this contemporary-set blend of Rosemary's Baby and The Conqueror Worm, Rob's best girl Sheri Moon Zombie plays Heidi Hawthorne, a radio jock in Salem, Massachusetts. Like most of her friends and associates, Heidi is a native who regards Salem's notorious reputation as a place for burning witches as little more than colorful local folklore. She receives a record at the station from a band that calls themselves only "The Lords", and when she and her fellow deejays Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman (Ken Foree) play the record on air Heidi immediately becomes ill. She's not the only one affected by the record, as the broadcast triggers a very Stepford Wives reaction in dozens of women throughout Salem. Afterwards, weird events start to pile up in Heidi's life, including the appearance of her landlady's two wiccan friends and multiple hallucinations that seem to originate in the mysterious apartment number five. Heidi's a recurring junkie, so even she writes off the strange goings-on as flashback material at first, but eventually finds herself relapsing into her old drug habits. The only person who may have a clue what's happening is Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison), a local author who thinks the funky record may have begun a resurgence of black magic in the community, and connects the music to one of Salem's most famous witches Margaret Morgan (a completely unrecognizable Meg Foster).

If you're already a Rob Zombie fan, then you may see this as an improvement over his two Halloween films, and perhaps on near-par with his most assured film, The Devil's Rejects, but more and more I've got the feeling that the latter was merely a fluke in a career that's remarkable almost solely due to his celebrity status as a successful rock star. Lords of Salem is proof that Zombie simply can't resist the urge to cross the line into schlock, even when everything about the setup suggests that he's trying to make a more mature film worthy of his idols Polanski, Argento and others. The first half of the film is fairly quiet and apes Rosemary's to the extent that you figure things could actually be headed somewhere, at least he's stealing from quality, right? But once Heidi's dementia hits the final stretch the hallucinations become more and more ridiculous, which is made even worse by the fact that, by the end, the story just isn't very different from Polanski's masterpiece, so we're not even seeing anything terribly distinct or inventive. As missed opportunities go, Zombie's really dropped the ball with this one, since all the tools are here for him to signal a shift in his career and start making genuinely unsettling horror, which is clearly what he wants. A game cast, full of multiple horror veterans, are given decent parts to play until the third act, where basically every character deteriorates into wild-eyed, campy hysterics.

The production values and camerawork are let down by visual punchlines that seem shoved in and are at complete odds with the grim tone, and quite a few of them elicited laughter from the audience. Here's a hint: if you're hoping to effectively build up tension in a scene where you're showcasing the beauty of a Salem church with languid camerawork and Mozart's Requiem filling the soundtrack, it's probably not a good idea to end the scene by tilting down to a dwarf in a burnt chicken costume. We can only meet you halfway, you know?

So I guess The Lords of Salem serves the same purpose for me that Shyamalan's Lady in the Water or Argento's The Card Player did for their respective directors, namely that this is the point where I give up on a once-revered or at least promising director. From this point on I simply can't imagine that a new film from Zombie will be cause for anticipation, much less celebration. If that makes me a cranky geek, fine. But Rob's a geek, too, and he's been given quite a few tools over the years to make something special, or at least interesting, but he can't seem to put aside his fetishes long enough to make a picture that does much more than call to mind richer, smarter films. It's weird to think that a guy who's only been making horror movies for ten years is already part of the embarrassingly out-of-touch old guard

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masque36 (4 years ago) Reply

I agree. Truly awful film. Surprised me because I have enjoyed rob's other films so far including Halloween and the Devils Rejects and House of Thousand Corpes. I thought he had original ideas but if you regurgitate all the horror movies made and can't come up with your own vision it is time to quit. I saw Rosemary's baby, the Devonsville Terror, and the Shining and I am big horror fan of Dario Argento. Nothing new was shown to me. He really let me down. To sum up my critique of this film, in the words of Peter Steele of Type of Negative "Don't Mistake Lack of Talent for Genius"

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