Friday, April 26, 2013

The Lords of Salem

If any film genre sucks today, its horror.  When "Paranormal Activity" can consistently every year open to massive crowds and become a massive film franchise with no work, no care, and no attempt to even be scary, its clear we have a problem.  I think what modern filmgoers today want is just safety:  safety in knowing that movie you're seeing is kinda scary, but in an expected and easily comprehensible way.  You want a scary ghost to pop out at you and yell "BOO!" and get the adrenaline boost, but nothing more.  No nightmares, no lingering sense of unease, nothing that breaks the boundaries, or challenges you.  Horror films are a ride with the pre-planned being maybe some gore and the tension of a scary thing going to jump-scare you.  That's the contract you've paid when you bought your tickets.  So I'm sure today if any "Paranormal Activity"-bred teenagers go to see the new Rob Zombie movie, "The Lords of Salem" they'll think its A) stupid, B) a joke, and C) stupid.  And they'll be missing out.

Actually, I really hope lots of people who have never seen Horror beyond the traditional haunted house movie go to see this.  It will fry their brains properly, which is what horror is supposed to do.  I don't know how Rob Zombie manages to continue to exist in today's world, since his movies are so off-the-rails and so raw, and ultimately, so unique, that you'd think the Hollywood studios would have booted his ass into direct-to-video by now.  (It have something to do with paying his corporate dues by making the remake of "Halloween"*.)  Many years ago, when I was kid watching "House of 1000 Corpses", I couldn't believe that I was actually seeing what I was seeing.  It was unlike any other horror movie I had ever seen, just this grungy compilation of madness and experimental cheap horror.  "Are they allowed to make movies like this?  What year was this made?  What is this thing?"  I love that movie, and its sequel "The Devil's Rejects" was just as good.

I'm never quite sure what the heck I've been through after seeing a Rob Zombie movie.  I suppose I can superficially justify his work by comparing him to a million other movies and a million other directors - mostly from the 70s - but that seems to diminish the impact here.  At times while watching "The Lords of Salem", I thought Rob Zombie was painfully out of his depth, creating a silly movie with scares that were more reminiscent of a bad music video than a real horror movie.  Then at other times, I thought he was some kind of subversive genius, completely smashing at the boundaries of the genre and creating something really mindbending and memorable.  "The Lords of Salem" is not a movie which I can simply say "good or bad" after seeing it, because I'm not really sure what I saw.  It was really well-shot, it had its creepy moments, it had its disgusting moments, but I don't know what it amounted to.  I need to see this again.  And that's almost as glowing a recommendation as I can give, its like:  I don't get this thing, go see it for yourself.

As you'd guess "The Lords of Salem" takes place in Salem, Massachusetts and is about witches and the devil and medieval conspiracies and other evil.  Our protagonist is played by Sheri Moon Zombie, Rob Zombie's wife, and the star of pretty much all of his movies.  This is the first time she's been giving the leading role though, and its pretty apparent that there's a reason the only director she's ever worked with is a man she's been sleeping with for decades.  The acting in this movie is... bizarre, as it usually is for a Rob Zombie film.  I don't know if he's a bad director, or if he's just playing up the audience by picking a cheap cast with limited talent.  "The Lords of Salem" immediately proves itself to be an usual movie since its main heroes are mostly a collection of burnt-out hipsters working a counterculture radio show.  Sheri Moon Zombie's character, Heidi has huge dreadlocks, lives in an apartment painted up with references to silent movies, and is probably addicted to drugs.  And her best friend is this bearded man who is trying unsuccessfully to sleep with her.  He gets a lot less successful once she starts going insane and/or getting possessed by the Devil.

The radio show is given a record by a group called "The Lords", which is supposedly just a garage band, and the music on it is this bizarre repeating rift of low-pitch oily violin-ish sound, which seems to have a special effect on the women of Salem.  Heidi starts going insane after hearing this rift, while many other women are put into a trance, as if summoned by some ancient witch cult.  And things only grow more strange from here.  Its a slow build to a completely off-the-rails and unexplainable climax featuring evil rapist priests, alien surgeons cutting out intestines, a midget... penguin... fetus... thing - I don't even know how to start talking about that one, and lots and lots and lots of naked old ladies.

There are moments in this film that are both hilariously stupid and terrifying frightening.  The naked penguin midget creature is just one of them.  I was laughing at it mostly out of nervousness but its impossible to really understand whatever the fuck that thing is and why on Earth its standing on the top of the stairs of a very fancy reception hall.  And it has tentacles!   At the climax there's a montage of various images, some of which are amazingly scary and some so corny that only could have originated out of the mind of a fifteen year old trying way too hard to be shocking.  Like, there's cabal of naked women standing around a faceless alien dressed like the Pope, and then the next shot there are three aliens dressed like bishops masturbating with dildos.  This movie is a trip man, and I think I need to give Rob Zombie credit, because these silly corny effects only seem to add to the surreal atmosphere.  But then again, I'm not even sure what the hell happened at the end of this movie, let alone what the deeper meaning behind the lump of twisted quivering flesh that Heidi gives birth to at another moment.

The other remarkable thing I should note about "The Lords of Salem" is that it was made for just one and a half million dollars, which is a micro-budget by any standard.  Despite this, it doesn't show its cheapness at all.  The film is richly shot, full of a great variety of effects, many of which are cheesy, but you don't get the sense that they're cheesy due to lack of options.  The high-end CG of some other horror movies is avoided because it wasn't needed.  Some parts of the movie is made gorgeous by the camera work, which is remarkable considering that this is Rob Zombie, the guy who makes movies that usually seem like they were edited in a dirty garage.  Somehow "Paranormal Activity 4" had a price tag of five million dollars**, when this has a fraction of that money, but so much more variety in its imagery, its story, and even greater scale in every possible measure.

I guess the conclusion here is:  "Paranormal Activity" sucks.

In all seriousness though, "The Lords of Salem" is a weird, weird movie.  And that's what great about it.  I don't think many movies like are going to come out to theaters in 2013.  If you're looking for a haunted house movie, there are dozens.  Hell, if you want a movie about mysterious strangers in masks terrorizing a family trapped in a mansion, no less than two completely different movies were advertised with trailers before "The Lords of Salem" with that same plot.  If you want a movie about a midget penguin creature, you only have "The Lords of Salem".  This is legitimately creepy, it doesn't quite make sense, it really is unnerving, and it really is good.  I know most people don't want good from horror movies, they want the expected, but they're wrong.  See this.

* Sidenote:  I hate the remake of "Halloween".  Though I will give it credit for eliciting a reaction at all in me, unlike the recent remakes of "Nightmare on Elm Street", which ironically put me to sleep, and "Friday the Thirteenth" which caused me to change the channel and watch something else.  Rob Zombie was trying something new with the Michael Myers material, by giving him a backstory... but sadly a very stock serial-killer backstory.  Michael Myers is supposed to be a faceless cold predator, some humanoid creature that looks like a man but actually is just there to slaughter everything he sees.  Not... the product of a poor drunken redneck family.  The second half of that movie was better in my opinion, but it was enough for me to never see his "Halloween 2".  The original "Halloween" is one of the best horror movies ever made, one of my all-time favorites, so I doubt any remake would inspire much love out of me anyway.

** How, I don't know.  A group of amateurs could probably make their own "Paranormal Activity" movie in a week with a budget of basically nothing - and in all likelihood make a better movie too - and somehow Paramount found five million dollars to spend.  On what

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