Deliberate, meticulous shot composition, with strategic use of close-ups that let faces tell the story rather than exposition, voiceover, music cues, or effects. Shocking imagery that aims for the hippocampus, where nightmares live, rather than the craw or the gag reflex. Discomforting nudity. The sad tragedy of destructive human behavior, repeating itself infinitely in an ever-contracting circle. The beginnings of love that don't follow prescribed meet-cutes or silly contrivance.
The above is not a checklist for the recently completed Nashville Film Festival, but rather an objective breakdown of The Lords of Salem, the latest film from Rob Zombie. In the course of five features, the rock star turned shock auteur has become one of the most interesting American horror filmmakers working today.
Gone are the sleazy rednecks, roadhouses splattered red, and grungy shocks that lurked around seemingly every corner in his previous works. His vision of Salem is something unusual. Restrained. Quiet. And suffused with a grandeur and power that, while occasionally surfacing in House of 1,000 Corpses, The Devil's Rejects, and Halloween and Halloween II, never quite sustained feature length. (Though for the record, Zombie's Halloween II is immeasurably better than Rick Rosenthal's.)
Part of the top-rated DJ team in contemporary Massachusetts, Heidi LaRoc (Sheri Moon Zombie) has a great home, supportive co-workers and a Golden Retriever with her best interests at heart, and she's gotten clean after a crack habit almost consumed her. But Heidi has a secret. Not that she knows it, but an ancient horror from Salem's past has been slowly gathering over the intervening three centuries, and it has set its sights on Heidi and all who care about her.
Sheri Moon Zombie comes into her own here as a diva. Her body a canvas of tattoos, with ropelike dreads and smart glasses, she doesn't resemble any of her previous roles. That's fitting, because she steps her game up considerably, building on her previous greatest performance (as the mother of monstrous Michael Myers in 2007's Halloween). If there's any justice, you'll see her styled and photographed by Pierre et Gilles, though even those glorious camp surrealists would have to dig deep to top Lords' magnificent Velvet Underground-scored unveiling of Heidi to an auditorium of mystified onlookers.
She's matched, in an unexpectedly moving way, by Jeffrey Daniel Phillips, who plays something new in l'oeuvre Zombie — a genuinely sweet and caring male. In a way, his compassionate DJ comrade Whitey "Herman" Salvador is the complement to SMZ's Deborah Myers in Halloween — a decent person caught up in a despairing situation, watching a loved one in torment. The relationship between Whitey and Heidi is one of the more captivating that this year's cinema has offered, and the viewer can't help but want more.
Which is true in general of The Lords of Salem. The movie has been dogged by reports of budget troubles and entire excised subplots (vestiges of which remain in the credits), and yet it's a testament to Zombie's operatic eye and unique genre stylings that what's here leaves a viewer hungry for more. More mayhem, sure. More horror, yes. And, in a first for Zombie, more love. That's not to say there isn't enough of these elements to be had — far from it. But this small masterpiece is cold and cut to the bone, and it's not unreasonable to want to soak in more of its exquisite horrors.
The Salem witch trials are, by this point, an example of how history takes something unspeakable and metabolizes it into something kitsch, a flippant dismissal. Last year's ParaNorman did a great job of stripping away the camp and novelties and forcing the viewer to confront some of our national legacy of guilt on the subject. But here, a different tack is chosen, and Zombie's hypothesis — that there might actually have been some witchery afoot in those days — neither denies nor condones the horrors our previous generations visited upon the accused. For a film this fatalistic (in both the literal and figurative senses of the word), it makes sense that past sins and violations would never really be escapable.
And damn if The Lords of Salem isn't gloriously atypical. It's an infernal masterpiece that would please Kenneth Anger and Donald Cammell and horrify anyone whose cosmology is completely uncertain. When Zombie's Halloween came out, he seemed ill at ease working in a truly wide aspect ratio. But here he composes his frames with graceful precision, employing the colors of Bruegel and Bosch in a space where the real and the surreal entangle like lovers.
What is it about cursed dwellings that makes them so exquisitely stylish? Even with a mysterious and otherworldly horror living down the hall — not to mention a landlady who may comprise, with her "sisters," a coven of malicious intent — no rational person would pass up Heidi's majestic apartment, which suggests a collaboration between Georges Melies and Zaha Hadid.
Besides, the coven practically counts as an amenity, since it's composed of Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace and Patricia Quinn — yes, your Satanic shenanigans will be served by To Sir, With Love's nubile schoolgirl, E.T.'s Mom and Magenta from Rocky Horror. (Geeson has kind eyes and a classic television matriarch's demeanor, while Quinn has '70s mysticism and fierce vocabulary; Wallace has an inspired look that combines '80s power broker with Hazell Dean realness. And they rule all that they survey.)
The mark of a truly great horror film is if you would be willing to spend time within it, knowing full well its particular horrors. The Lords of Salem is a lush blanket, so comfortable and inviting you never notice its slow, inexorable tightening into a noose.
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