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Love him or loathe him, there’s no denying that Rob Zombie
made a major impact on screen terror since transitioning into directing. His
characters from HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and THE DEVIL’S REJECTS became the few
new horror icons of the 2000s, while his HALLOWEEN duo were among the best
projects to come out of the unfortunate remake trend. He’s clearly a
horror-literate filmmaker with a deep love of the genre, something that THE
LORDS OF SALEM serves to further emphasize.
In some ways, it almost feels as if LORDS (a world premiere
at the current Toronto International Film Festival) is an opportunity to answer to the
at times unfair criticisms he has received as a filmmaker. Though this is
identifiably still a Rob Zombie joint, the aggressive grindhouse influences
have been replaced by nods to other, more unexpected horror stylists like Roman
Polanski, Ken Russell, Alejandro Jodorowsky and maybe even a splash of John
Carpenter in PRINCE OF DARKNESS mode.
Yep, this is more of a psychological horror treat that
burrows into the brain and tickles with ideas. Gore and horrific payoffs are
still plentiful for genre fans; they just come in a more understated and
thoughtful package by Zombie’s standards, and hopefully that will be enough to
win over a few of the naysayers. Sheri Moon Zombie stars as Heidi Hawthorne, a
late-night radio host in Salem, MA who receives a mysterious package containing
a record that she obliviously plays on the air. As soon as she hears the music,
it has a physical effect on her, and she starts having odd dreams involving
demons and witches from her hometown’s notorious past. Three women (Dee
Wallace, Judy Geeson and Patricia Quinn) from her building start obsessing over
her in a manner that will seem eerily familiar for anyone who has seen
ROSEMARY’S BABY, and things begin to seem generally wrong. It all builds to a
disturbingly surreal climax too good to even vaguely describe to anyone who has
yet to see it.
Zombie’s usual horror-convention fan-favorite casting is on
full display, with the likes of Wallace, Quinn and Meg Foster joining his
regulars like Ken Foree, Sid Haig and Michael Berryman. Despite all the
familiar faces, though, the movie doesn’t revel in Zombie’s usual
self-conscious horror-mashup comedy. The tone is somber, building up dread
throughout and leaving the audience on a harsh down note (in the best possible
sense, of course). At the center is Moon Zombie, in a fairly challenging role
for the untrained actress. She has to play a mental collapse amongst a
stockpile of disturbing supernatural shenanigans, and rises to the challenge.
She’s been good before, but often able to hide behind comedy shtick and sex
appeal. This time, much of the movie hinges on her ability to telegraph a breakdown
and portray a drug addict, and she pulls it off, anchoring a movie that could
have easily fallen apart with a weak central performance.
This is satanic horror done right, carefully twisting the
knife until the big finale without sacrificing scares along the way. Zombie
abandons his established boisterous handheld cinematography style in favor of
more subdued, creeping long takes to generate atmosphere. Gruesome images still
arrive in barrages, just in a more carefully plotted manner, and these moments
all the more effective for it. The results are visceral enough for the
late-night screening crowd, while also slipping under the audience’s skin in
more subtle way. It’s a movie that could only come from a director given
complete freedom, without meddling producers fearing the material won’t reach
the widest possible audience. Zombie has reached a point where he has earned
that level of control, and hopefully, enough people will embrace THE LORDS OF
SALEM to ensure he can do it again.
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