Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Lords Of Salem: At What Exactly Am I Looking?

One of my favorite things about scary movies is the sheer audacity of the imagery you get sometimes. Trying to scare people means unsettling them, shocking them, provoking them, and horror filmmakers with real vision at their best dredge things up from nightmares and elevate them to art. I suspect that any number of people who turn up their nose at horror films would probably not do so at the works of Bosch or Goya or Bacon. Michael Myers standing in the shadows, the only thing visible his impassive white face. Freddy Krueger's tongue protruding from the receiver of a telephone. Leatherface swinging his chainsaw around wildly against the setting sun. Two men glimpsed behind a door in the Overlook Hotel - one in a tuxedo, the other in a bear costume, blank and awful. Rosemary's gauzy, half-remembered reverie with the Devil. The stitched-together obscenity of the Human Centipede contrasted against the clean, stylish modernity of its home. Martyrs' commingling of flesh and steel, violence and serenity. At its best, horror film is by turns confrontational, surreal, and even moving. How is that not art?

Rob Zombie's first film - House of 1000 Corpses - struck me as a bit of a mess. There was a gritty slasher film in the manner of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in there somewhere, amid more impressionistic interludes unrelated to the overall narrative, and the whole thing ended in a lurid, highly stylized manner more appropriate to something like Hellraiser or A Nightmare on Elm Street. There was a lot of vivid imagery, but it felt disconnected - less a movie than a series of set pieces in different styles. Stylistically, it felt to me less like a movie and more like a sketchbook.

However, he followed it up with The Devil's Rejects and Halloween, both of which were much more focused and reconciled the disparate styles of his first movie well into an identifiable aesthetic. I know a whole lot of people who'd argue with me on the artistic merit of Rob Zombie's movies, but snobbery be damned: Those two movies are art. There's a point of view rooted in rich cinematic tradition and an arresting attention to visuals. There's an awareness and active subversion of popular culture without didacticism. There's a conversation between the original material upon which the films draw and what he does with it. I think of the rude scribbles and splashes of color contrasted against blank cinderblock walls in his remake of Halloween, and the dusty, garishly lit carnival/ghost town/bordello run by Charlie Altamont in The Devil's Rejects, and I marvel that anyone can dismiss any of this as thoughtless.

So what I'm trying to say is that Rob Zombie is one of those directors I think of when I'm thinking of audacious, provocative imagery in horror films, and initial impressions of The Lords of Salem suggested that it was going to fall much more on the impressionistic side of things than his previous films, with touchstones like Rosemary's Baby and Ken Russell getting thrown around a lot. Anticipation being what it is, maybe there's no way this film could have lived up to my expectations, but The Lords of Salem, at least in the form it was finally released, is more than a bit of a mess.

We open on witches - grubby, mostly-naked women engaged in foul rituals - and their capture and defeat at the hands of the devout during the time of the Salem Witch Trials. The queen of these witches curses the women of Salem and the descendants of their executioners. And now, just as suddenly, it is the modern day, where we follow Heidi, a DJ on a popular radio show in Salem. As her shift comes to an end, she picks up a package left for her at the station - a wooden box, containing a record by a group calling itself The Lords of Salem. She takes it home to give it a listen, like you do. The music on the record is atonal, almost poisonous, and Heidi is taken by a strange malaise upon hearing it. Nevertheless, she decides to give it a spin on the show the next night. It's not the first strange thing to happen to Heidi this week, either. Somebody's moved into the vacant apartment down the hall from her, even though her landlady swears the apartment is still vacant.

When Heidi plays the mysterious record on her show the next night, it seems almost to call to the women of Salem, to awaken something in them. It freaks out her fellow DJs, and Heidi starts having nightmares. The door to the apartment down the hall is open again. The landlady's sisters have come to visit her from England, and they invite Heidi in for a spot of tea. Something is awake in Salem.

Now, if there was one person I'd want to make a movie about a cursed record summoning the spirits of long-dead witches, it'd be Rob Zombie. His style is tailor-made for that sort of subject matter, and seeing what he could do with something driven more by imagery and less by action was an exciting prospect. Unfortunately, what we get is incoherent and unfocused, and loses a lot of the impact it could have had as a result. There's nothing wrong with impressionistic moviemaking per se - going for a mood or feeling over coherent narrative or character depth can be really effective, especially in horror, where mood and feeling can count for so much. Sometimes just presenting imagery that bypasses the conscious and hits us right where our nightmares live makes for the scariest of scary movies.

However, if you're going to do that, pacing is critical. You have to establish a rhythm that starts slow but ratchets everything up at a steady pace - it has to go from normal to "wait a second" to "what was that?" to "what the FUCK?" to "OH GOD" with a sure and steady hand, so that by the end of it, we're immersed in the insanity, and The Lords of Salem is all over the place. Nothing happens, then weird things happen, then less-weird things happen, then nothing happens, then nothing happens, then really weird things happen, and the story bounces back and forth between a couple sets of characters, without their storylines really complementing each other. Tension and suspense and atmosphere get burned off with every cutaway, so what should feel like escalation feels more like a series of set pieces cut up by interstitial cards telling us what day it is (a nice nod to The Shining). If it's supposed to communicate the progression of events, it doesn't really succeed, because sometimes days pass with really weird shit happening, sometimes they don't. We bounce back and forth not just in space between different characters, but also in time, going back to the original witches more than once, but these segments don't clearly communicate anything but what we already knew - there were witches, and they died with their purpose unfulfilled. It's distracting, and leaves us looking for more of a story than there actually is.

As it is (and this is important because this film apparently had a troubled production history that meant the movie Zombie wanted to make wasn't anything near what we actually got), it's probably this ambivalence about whether to tell a story or bombard us with images that is most damaging to the film. The main story is basic, minimal, even - DJ plays evil record, begins process of personal disintegration that leads the devil's forces into our world - and that's absolutely okay if you want the nightmarish imagery that comes with that to do the heavy lifting. But it doesn't really become a truly imagery-rich film until past the halfway mark, at which point the whole thing feels lopsided instead.

It doesn't help that more than once, we're presented with imagery in the form of nightmare sequences - which works okay once or twice, but starts to feel formulaic after awhile - and that some of Zombie's choices for imagery are so bizarre that they stop being scary because the viewer's first impulse is to try and figure out what they're looking at, rather than having just enough to grab onto to make its deviations really disturbing.

I don't doubt Rob Zombie's vision - he's already demonstrated that he's capable of making excellent movies with a specific point of view - and I am not for a second going to ding a filmmaker for trying to stretch his wings and do something ambitious. And when The Lords of Salem works, it works very well. The song that begins the whole process falls at an intersection of primitive, dissonant, and mournful that makes it a haunting in and of itself - listening to it at points in the movie made it feel like it was sinking into my bones and wouldn't go away for a few days. There are isolated images and set pieces - one especially striking one at the end, set to the song "All Tomorrow's Parties" - that stuck with me long after the movie as well. The problem is that these are just pieces, elements, isolated moments. They don't tell a story that, however slight, would give them the contextual scaffolding they need to have maximum impact. But developing ideas to their fullest require time, focus, attention, and support, which it sounds like were in short supply for this film. So as it stands, it's an ambitious failure, and the sort of thing likely to become legend in the "but have you seen the director's cut?" sort of way. Maybe it's destined to become a film whose "real" or "true" version is the stuff of legend, rumored to have really disturbing effects on the people who see it. That'd be a pretty good movie for Zombie to do, now that I think about it.

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