Wednesday, September 4, 2013

A Hand-Me-Down Dress From Who Knows Where

I know virtually nothing about Rob Zombie's music, beyond the fact that it exists -- for some reason, I feel this is something I need to put on the table before talking about how much I dislike most of his movies. But I don't know his music, so if that somehow feeds into his work as a writer and director of horror films in ways of which I'm completely ignorant, you must pardon me. On the other hand, for a guy who has in the past gone out of his way to talk shit about Zombie's film work, I've seen it all (with the exception of his little-loved animated movie The Haunted World of El Superbeasto). So if I've failed to enjoy that particular experience, a case could be made that I shoulder more of the blame than Zombie. But I'm a horror fan, and it's in my nature to watch a lot of horror movies, so I reject this argument. In any case, that's the only explanation for what led me to actually watch his debut feature, House of 1000 Corpses, a film I thought terrible enough to kill Zombie's film career right off the bat. Since then, I've had to suffer with something of a critical...not reappraisal, because that would have to come some time after the fact, but the construction of a wall of defense by those who would claim that the idiotic and morally broken The Devil's Rejects was a sharp 9/11 allegory, or that his remake of John Carpenter's Halloween was brilliant because it functioned as a biopic of Michael Myers, no pause having been taken to consider that this is a ridiculous idea. So all that's been going on, but it's never been loud enough to bother me too awfully much. My main takeaway from Zombie's two Halloween films was that, however much "original" material he dumped into that old story, he was spinning his wheels just three films in -- so he survived House of 1000 Corpses, but perhaps no longer.

Well, no. Because now, or earlier this year, we have The Lords of Salem, an original horror film that takes as the source of its horror witches, as in "Salem Witch Trials" witches, and this is not a thing that's really done much these days. Curious despite myself, I checked it out tonight, and it's...well. It stars Sheri Moon Zombie, Rob Zombie's wife who has appeared in all of his films, here as the lead for the first time in their working relationship. She plays Heidi, one of three hosts, along with Ken Foree and Jeff Daniel Phillips (whose character, Herman, is Heidi's boyfriend) of a strange, but super popular everybody, radio show based out of Salem, Mass., the premise of which seems to be a morning zoo (but at night) kind of show that regards occult matters with some amount of snark. And I guess they play music too? They at least play music by independent black metal bands who send their EPs to the show for on-air criticism. One album they received comes from a band called The Lords, a name that Ken Foree promptly deems incomplete and therefore expands to "The Lords of Salem," which is the title of this movie you guys. Why Zombie didn't simply call the band The Lords of Salem is beyond me, and the choice is dumb enough that I can't claim he overthought anything. Pretty much all of the radio show stuff is similarly inane -- these guys have every conceivable sound effect drop ready to heighten their extemporaneous conversations with split-second timing -- but the music of The Lords is the point of it all, and is rather effectively industrial and sinister. The music has an apparently nasty physical, and possibly psychological, effect on Heidi, and, we see in a montage, on various other women throughout Salem, who hear the music droning through their radios and immediately become hypnotized.
There's a plot to all this, as you might imagine. The stage is set by flashbacks of 18th century Salem witches, who in this film were actually witches -- that coven was led by Meg Foster, who, based on her performance, and how she agreed to appear, in The Lords of Salem indicates to me that she's down with pretty much whatever -- and a diary from the time, kept by a reverend (Andrew Pine) that provides all of the exposition that modern day Salem Witch Trial expert, and radio show guest, Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) doesn't. I'm convinced, however, that none of this matters. Bruce Davison's good, I always like him -- he's the kind of actor who can breathe life and personality into even the most thankless role, among which number you'd probably have to count this one, but it's just that in The Lords of Salem, the centuries-old curse Matthias uncovers doesn't matter at all. Or almost not at all -- you need some sort of context, I suppose, to build everything else on top of. But the strength of The Lords of Salem -- and I'll go ahead and say that I think this is Zombie's best film, however little that might mean, considering how I began -- is how Zombie's visual inventiveness is able to shed the trappings of its rote ancient-curse plot and just go absolutely berserk. The film's great weakness is that Zombie still seems to think he's much of a writer, and so it's all equal to him. But in a very nearly good way, it's not equal at all.

One of the great frustrations of this, and so many contemporary horror films, and I do apologize for banging on this drum again, is that the makers consider it a sly talent to be able to evoke for viewers all the horror movies they've all, as one fandom, seen and enjoyed. It does nothing for me to hear Meg Foster say "cunting daughter," a jolt of a line from The Exorcist, but not a jolt of a line here, because it's not meant to jolt -- it's meant to remind. Similar winks toward Rosemary's Baby just get in the way of a film that, maybe about halfway through, I started to realize had much to recommend it. In terms of imagery, The Lords of Salem eventually becomes genuinely wild and unsettling, in ways both new and gratifyingly old (a couple of times, there are actual monsters on the screen). There's a section that begins with Heidi in the grasp of the contemporary witch coven, played by Dee Wallace, Judy Geeson, and Patricia Quinn, who operate out of Heidi's apartment building, which is almost relentless in its colorfully operatic nightmare. And speaking of opera, or anyway of music, and the score by Griffin Boice and John 5 is quite good, if occasional references are being made, and they are, to Popol Vuh. And since none of it is as tiresomely blatant as "cunting daughter," it could be that the effect is merely similar. Not bad as compliments go, if I do say so myself.
Even so, there's an element to all this craziness that feels somewhat unnatural, or inorganic. It often doesn't feel like the strangeness of a filmmaker whose warped subconscious just comes spilling out of his eyes. It's more like "Okay now, what's a weird thing we can do?" Which, hey, the creative process takes many forms, and one shouldn't have to be genuinely insane in order to create strange things. But again, it's that need to announce your influences that trips Zombie up, because Ken Russell is all over this thing. Yet the ghost of Ken Russell, and I'm not a fan, counts in this day and age, and maybe most days and ages depending on your tolerance, as a honest to goodness shot in the arm, so that I was left, as Heidi and The Lords of Salem as a whole flailed away into Hell, unable to separate my understanding of where Zombie's imagination came from, and being actually kind of thrilled to see that imagination on screen in a horror film that, given the paucity of this sort of thing elsewhere in the genre, genuinely new. At its best, The Lords of Salem does a better than average job of depicting Satanic evil let loose.

Of course, Zombie doesn't know his strengths, so after a pretty terrific ending, visually speaking, and in terms of the song chosen to play over it, we have a little bit of, not plot exactly, but even worse, exposition weaving in and out of the closing credits. It's not ruinous, but it is typical. At the top of his game, Rob Zombie is incapable of leaving well enough alone. So the apex of his filmmaker talents ends up being terribly frustrating. But I suppose I'd have to admit that things are looking up.

But please, don't take any of this as a recommendation. I won't have that on my conscience.


John said...

That sounds sorta interesting. Devil's Rejects pretty much confirmed my post-House of 1,000 Corpses opinion that Zombie might be the single most incompetent genre director to emerge since Ed Wood. I've seen less amateurish effortts made by total amateurs on YouTube, with more suspense and visual style in their 10 minute or less running times than you'd find in a Rob Zombie movie marathon. Nevertheless, I'd probably give this one a shot even if it was just another one of his stinkers, because I have nice memories of Massachusetts.

bill r. said...

I think it's worth seeing, obviously, but I want you to remember my last couple of sentences.

John said...

For sure. And there was no danger of that anyway. I didn't get a sense of recommendation so much as a "hey there are some potentially redeeming qualities in this one, but it's still a Rob Zombie flick" vibe, which is a lot closer to the opposite thing. The only danger is that the review may prove more interesting than the thing itself, but c'est la vie.

Jesse Furgurson said...

Hi. I quite like this blog but have yet to comment on it. Here goes:

I'm not a Zombie fan, exactly, but I have some sympathy for him. His movies are the most distinctive thing in American horror right now, even if part of that distinctiveness lies in the way in which, with one exception, they don't really "work" as horror movies. They're this antic, profane stew of not entirely digested influences, fetishes, and runaway digressions, and to the extent you'll feel empathy with anybody in them it's more likely to be a sadist or a murderer than an innocent (cf. Carpenter's Laurie Strode and Zombie's), which totally futzes with the usual identification paradigm. Which is admittedly more "interesting" than it is "scary" or "good."

But then there's the exception: I don't know what Devil's Rejects John Magwitch is describing. It is, if nothing else, on a purely shot-by-shot, cut-by-cut basis, a highly competent piece of work, brimming over with a joy and skill in putting images together, even though many of those images are ugly. Whether or not it's idiotic or morally broken, I dunno, but you could say the same thing about many of its antecedents. It gets most of the effects it's looking for (some of the jokey parts don't really work but then Last House WTFIU), and is livelier about it than any other movie that came out of the whole "torture porn" mess. And it is, in places, truly disturbing. I remember the motel sequence terrorizing the audience I saw it with. He very skillfully and cruelly toys with expectations throughout those 30 minutes. It's a ferocious piece of work.

The rest of his stuff is an extremely mixed bag for me. Lords included, which feels like another step backward in the competence department. I like the same stuff in it you like, but by taking his foot off the gas pedal and putting the camera back on a tripod, he makes his weaknesses harder to tolerate. That climax is quite something to behold, though. The Russell influence is all over it.

The position he's in is historically very odd. I feel like he would be appreciated by more horror fans if he came out of the '70s or '80s, and yet his movies' existence is predicated on Tarantino rendering it okay for genre filmmakers to make movies that are basically patchworks of stuff they like.

bill r. said...

You know, I made clear that generally speaking I, too, am not a Zombie fan by any means, but I tried to think of a counterpoint to your "most distinctive thing in American horror" claim, and I couldn't quite manage. Which says more bad about American horror films that it does anything particularly good about Zombie, but point taken nevertheless.

Still, though. THE DEVIL'S REJECTS is morally broken in my view in its horrific belief that William Forsythe's character, by the end of it, has become "no different" and "no worse" than the Firefly family. This is hideous to me, and I hate the film because of it. Not that I have to ignore anything I think is that great about it in order to do so. It's certainly sleazily violent and uncomfortable in that regard, which is part of its goal and Zombie achieves it, but that's not a thing I consider particularly distinctive or, at this stage in the game, especially noteworthy, at least not if that element isn't being surrounded by something interesting.

Considering your point of view, Jesse, I'm surprised you consider LORDS OF SALEM a step back. Of all his films, THIS is the really distinctive one, for all its flaws. I've actually grown to like it more as time has passed, and if I were writing this review now might leave out those last couple of lines.

Also: thanks!

John said...

Having only seen Rejects the once, and maybe not paying as much attention as I might have, I'll accept as possible that the very dim impression I retain of it may not form an entirely accurate or sound basis on which to judge its various merits or lack of them. Nevertheless, such impressions as still vaguely persist, insignificant as they are, remain on the whole negative.

You say the images are ugly, JF. On that point I think we can agree. However, to me it's not an ugly movie in a frightening or disturbing way, but rather ugly in a deliberately cheapjack, shoddy, and halfhearted way, like an expensive new pair of designer "grunge" jeans adorned with tastefully applied rips and tears, maybe even a few messily scrawled cuss words here and there. I can't say there's a single image in it that stands out for me. The whole congeals in my memory into a bland, cheap-looking blur of safe sleaze and melodramatic violence.

The "morally broken" thing that annoys Bill about it may also be a factor in my distaste, but not in the same way. For me the problem with it is that I just didn't care. Didn't care about any of it, the characters, their fates, the "subversive" aspects of it. I might have been a little disheartened to see that misshapen giant guy, who seemed to be having real difficulty performing even with his very limited role, but that's about as far as my emotional response to this movie went.

Jesse Furgurson said...

The moral position of The Devil's Rejects is plainly perverse, and I'm willing to roll with it.

I consider Lords a stepback insofar as I think Devil's Rejects and his two Halloweens mark a real advance, technically, from where he was at in House of 1000 Corpses, which is flat-out amateurish. And I think that advance lies in his adopting a grainy handheld 16mm aesthetic, which tends to make even his worst ideas have some, I dunno, tactile weight to them? I feel weird using terms like that, as if Andre Bazin would have been all for Rob Zombie, but it's not for nothing that Matt Zoller Seitz once called him "the John Cassavetes of splatter." With Lords he puts the camera back on a tripod, and with this comes some patently false and distracting attempts to imitate '70s-style zooms, where it's obvious he just applied a digital zoom to his shots in post. The editing is really clunky and arhythmic, too. Moreover, the whole thing seems stranded between the style he's been using up to this point, where it's like you're trapped in a horrible adults-only carnival, and a more slow-building approach, which it turns out he's not really cut out for. Most of the strongest moments in it lean toward the former vibe.

I certainly don't think it's worst movie. That's either House or that El Superbeasto cartoon I've heard literally nothing good about from anybody.

Jesse Furgurson said...

JM: Fair enough. Even what I'd call a good Rob Zombie joint is still the very definition of an acquired taste. The movie makes the assumption that the audience is on board, and so doesn't really give anybody who isn't grabbed by the showmanship of the first 10 minutes an easy entry point.