Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Lords of Salem

Grade: 67/B

There’s an early scene in The Lords of Salem that’s indicative of what much of the viewing experience will be. Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie) walks around her poorly lit apartment, oblivious that there’s something menacing lurking in the next room. It’s a creepy moment, no doubt, but it’s just of hint of the terror that will likely come later. Except that most of The Lords of Salem is just that: creepy things just in the background or the foreground, toying with Heidi without actively harming her. It’s far removed from director Rob Zombie’s best film, the grueling, viscerally upsetting The Devil’s Rejects, which was set at a near-constant level of terror. The Lords of Salem sees Zombie going for a more slow-burning, atmospheric horror. He doesn’t quite knock it out of the park, but it shows one of the world’s most important horror directors growing as a filmmaker.

Heidi is one of a trio of DJs for a radio show in Salem, Massachusetts. One night a record arrives at their studio, sent from a band called The Lords of Salem. When she plays the record, she begins to have visions of witches in the 1600s slaughtering babies or being burned at the stake. The record seems to have effect only over the women of Salem, who fall into a trance when Heidi plays it on the radio. Soon, Heidi’s landlady (Judy Geeson) brings in her two friends (Patricia Quinn and Dee Wallance) and begins to look after Heidi, but they may have more sinister motives. Meanwhile, local author/witch historian Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) investigates the record and the band name, which sounds all too familiar to him.

The plot isn’t much more than a bunch of hokum, but it’s wonderful, wonderful hokum from a director who knows the history of horror films rather well. Zombie includes smart throwbacks to Rosemary’s Baby, Repulsion, Suspiria, Halloween, The Fog, The Shining, frequently playing with spatial dynamics or atmospheric tracking shots in order to build suspense. He creates such a hypnotizing and creepy atmosphere that it almost seems churlish to point out that the film isn’t particularly frightening. It builds suspense, but that suspense doesn’t lead to many real scares. Still, Zombie throws in enough memorably strange moments (including an ending that feels like Rosemary’s Baby directed by Ken Russell) to make it worthwhile, and his skill at using 70s rock songs hasn’t diminished. For those who loved his use of “Free Bird” in The Devil’s Rejects, it’s worth seeing just for his use of the Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties”. If Zombie can only mix his gift for slow-burning tension with his proved talent for visceral horror, he could make a masterpiece.

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