#28: The Lords of Salem
Time for another big-ass load of feminism. Hold onto your butts.
Have you come here to stick your nosy cock inside her head and fuck her brain, Mr. Matthias?
This is unabashedly my favorite movie of the last couple years. I've been a believer in Rob Zombie as a game changing filmmaker since House of 1000 Corpses, and in particular, his ability to draw strong female characters that not only lead the genre, but the medium.
Yes, I really believe this man can do that.
Much of that is thanks to his relationship with Sheri Moon Zombie, whom he casts in every film and nearly every music video. She's one of those "non-actor" type actors who serves to represent something - a look, a feel, in her case, an alternative, rock and roll beauty. In recent years, and with each film, I see her develop as a career actress, and The Lords of Salem presents the kind of role she deserves. I hope there will be more of them.
Stories about witches can go one of two ways - they can villainize women or celebrate them. In Don't Look Now, the psychic activity between women is viewed as threatening, cultish, frightening. It's a perspective of a patriarchy uncomfortable with women as a unit - like the detective said, women seem to "converge." In a movie like The Craft (how I love thee, let me count the ways...), we see the coven from a feminine perspective - there is a sisterly bond that, when taken care of, is good and safe.
The Lords of Salem presents something beautifully complicated that rests directly between the two - a fairness and evenness that Zombie excels at as a storyteller (I suspect this comes out of a real love for the genre, especially the slashers and baddies we are supposed to revile - in his work they remain evil, but illuminated with an extra bit of dimension that can only come from love - aw, he does <3 his monsters). The coven of witches is coming for Heidi Hawthorne. They wish evil upon her. But their vengeance is not undeserved. And though the film presents them as enemy, their final accomplishment is presented not with menace, but a glory fit for a Queen. I'm impressed by its spectacle every time. If you're a silly horror fan like me, it could move you to tears.
There are those who will find this, in comparison to Zombie's previous work, very, very slow. And also devoid of the kind of gore he specializes in (House of 1000 Corpses, even with its incredible sense of humor, is hard for most people to watch - I know, I made a lot of people watch it). But moving from Slashers to Sadists, the tonal shift is logical and necessary. Slow pans, long shots, incredibly pregnant pauses - these are the tools necessary to paint a piece of deeply unsettling psychological horror. He still manages a few gross-out creatures, and they fit well, in an Eraserhead meets Hellraiser sort of way. What I'm saying is, his visual stamp is there, don't worry.
The witches in Lords aren't Hocus-Pocus, long-nosed, green and warty witches. They are very real manifestations of a group of women based in history - those victimized by The Salem Witch Trials. Of course, the supernatural elements are those of a horror story, probably not historical fact, and so traversing this ground can be surprisingly difficult. From a feminist perspective, creating a coven of satanic witches, without demonizing them for their sex, is going to be really, really difficult. For a fairly weighted, and the most interesting representation, it's incredibly important that the witches be real, authentic women - not cartoons or approximations. Why? Because witchcraft, and the burning of witches at Salem, was in its least magical interpretation, a crime against women. Again I look at Don't Look Now and see a script and a film that is fearful not only of psychic women, but powerful women as a whole. Zombie manages something different.
The witches seeking vengeance in Lords are not merely monsters, but a pack of wronged women. Their characterization, and their union, is symbolic of the strength the bonds between women can create. In this coven, Zombie creates a group of women who are frightening, threatening, and scary - that gives them real power. They are also given reason, logic, and vindication - they have every reason to see the men around them crumble, and no problem using their women to do it. This, of course, makes The Lords definitively evil; their willingness to sacrifice other women to achieve their ends. But they only participate in the same evil the patriarchy had invented before them, because ultimately, that is how the women of Salem were always viewed, witches and non-witches alike - as property of the men they were born to.
I could unpack this one for days. Please see this and comment about it so I can write about it some more.
Too many! But today I choose Heidi sitting outside the church in the cemetery, dog in tow, watching a figure in a black jacket and inhuman head walk toward her. It reminds me a bit of the shaking-head men from Jacob's Ladder, but there is no shaking or jerky editing of any kind. It is one, long, honest shot at a creature that is menacing and unearthly, and I believe some of Zombie's best shot composition to date.
Other Things to Notice:
You may recognize the three witches, and you should be pleased to see Zombie sticking to his usual guns about hiring stars of classic horror (his use of Karen Black is some of the best work she ever did, and Sid Haig receives the appreciation he so richly deserves as a character actor). Dee Wallace (E.T.), Patricia Quinn (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), and Judy Geeson (Berserk, 10 Rillington Place) round out one of the strangest, creepiest, most charismatic clan of witches I've ever seen. If you don't laugh with them after they smack Bruce Davison over the head with a frying pan, and then have all the hairs stand up on your arms when they wheel poor Heidi into the Devil's apartment, well, I don't know what to tell you. You may not have a soul.
There's a good amount of phallic symbolism going on here - in fact, it's naive to call it symbolism. There's a lot of cock in this movie. Prepare for that, and also notice what it means for the women.
If you download The Lords of Salem soundtrack, you can listen to the The Lords' song over, and over, and over again. I don't recommend you do this in your car where other people can see you. It looks weird. Just an FYI. But it is real good, isn't it?
If You Like It, Watch:
Halloween (2007): Yes, I think you should watch the remake of one of my favorite horror movies of all time, which absolutely didn't need a remake for any reason. It took me many years to watch this, assuming that even with a director I admire at the helm, it would be a waste of time. It is not. It is in direct service of the Carpenter original. It takes a framework and does what Zombie does best - explores the characters to their very depths (or as is often the case, their lack of depths). The role he creates for Sheri in Michael Myers' mother is layered and challenging. I highly recommend, especially if you are skeptical. *Streaming on Amazon Prime
The Ninth Gate: I'm going to leave the witches be and go the Satan-worshipping route for this one. This Polanski movie took a while for me to warm up to, but it's become a real favorite. Johnny Depp is at his not-a-pirate best as a rare book dealer, and the Satan-loving people he works for are fantastically bizarre, including the always lovely Frank Langella. Wikipedia tells me that Polanski based this on a 1993 novel called The Club Dumas, but I'm going to tell you that it's strikingly similar to a Jacques Tourneur film from 1957 called Night of the Demon. See them both, tell me what you think.
*click for the trailer*