When it comes to Rob Zombie, I'm still ambivalent about his work. I know he's divisive among horror fans. For many, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES is pretty terrific, and for others it's definitely a take-it-or-leave-it kind of movie. I'll admit myself that when I first saw it it was at BNAT, right after a pretty brilliant horror movie called MAY by Lucky McKee, and I don't think I was able to give the movie a fair shake. But there's something jagged and cutting about that movie - I still think the cinematography is stunning. Then came THE DEVIL'S REJECTS which most horror fans went over the moon for, and when I saw it I felt stabbed in the gut. It's a raw, visceral movie, and to date, Zombie's most accomplished work.
Then came the HALLOWEEN movies - and Zombie lost a lot of cred with horror fans by going after such a sacred cow. Carpenter's original is a masterpiece of streamlined filmmaking efficiency, and Zombie's movie... isn't. Giving Michael Myers such an odd backstory didn't help matters, either. HALLOWEEN 2, while not much better, does have some interesting things going on under the surface - not enough to put that movie in the black column but enough to show that Zombie still had things to say about the horror genre.
So when Marcus emailed me about his attending the Toronto International Film Festival and had reviews of some movies, I asked him to submit a longform review of LORDS OF SALEM, Zombie's return to original horror. Mostly I was just curious for myself about the movie - and I'm not ready to dismiss Zombie as a filmmaker yet. There are shots in his movies that still disturb and terrify even now, and I think he still has an interesting and unique perspective. But I'll let Marcus tell us what he thought, and I asked him to be as spoiler-free as possible. Still, those wanting to go in blind might want to skip it:
Hello everyone,It’s that time of year again. When the beginning of September roles around one thing is guaranteed here in Toronto. It’s time for TIFF. My favorite part of TIFF has always been Midnight Madness. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Midnight Madness at TIFF, the programme lasts the stretch of the film festival and over those 10 days, 10 films play each night at midnight. They range anywhere from Sci-Fi to Horror , Dark Comedy and everything between. As Colin Geddes the programmer says they’re “the coolest, edgiest, sexiest and most badass films of the entire Festival.” This year’s lineup was fantastic and included films such as “Dredd 3D”, “Seven Psychopath’s”, and “John Dies At The End”. However, the most anticipated of all the MM films this year for myself was Rob Zombie’s newest film “The Lords Of Salem”.Coming into the screening of Lords, I was cautiously optimistic. “House of 1000 Corpses” was good and I absolutely love “The Devil’s Rejects”. In fact, it’s probably one of my favorite Horror films of all time. Rob showed great improvement between the two films and everything about the direction proved it. And then came “Halloween”. I know everyone has mixed reactions from both “Halloween” and “Halloween 2”. I personally thought “Halloween” was decent, I could tolerate it (obviously I still hold the original in way higher esteem). But “Halloween 2” I couldn’t stand. In fact I think I’ve only seen it once and never bothered to watch it again. So coming into the film I had faith that maybe coming back to his own, original content would perhaps generate a better end product.The result of “The Lords of Salem” was something I never expected. Looking at his past films, Lords is completely different and depending on how you go into the film may determine how much you like it. This isn’t a typical Rob Zombie film. The themes are similar, but the tone is completely different.I’m not going to dig too much into the story because I don’t want to spoil it for any of you. The main plot of the film is based around a coven of witches who were all burned to death hundreds of years ago during the Salem Witch Trials (If I recall correctly, I believe Rob mentioned during the Q&A that it didn’t take place exactly during the witch trials, but around the same time). Before being burned to death, the coven of six put a curse upon Reverend Hawthorne, the man responsible, and pretty much curse his bloodline saying that one day his ancestors will give birth to the spawn of Satan. Flash-forward a few hundred years and we’re introduced to Heidi played by, you guessed it, Rob’s wife Sheri Moon Zombie. Much of the cast from previous Zombie flicks are back, as you’d expect. To my surprise, I actually found the acting much better than previous films. Especially with Mrs. Zombie. I was kind of getting sick with her from the previous films but after viewing, I couldn’t see anybody else playing this role. Also loved her dreads in this film (the crowd seemed to be surprised when it was revealed that it was a wig during the Q&A afterwords because they looked so real). Heidi is a DJ at a local radio station and in her late 30’s early 40’s. She lives on her own in an apartment with her dog and her seemingly nice landlord, played by Dee Wallace. One night during a show, Heidi receives a mysterious wooden box containing a vinyl record addressed from someone simply called “The Lords”. The thing that stands out to Heidi, who uses a radio name and not her actual name, is that the box is addressed to her real name… Heidi Hawthorne. She finds it a bit odd because she didn’t think anybody knew her real name, but shrugs it off because anyone can find anything nowadays with the internet. She plays the record at home and suddenly a bunch of crazy flashbacks happen. The record seems to only affect her and not her co-host Whitey, played by Jeff Daniel Phillips. The next night Whitey, plays the record on air and all the women who are listening seem to get possessed by the witches and come back to help Heidi fulfill the curse. Heidi returns home to find that the room down the hall from her, which apparently has been vacant for quite some time, finally got rented out. As Heidi is opening her own door, the door down the hall slowly opens and a mysterious dark figure is standing in the hallway. As Heidi tries to introduce herself, the door shuts. When she asks the landlord about it the next day, she has no idea what Heidi’s talking about and reveals that the room is still vacant.This is when I was expecting a brutal, relentless Rob Zombie like in “Devil’s Rejects” but what we got was something completely different. “The Lords of Salem” is like an art house film. It progresses slowly and has a suspenseful build up, very reminiscent of “The Shining” and doesn’t focus on cheap pop up scares. There are a few but it doesn’t rely heavily on it. Much like “The Shining”, I noticed a lot of one-point perspective shots. Especially while tracking down the “long” hallway towards the “empty” room, which is host to the creepy new guest. During the Q&A after the film, Cinematographer Brandon Trost said one of the hardest parts about making the film was making that hallway look so long and big because what they really worked with on such a small budget was really tiny. The cinematography was amazing. It looked beautiful, even with all the wreckage happening. My favorite shot of the film was one that reminded me of the shot from Gladiator when Maximus walked in to the Coliseum for the first time. A very low angle shot with a wide-lense allowing the frame to be encompassed by the rich background, although I won’t say what that background is but you’ll know which shot I’m talking about. One of the big problems I had was with one of the special effects, which you could call one of the characters. I found it really cheesy and it really took me out of the moment, especially after having such a beautiful shot before it.If you go into this film expecting the atmosphere of a slasher film, you will hate “The Lords of Salem”. You will hate the story, which truthfully isn’t the most original idea. It’s predictable and not much happens. I didn’t enjoy it at first because I wasn’t expecting it. Having had time to think about it and write this review it’s grown on me. If you appreciate film’s like Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining , Suspiria, etc, then you will absolutely love this film. If you’re not a horror fan, which if you’re not why are you seeing a Rob Zombie film, then you may not like it. It’s a different step for Rob Zombie, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s more mature both technically and thematically.It’ll be interesting to see how other people review it. The crowd at the show was principally Rob Zombie fans. It was a great atmosphere to watch the film and the reception I saw after the film and on Twitter was mostly positive. However, my one friend hated the film. He complained that it was too slow and the plot was one that had been done before (Hocus Pocus maybe?). So take what you can out of this review and go into this film with an open mind and you will enjoy it. And don’t forget to come to TIFF one year for a Midnight Madness film! I guarantee you will love the atmosphere and the city. Until next time!Marcus.
Thanks Marcus, it sounds fascinating and I'll be on the lookout for it on release. A Rob Zombie arthouse movie? Intriguing.