Starring Sheri Moon Zombie, Bruce Davison, Ken Foree, Patricia Quinn, Dee Wallace, Maria Conchita Alonso, and Judy Gleeson
Written and Directed by Rob Zombie
Midnight Madness, the midnight programme at the Toronto International Film Festival, has been a little lackluster for me so far. No One Lives and Hellbenders had some pretty serious script problems, while Seven Psychopaths didn’t captivate me in the same way that In Bruges did. The one saving grace thus far has been the incredible effects found in Dredd 3D. Film festivals are always a 50/50 affair in terms of quality movies, mainly due to the fact that the programmers can only select what is currently available to them. Looking at the back half of the lineup I see titles like The ABCs of Death, The Bay, and John Dies at the End, and I feel quite positive that my Midnight Madness experience will improve in the end. However, Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem was the on the docket for Monday night and given my less than stellar experiences with House of 1000 Corpses and Halloween, I was hoping The Lords of Salem would be drastically different from his previous projects.
The Lords of Salem is the story of a coven of Salem witches, the Lords, who were burnt at the stake in the past only to wreak havoc in the present day thanks to the last minute chanting of a curse. Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie), a late night radio DJ for a heavy rock station appears to be the unfortunate victim, as she receives a wooden box at the radio station containing a haunting vinyl record by ‘The Lords’. Thanks to the effects of the music and a strange new neighbour on the floor of her apartment, Heidi becomes sleep deprived, begins to hallucinate, and generally falls apart at the seams. Her friends at the station are helpless and can only watch as the Lords of Salem tighten their evil grip on Heidi.
The Lords of Salem is characteristic of Rob Zombie’s incredibly visual style. There are a number of shots and scenes with beautiful colour schemes, particularly reds and golds, that are a treat to see on the big screen. Also present is Zombie’s inclusion of inexplicable horror: priests with melting, ashen faces, literally faces made of ash, are probably the highlight in this department as they certainly made me feel a little uneasy in my seat. Also of note is the performance by Sheri Moon Zombie. Although it may not be a groundbreaking performance, she manages to radiate charisma while onscreen and I would be shocked if there were members of the MM crowd who were not rooting for her as the Lords of Salem closed in. Unfortunately, that pretty much sums up my positive experience with Zombie’s new film.
For such a visual director I cannot understand why The Lords of Salem looked so amateurish in the photography department. I know next to nothing about film stock or digital cameras, but The Lords of Salem looked like it was filmed with a very low quality digital camera. I was familiar with the work of the DP on The Lords of Salem, Brandon Trost, and enjoyed his work on The FP, so I’m kind of at a loss to explain why Lords so cheap.
Probably the biggest problem with Lords was the writing and execution of the script. The story falls in the realm of class horror and as such, is incredibly basic. Given that Zombie is an experienced filmmaker, you would think that he would be able to do justice to the slow-burn tension that is needed in a story involving the rebirth of an ancient evil. But Lords of Salem crawls to the finish. From the uninteresting opening scene, in which the most frightening part is the nudity, to the final appearances of the witches in the present day, Lords of Salem is anything but scary or suspenseful.
During the Q&A we listened to Zombie explain that the idea for the movie had been in his head for five or six years. Really? The idea could not have been more complex than ‘a movie about witches’. Also, it was shocking to discover that well known actors such as Udo Kier, and Clint Howard had been cut-out of the final version of the movie. Zombie simply stated that they shot so much footage and couldn’t possibly fit everyone in. An alarm went off in my head as I heard this. It perfectly explained why the script felt so basic and yet still disjointed. This and other comments made it seems like Zombie prefers to be inspired and flexible while on the set or in the editing room, rather than have a well structured and polished script from the beginning. To each his own, but that makes me think that it is time for Zombie to put both feet firmly into the director’s role and collaborate with a writer on his next movie. There is no doubt that the man is talented as a visual director, but I don’t know if he can be an effective storyteller. Film is a collaborative process and I would love to see what Zombie can do with a competent script.