TIFF 2012 – The Lords of Salem Review (Matt Hodgson)

The Lords of Salem (2012)

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.

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

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.

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

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.

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Exit Humanity Review – Toronto After Dark Film Festival 2011

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The 6th Annual Toronto After Dark Film Festival, 8 Nights of Horror, Sci-Fi, Action, and Cult Movies runs Oct 20-27, 2011 at the Toronto Underground Cinema. For complete festival info visit www.torontoafterdark.com.

Exit Humanity was preceded by the short film Prick, by director Colin Berry, who was also a special effects adviser on Exit Humanity. Prick is about a serial killer who could go completely undetected in our society. A scary thought, but not the main reason why Prick is such a successful short. In addition to directing, Berry also does the special effects work, and it is nothing short of amazing. A particular scene in a hallway had me shaking my head in disbelief as to how Berry had achieved the otherworldly visuals. Prick does not feel like a short, much more like a preview for something bigger. Keep an eye on Berry, big things are in the future for this filmmaker.

Throughout the last few months of viewing a balanced diet of both mainstream and independent film, I have learned that the gap in the quality of these two types of cinema has been rapidly narrowing. Improved technology, less expensive equipment, and younger, better educated and experienced filmmakers has led to independent cinema becoming much more accessible to mainstream audiences. Exit Humanity is one such film that feels too professional and polished to possibly be an independent film, but it is.

The story takes place during the American Civil War and follows a soldier named Edward Young. We join Young in the midst of an intense battle that quickly becomes a different sort of horror for the soldier, as he is attacked by a member of the undead. After this encounter, we quickly learn that the undead have taken over the countryside and few humans remain. Young has been forced to kill his wife after she became infected, and his young boy has gone missing. Edward Young sets out on a journey to find his son, and to find an exit to this grotesque caricature of what humanity has become.

Exit Humanity was made by Foresight Features, the same crew that gave us Monster Brawl. This time, writer\directer John Geddes is at the helm, with a star studded cast. The people at Foresight once again look to be incredibly well connected, as Dee Wallace, Bill Moseley, Stephen McHattie, and Brian Cox all appear in Exit Humanity. Also of note is the debut of Mark Gibson in the role of Edward Young. Gibson delivers a fine performance as a man who is on the verge of a complete mental breakdown. Although, there are a few too many times when Gibson freaks out to such a degree that Nicholas Cage will most likely be taking notes, but all things considered, even this part of the performance is probably quite realistic given Young’s circumstances. Gibson has done an excellent job of channeling the weight of loss and helplessness that Young must feel, while at the same time maintaining that shred of hope. Adam Seybold is another actor to keep an eye on. His excellent performance as Isaac gives the oppressive atmosphere of Exit Humanity an injection of humour that is sorely needed.

The filmmaking itself is very professional. The cinematography and setting are beautiful. As Geddes noted during the Q&A, the cast and crew went out of their way to ensure that they filmed certain scenes at the crack of dawn and others at sunset, to get the look of the film just right. Also, beautiful animation is used throughout the film due to budget constraints, however, it proves to be an interesting and effective narrative device.

Unfortunately, Exit Humanity has a few writing issues that hold it back from being as good as it should have been. For starters, it really feels like a drama and not a horror film, which is not a problem in itself, except that it will make the viewer wonder if the zombies are really central to the story. A different sort of infectious disease could easily have taken the place of the undead. Sure, zombies may have been used because it seemed like a cool idea, however, cool ideas have their place, typically in much less serious films. The plot of a drama needs to be more intricately woven to be effective. In addition, Exit Humanity seemed to drag on for a bit too long. At two hours, I am not sure that there is enough content in the story to keep an audience entertained throughout.

In closing, I don’t think that Exit Humanity is as ground breaking as another review has stated, although I do see many positives. This does not feel like the work of a relatively new film maker. Geddes gets many things right, but is held back my some pacing and conceptual issues. I have no doubt that Exit Humanity will find an audience. If you enjoy being immersed in bleak unforgiving worlds, where survival is a daily concern, then check out Exit Humanity. In the meantime, I will wait for Geddes to turn out a winner in the future. I am convinced that he will.

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