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The Lords of Salem (2013)

Six Feet Under the Influence

I'm one of maybe a dozen people on the planet who thought Rob Zombie's Halloween 2 was a great movie. Relentlessly mean, graphic as hell, and filled with just enough bizarre imagery and unreliable narrative to plunge the audience into survivor's shock, the film is much more terrifying and entertaining than its predecessor. Still, it's one of the most reviled sequels in history; one of the most hated remakes, too. Horror fans, and even Zombie himself, waited anxiously for the rocker/auteur's return to original material. After having seen The Lords of Salem, I'm still waiting.

The only substantive difference between this movie and Suspiria is its setting. Instead of a ballet school run by witches, Zombie tortures his heroine, Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), in a crappy Massachusetts apartment building--that's run by witches. The rest of the film is a naked homage to Dario Argento's horror classic, complete with moodiness, melodrama and a deliberately vague narrative whose brittle skeleton can barely support all the pseudo-trippy, narcissistic imagery. It's the equivalent of someone expecting praise for having tattooed The Mona Lisa on their face: sure it's art, but it's also pointless, dumb, and unoriginal.

One of the many things that separates Zombie from Argento is his bizarre need to flesh out his characters through back-story rather than forward momentum (see also 2007's Halloween). Heidi is one-third of a late-night-radio Zoo Crew. And she's a former crack addict. And she's descended from a famous witch-hunting Puritan named Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne (Andrew Prine). And she's been stringing along one of her co-hosts, romantically. And on and on and on.

Were any of these points exploited to even a quarter of their dramatic potential, Zombie may have been onto something. But he's far too in love with creating eerie images to trifle with story. For the record, I'd be okay with that if the images were new, legitimately eerie, or conveyed some kind of message beyond the tired, "It means whatever you want it to mean, maaaan" laziness of uninspired, desperate artists everywhere (see also Terrence Malick).

Zombie teases us with a sub-plot involving occult-studies author Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison), who runs afoul of the coven protecting Heidi during their plan to resurrect...another coven. Though he screams "Sacrificial Lamb" from frame one, Davison at least gives us some recognizably adult behavior--especially compared to Heidi who, as played by Mrs. Zombie, is little more than a sullen, tatted-up ne'er-to-well with bad white-girl dreads and zero charisma.* As alternately bubbly and deadly serious ladies of the dark, Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace, and Patricia Quinn are delightful, and I would have rather watched ninety minutes of them toying with Matthias than re-watching Zombie's third (at least) iteration of the "straight-laced-authority-figure-duped-by-seemingly-innocent-killers" scene.**

Another bright spot is Meg Foster, who commits so fully to her role as the centuries-old spirit of a witch that it's downright shameful Zombie didn't give her anything cool to do or interesting to say. There's only so much babbling about "trampling on the cross" and defying "God, the greatest liar of them all" one can endure before the dialogue starts to sound like a polemic against people who'll never bother with this movie anyway.

Worse yet, Foster is used more as a prop than a person; her ghastly, rotting image pops up here and there, always accompanied by a bombastic "Ooooh, Scary" audio cue. A bolder choice would have been to pull the score from these scenes completely, letting us discover the horrifying thing by the pantry for ourselves.

I'd intended to write more about the dopey, would-be boyfriend; the cursed record that possesses the native women of Salem; and the Anti-Christ who looks like a cross between a face-hugger and the face-hugger version of The Thing, but my memory of this movie has already evaporated into a dense fog of boredom. The long and short of it is, Rob Zombie is a talented filmmaker who knows a lot about horror-movie history. These factors allow him to successfully approximate his nostalgia, but they also prevent him (in this case, anyway) from bringing anything new to the table.

Quentin Tarantino is the modern-day master of homage, but you needn't even look to him for an example of influences informing original material rather than substituting for it. Arguably, Zombie merely updated The Texas Chainsaw Massacre with a circus aesthetic in his feature debut, House of 1,000 Corpses. But the sequel, The Devil's Rejects, took his trio of murderous lunatics on a bizarre road trip and turned them into unlikely protagonists in the process. Whether or not you agree with the subject matter, there's little denying the ideas, energy, and joy behind Zombie's filmography. By contrast, The Lords of Salem plays like a trip through a museum where the paintings are printed on laser paper and the floor is carpeted with quicksand.

*It'd be a stretch to find sympathy for a twenty-something protagonist who looks and acts this way. Heidi is at least twice that age, and we're given no reason to believe she's up to the task of defeating evil--unless the key to defeating evil is winning "Employee of the Month" at Hot Topic.

**In fairness, this is the best scene in the movie--likely because Zombie has spent over a decade honing it.

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