Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Lords of Bullsh*t

Warning; big spoilers here: so I saw The Lords of Salem last night. Brandon Trost's cinematography was very good - it saved the film in a lot of ways with its atmospheric and ominous take on the streets of Salem, Massachusetts - but as usual, the work of Rob Zombie was style over substance. The film was admittedly creepy along the way, with the luxury of some odd ghost-witches hovering in corners and spooky hallway stunts but unfortunately, like most of what I've seen from Zombie, the script and story development felt very undercooked, and the subtext was confused at best.

The setup was this: many moons ago, there was a coven of (evil) witches led by Margaret Morgan (played by classic cult, spooky-eyed actress Meg Foster) in Salem and one Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne burned them at the stake. These witches, who were referred to as the Lords of Salem, swore a curse on the female descendants of the town, and on Hawthorne's female descendant in particular, that she should become a sort of Anti-Mary and give birth to the Anti-Christ. Though Zombie doesn't get into characterizing Hawthorne as evil, per se, he includes all sorts of offensive imagery of priest-monsters in Catholic garb doing obscene things throughout the film, and Reverend Hawthorne himself has actually burned six people at the stake so, it is intimated that while the witches are bad news, Christianity ain't no picnic either.

We come into the story during the modern life of Heidi (played, unsurprisingly, by Sheri Moon Zombie), a rock DJ at a local radio station. She and her radio show co-hosts (played by Jeff Daniel Philips and the legendary, cult favorite Ken Foree) are sent a mysterious vinyl record by a group calling themselves The Lords of Salem, and the radio team inevitably decide to play the record on live radio. The results become problematic when Heidi and other women in Salem react strangely to the odd music and, sure enough, everyone accepts the invitation of these mysterious Lords of Salem when news arrives that they will be performing a concert in town shortly. The enchanted album and the fake concert setup is the work of a group of  three elderly witches (led by legendary actress Judy Geeson) who are the modern day representatives charged with the responsibility of raising of the original Lords of Salem and also with the bringing about the birth of the Anti-Christ. They also happen to be Heidi's landladies. Heidi, as it turns out, is the descendant of Reverend Hawthorne and is therefore tagged to be the Anti-Mary and give birth to the Anti-Christ.

So overall, for the sake of 'horror scares' I was willing to allow for the shrivelled, "evil" witches bit, though anyone who knows me knows how I feel about that sort of characterization of witches and the avoidance of serious discourse on the persecution of persons accused of witchcraft and by association, allegiance with evil. I was willing to suspend my political views on the reality of the matter for some quality scares. However, the real problematic lies in the display of Zombie's obvious disdain for Christianity while combined with a reliance on the very woman-as-evil conventions typical of Christian tradition. But okay, if you're going to play that game, then play it full tilt boogie with conviction, is what I say.

If Mary, mother of Jesus, is set up as an untainted virgin - and Mary is mentioned several times in the film - then it stands to reason that a character like Heidi, who will become the mother of the Anti-Christ, should not be set up as a friendly, average dreadlock-donning rock chick with a cute, happy golden retriever. Heidi should have been set up as someone primed for being the vessel of the Anti-Christ; the antithesis of the likes of Mary - and no, creating a vague recovering addict backstory doesn't count as a character having a history which primes them to become the mother of pure evil. Zombie should have set Heidi up as a far more hedonistic, reckless character from the start; a person void of empathy and purity by default, if still unaware of her flaws as precipitating her fate had Zombie wanted to go down that road, especially given that Heidi's the descendant of the murderous Reverend Hawthorne. Alternately, Zombie could have set Heidi up as a good character who really fights and struggles against her inclinations and terrible fate, which would have upped the stakes, created more tension, and made her plight feel more tragic to viewers but, alas, he didn't do that either. But these are all details, compared to the fact that the big payoff is not big at all.

In the end, Heidi falls off the wagon and "does drugs" (dun, dun, dunnn), is rounded up by the three elderly witch ladies who get her all set up to become impregnated by Satan (a sort of tiny, potbellied Rumpelstiltskin mandrake root looking creature), then bring her to the fake concert they've orchestrated where she ascends (or descends as it were) to an audience of thirty Salem women, and gives birth to something that looks like a wagging mandrake root. Her eyes roll back into her head as she floats there, suspended above the variety of lifeless, naked bodies of the 30 Salem women. The whole thing is labeled as a mass suicide with a missing person case trailing behind it, as Heidi is never seen again.

Zombie means to tell us that all this stuff, big, catastrophic stuff like the arrival of the Anti-Christ has been orchestrated... and it ends with the suicide of thirty people and a missing woman? The resolution is way too microcosmic, provincial, pedestrian, and overall inconsequential to be preceded by big concepts like a woman being groomed, then impregnated by Satan, followed by the conception, and then the arrival of the Anti-Christ. Isn't that sort of arrival earthquaking, reality shattering in nature? Has anybody seen The Omen and its sequels (which weren't very good, but you get the point)? Some might argue that Rosemary's Baby presented a pedestrian approach to the arrival of the Anti-Christ, but then again, Polanski didn't choose to have Rosemary hovering above ground, backlit with celestial light, immortalized in an classic religious ecstasy pose as one of the final shots of the film. The setup and the iconographic visions in The Lords of Salem don't fit the anti-climactic and low scale resolution of the story.

I'm calling it like I see it: Rob Zombie is a lazy, lazy filmmaker who lacks broad vision. His only vision is to make sure we all see his scrawny wife naked. That, and to make a stamp for himself in the genre because, you know, bein' a horror director is "cool" and evil stuff is "neat-o". If you want to see an extended music video, then go for it, but if you're looking for a John Carpenter, or even Joss Whedon style apocalyptic payoff, you've come to the wrong place, friend.

Between the poor payoffs and style over substance, I always come out of the Rob Zombie experience - whether it's his films or his concerts - feeling like I've just visited an online rock paraphernalia site or received one of these catalogues through the mail: t-shirts with peace symbols are right there next to SS style lightening bolt pendants and dark angel figurines are right there next to atheist posters; anything goes because all these items fall under one general genre and all rolled together they cancel out all politics because they're trinkets appropriated from previously important social movements, now presented for mass consumption, with no political conviction or meaning anymore. Rob Zombie is like Rock n Roll junk mail to me. And the ultimate problem with Rob Zombie as a director is that the majority of his fans don't seem to have the will to cast a critical enough eye to hold his feet to the fire and tell him to evolve and mature as a director, if directing is what he wants to do. Most of the criticism that he's going to get will be from non-Rocker, nerdy horror genre fans whose genre tastes are stuck in 1983, so that they're primed to dislike virtually anything new or perceivable as too trendy, and Zombie can tell himself that all his critics are simply random, jealous haters and ultimately ignore any potential pressures to creatively evolve. Considering his resources, the crew talent at his disposal, and his apparent affection for the genre, it's a real shame that he can't or won't do better.

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