Monthly Archives: September 2013

Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)

Insidious-Chapter 2 #1

by Steve Habrat

Two years ago, director James Wan took critics and audiences by surprise with Insidious, a ghostly funhouse that rose above the lowered expectations that surrounded it. Just two short months ago, Wan proved himself as a force to be reckoned with in the horror community with The Conjuring, a 70s-inspired haunted house throwback that became the sleeper hit of the summer and was hailed as one of the scariest films to come around in years. Apparently, there was no rest for the wicked. Tossed into theaters just in time for Friday the 13th is Insidious: Chapter 2, a slipshod cash-grab sequel that ranks as one of the worst horror films of 2013. What Insidious: Chapter 2 does prove, however, is that maybe Wan wasn’t the hack many thought he was when he was cranking out garbage like Saw and Dead Silence. No, it appears the problem is Whannell, who serves up a wretchedly muddled screenplay that desperately tries to explain nearly every little detail of the far superior original film. Even the cast, which is comprised of established actors and actresses like Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson, Barbara Hershey, Lin Shaye, and Jocelin Donahue, seem completely perplexed and lost within the film they are starring in, causing them all to give some of the worst performances you may see this year. I don’t think it would surprise anyone if this cast were up for the worst ensemble at the upcoming Razzies.

Insidious: Chapter 2 picks up with Renai Lambert (played by Rose Byrne) being interviewed by a police detective about the mysterious death of paranormal investigator Elise Rainer (played by Lin Shaye), who was found strangled to death moments after Josh Lambert (played by Patrick Wilson) returned from the Further. Renai denies that Josh had anything to do with Elise’s death and she continues to insist that it was the spirit of a woman in a black wedding gown that was the one responsible for the murder. Renai leaves to rejoin her family, who has moved in with Josh’s mother, Lorraine (played by Barbara Hershey), while the police continue with their investigation. Just as life seems to be getting back to normal, Renai and Lorraine both have separate paranormal experiences that suggest the malicious spirits have not moved on yet. Meanwhile, Josh’s behavior gets more and more bizarre, suggesting that his body has been taken over by one of the most violent spirits wandering the Further. Frightened for their lives, Lorraine and Renai seek out the help of Specs (played by Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (played by Angus Sampson), the duo who aided with Josh’s trip into the Further the first time. They also track down Carl (played by Steve Coulter), Elise’s former partner who has encountered these spirits before.

The biggest crime committed by Whannell and Insidious: Chapter 2 is the fact that it resorts to rehashing the scares that worked the first time around rather than attempting anything new. While there are one of two scenes that will curl your toes and cover your arms in goosebumps, everything is way too familiar to really give this installment any identity of its own. To make things worse, Whannell’s script goes to great lengths to explain away all the scarier moments of the first Insidious. Did we really need to know what was knocking on the front door and setting off the home security system in the first film? Was anyone truly obsessing over the identity of that shadowy bride in back that kept appearing in the Lambert’s photographs of Dalton? It’s highly unlikely, but Whannell seems to think that everyone needs to know. Apparently Wan didn’t explain to Whannell that the lack of an explanation for that phantom manifestation, bump, or creak just down the hallway is scarier when you DON’T know who or what caused it. At least those who were let down by the first film’s ending can rest easy knowing that the Darth Maul spirit that crawled across the walls and made dolls doesn’t dare make an appearance.

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When you’re not cringing over all the blue-in-the-face explanation, the acting will certainly have you burying your face in your bag of popcorn. Nearly every single actor or actress that steps in front of the camera gives a glaringly rehearsed or robotic performance, leading you to wonder if anyone really cared how this movie actually turned out. Wilson is at his absolute worst as Josh, the crazed papa from Hell who wields a baseball bat and stands in the hallways at night whispering to unseen figures that command him to kill. By the end of the film, you’ll be secretly hoping that The Amityville Horror’s George Lutz will coming barreling through the front door with an axe and show Josh who’s boss. Byrne is basically asked to wander around the new setting with wide eyes and fake tears as toys go flying through the air and piano notes chime suddenly. Coulter is all anxious shifts and awkward fumbles, a new character that could work if he had just the slightest bit of personality or courage. Whannell and Sampson return as the geeky paranormal investigators Specs and Tucker, who are here to break the tension when things get a little too spooky. It’s just a shame Whannell’s jokes are mothballed gags that will have you shaking your head. Shaye does an okay job, but its clear she is a bit baffled as to why she is even here. Hershey is the only one who really attempts to sell the absurdity and in the process, she delivers the only performance that is worth anything. The House of the Devil’s Jocelin Donahue shows up in a handful of flashback sequences that you wish would have been left on the cutting room floor. If you want to see some truly awful acting, just watch the opening flashback sequence of this movie. I couldn’t believe that the studio didn’t demand reshoots.

As far as bright spots go within Insidious: Chapter 2, the best parts of the film are the small nods to classic horror films that Whannell and Wan place throughout. Even though Wilson nearly destroys them, there are a few little tips of the hat to Psycho, The Shining, and The Amityville Horror. These nods could have been even better had Wilson actually cut back on some of the cheese. There are also a few scenes that pay tribute to the striking lighting schemes that horror fans admired at in Dario Argento’s Suspiria. This is unsurprising considering that Wan and Whannell cited Argento as a major inspiration for the first film. There are also a few stretches where Wan really finds a groove with the haunted house scares, but these are largely done in by jolt shocks or fake outs that just irritate you. As if Insidious: Chapter 2 needed anything else working against it, wait until your ears are treated to some of the film’s painfully awkward dialogue. Absolutely none of it comes across as natural and a good majority of it is unintentionally hilarious. Overall, it truly is a disappointment to see Wan slumming it like this, especially after crafting one of the most fiendishly frightening films to come along in quite some time. Insidious: Chapter 2 is a redundant and convoluted mess that nearly destroys the reputation of the first film. Hopefully, Wan has the good sense to back out of a third installment, as another Insidious film is inevitable. Come to think of it, the set up for a third film was probably the scariest part of Insidious: Chapter 2.

Grade: D

TRAILER THURSDAY!

Hot chicks, supped-up cars, ultra-violence, and Sylvester Stallone coming your way courtesy of Roger Corman. It must be Trailer Thursday! Here is a trailer for the super awesome 1975 dystopian car-chase thriller Death Race 2000, directed by Paul Bartel.

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Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981)

The Road Warrior #1

by Steve Habrat

In 1979, a small little Austrian action thriller called Mad Max was given a limited release in the United States. The film made a measly $8 million in the U.S., but worldwide, the film took in over $100 million, which caught the eye of Warner Bros. The studio convinced director George Miller to come up with a sequel to his uneven and ultra-violent revenge tale and the rest is history. In 1981, American audiences were re-introduced to Mel Gibson’s Max Rockatansky in Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, a leather-clad follow-up that easily roars past the original film and leaves it choking on its dust. Released under the title The Road Warrior due to lack of audience familiarity with the first Mad Max film, Miller’s follow-up is just as high-octane and colorful as his first film, but The Road Warrior possesses a consistency that the first film didn’t quite enjoy. There is no abrupt revenge climax and the best action sequence doesn’t come blasting at the viewer in the first fifteen minutes. The Road Warrior saves the blistering best for last, a heart-in-the-throat chase executed with real death defying stunts and gnarled steel. And then there is Gibson, turning his vengeful Max into a silent legend who is only looking out for himself.

The Road Warrior begins with a flashback that explains that oil supplies have nearly run dry, and an apocalyptic war has wiped out all remaining law and order. The roaming gangs and surviving humans are locked in a constant battle over the remaining tanks of oil. Among the survivors is Max (played by Mel Gibson), a scowling loner who is still licking the wounds of his family’s brutal demise at the hands of ruthless motorcycle gang leader Toecutter. After narrowly surviving an attack by another motorcycle gang, Max stumbles upon a wandering Gyro-Captain (played by Bruce Spence), who attempts to ambush Max while he tries to steal fuel from his autogyro. Max disarms the Gyro-Captain, who quickly tells Max about a local oil refinery that has been taken over by a band of survivors. Max forces the Gyro-Captain to take him to the oil refinery, where he discovers that the same gang that attempted to attack him on the highway are also attacking the refinery. After the attack, Max finds a wounded refinery survivor, who tells Max that if he gets him back to safety, he can have all the fuel he wants. Max takes the man back to the refinery gates, but the leader of the group, Pappagallo (played by Michael Preston), refuses to make good on the deal. The refinery survivors take Max prisoner, but the gang that has been terrorizing them soon returns to their gates looking to strike a deal. The gang’s leader, The Humungus (played by Kjell Nilsson), explains that if the survivors will hand over their oil, then they can have safe passage from the gang’s territory. The survivors are about to agree when Max steps in and explains that there could be a way for the survivors to protect their precious fuel and escape the gang’s clutches.

After a slightly disturbing, stock-footage heavy stage setter, The Road Warrior jumps right into another high-speed pursuit across the barren wasteland. Miller smashes up more cars and sends more leathery punks careening right at Max’s armored Interceptor, which roars triumphantly along the highway in intimidating black. Motorcycles and supped up rides smash through highway wreckage and bodies go tumbling like dummies through the air. Barely a word is spoken as the carnage blasts the picture to smithereens. Unlike the first Mad Max, this car chase isn’t the highlight of the entire film. Further down the line, we are treated to wide shots of the gang relentlessly attacking the oil refinery, jumping their motorcycles at the walls like the crazed maniacs that they are. With the lack of computer effects (it was 1981, folks), these attacks are so white-knuckle because they are being executed with real flesh and real machine. There is not a phony stunt to be found within the action. Miller is just teasing us, as he works up to a car chase finale that involves a rusted tanker, a slew of armored dune buggies, the autogyro, and more high-speed destruction than you can handle. And believe me when I say it looks and sounds absolutely fantastic, better than anything we see in the CGI-heavy blockbusters of today.

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Standing out amongst the twisted metal are the flesh and blood characters, especially Gibson’s animalistic Max. Stripped of his family man warmth, Max has let himself be overcome with his vengeance. He no longer fights for others and even if he wanted to, the Main Force Police is long gone. He looks out for only himself, scavenging to make it from day to day while chowing down on some dog food that he shares with his four-legged pooch. Near the end, when Max sits behind the wheel of the tanker, we catch a glimpse of the man he once was, a man fighting for those who are unable to stand up for themselves. Preston’s Pappagallo is the figure the guides Max back onto the helping track. He pleas for Max to help them make their escape from the bloodthirsty gang that won’t let them go. Spence’s Gyro-Captain is more of a cartoonish sidekick to Max, but he turns out to be pretty useful with a Molotov cocktail. Nilsson’s homoerotic villain The Humungus conceals a mutated mug behind a futuristic hockey mask and enjoys keeping any gang member that displeases him on a leash as his personal pet for a day. Vernon Wells turns up as The Humungus’ crazed lieutenant, Wez, who leads the early highway attack on Max. Emil Minty is present in a small but significant role as the Feral Kid, a grunting little runt with a seriously deadly boomerang.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of The Road Warrior is how surprisingly violent the film actually is. While there were a few gruesome deaths and images in Mad Max, a good majority of the violence was kept off screen. The Road Warrior is a completely different story. People are thrown off motorcycles, strapped to the front of dune buggies and then tortured, rundown, or taking a boomerang right to the side of their head. This is a shocker considering that the original Mad Max was a foreign import made outside the studio system. In addition to the amped-up violence, there is a strong sexual and homoerotic feel to some of the characters, especially in The Humungus and Wez, but this touch is oddly fitting for the film. It also gives way to one of the film’s greatest sight gags, which involves two of The Humongous’ gang members having sex in a tent, only to find themselves out in the open after a car goes roaring past. Overall, with timeless effects, distinct characters, and skull-crushing action, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior has stood the test of time and become a highly influential action classic. It is a massive step up for the Mad Max series and it ranks near the top of the greatest action films ever made.

Grade: A

Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

TRAILER TUESDAY!

It’s Trailer Tuesday again! Today, it’s all about giant monsters in the 1965 kaiju film Frankenstein Conquers the World, directed by Ishiro Honda.

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Mad Max (1979)

Mad Max #1

by Steve Habrat

In 1979, a violent little dystopian action thriller from Australia introduced a majority of the world to an unknown actor by the name of Mel Gibson. Made for only $400,000, director George Miller’s Mad Max barely made a ripple in the United States, and it wouldn’t be until the 1982 sequel Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior that American audiences would be familiar with the gruff Gibson. Today, many genre fans consider Mad Max to be one of the greatest action films ever made, second only to it’s follow-up, but the original film actually fails to live up to some of the hype that surrounds it. There are spurts of exploitation violence, high-octane car chases, and fiery car wrecks that are sure to please anyone who considers themselves a fan of savage cinema from the 1970s, but the revenge aspect of Mad Max, which reveals itself in the last fifteen minutes of the film, seems crammed in and brushed over. Despite the flawed climax, Mad Max does have plenty of apocalyptic action and death-defying stunts to keep you pinned to your seat (Holy destroyed camper, Batman!) and there are colorful characters galore. The major draw here is Gibson and his performance as Max, an upstanding Main Force Patrol officer who is the king of the gang-infested highways.

Mad Max opens on the desolate highways of Australia, which is in ruin due to the dwindling supply of oil. The highways are infested with motorcycle gangs who crash into small towns, raid their supplies of oil, and terrorize the town citizens. The only ones fighting for law and order are the Main Force Patrol, a leather-clad police force who battles the gangs in their supped up Interceptors. One of the best officers working for the MFP is Max Rockatansky (played by Mel Gibson), who is extremely skilled when it comes to high-speed pursuits. After Max runs down escaped motorcycle gang member Nightrider (played by Vincent Gil), vicious gang leader and Nightrider’s friend Toecutter (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne) vows to track down the MFP officers responsible for Nightriders death. Max and his partner, Jim “Goose” Rains (played by Steve Bisley), respond to attacks by Toecutter’s gang in a local small town and when they arrive, they arrest Johnny “The Boy” Boyle (played by Tim Burns), Toecutter’s protégé. It doesn’t take long for Johnny to find a way out of jail and while he is being escorted out, he makes violent threats against Max and Goose. Johnny meets back up with Toecutter and the two start plotting revenge against Max and Goose. The gang soon makes good on their violent threats against the MFP officers, which forces Max to consider retirement from the force. However, when the gang attacks Max’s family, he takes to the highways to dish out a little revenge.

Early on, Miller sets the bar high with a breakneck car chase that features more destruction and more eye-popping stunts than any CGI offering of today. A family’s camper is turned to dust as a car goes ripping right through it, Interceptors spin and tumble wildly about the highway, and Max watches over all of it with calculation, waiting for the proper moment to strike. It’s like a futuristic chase through the Wild West as Miller pulls his camera back to reveal the parched and rocky Australian landscape. Miller follows the chase scene up with an intimidating raid on a rundown town, which acts as our brutal introduction to Toecutter. It drips in exploitation even if some of the nastier stuff if kept just off screen and it nicely builds up a slew of despicable villains that we sincerely dislike. As Mad Max speeds on, the film slowly starts to loose the momentum that it gathered in those opening moments. Each new attack or action sequence seems to pale in comparison to what we saw early on. Miller gets back on track briefly when Max’s family is horrifically attacked while they flee on foot down that dreaded highway, but then the film takes on a hurried tone, almost like Miller just wants to finish the revenge side of the film off. The climax is way too brief considering its importance and it fails to really let the viewer feel or savor any one moment. However, the final sequence that finds one character handcuffed to a wrecked vehicle is undeniably influential.

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While the action and suspense of Mad Max may slowly slip, Miller makes sure that his cast is one of the most memorable in the action genre. Gibson is electrifying as Max, a skilled MFP officer and softie family man who fears the horrors of his job may push him over the edge. Some of the scenes between Max and his wife, Jessie (played by Joanne Samuel), are a bit too sweet for some of the harsher moments of the film, but these scenes make Max’s violent transformation all the more intense. When Gibson unleashes his gruff vengeance, you can tell that he was born to be action star. Bisley is enthusiastic as Goose, Max’s ruthless, motor-mouthed partner who meets a particularly grisly end. Tim Burns gives a dazed performance as Johnny, Toecutter’s depraved protégé who enjoys rapping and attacking anyone who dares cross him. Hugh Keays-Byrne gives a particularly disturbed performance as Toecutter, a shaggy biker who is calm one minute and then foaming at the mouth the next. His fury over the death of Nightrider is guaranteed to send a chill. Roger Ward has several great moments as Fifi, the hulking MFP captain with a strong man mustache and a bald dome. There is something exciting about the way he encourages his officers to track down this bloodthirsty gang by any means necessary and he reveals a softer side when he tries to convince Max to stay on the force.

Despite its abrupt climax, Mad Max does have an unusually fast paced feel about it. It comes, it entertains, and then it speeds off down the highway. The style that Miller applied to Mad Max has also clearly rubbed off on many action and science fiction directors over the years, especially the look of the cars, which all have an armored predatory aesthetic about them. It is also worth tracking down the film just to admire a film that applies real stunts over computer fakery. It truly is amazing to see what Miller was able to pull off with so little. It lacks polish but the action is unshakably raw and in your face. As far as the violence goes, there is a hearty dose of blood and gore, but most of the really nasty stuff is implied. I don’t think there is anyone out there who would want to see what Toecutter and his gang do to Max’s son. There is an extra graphic scene near the end that finds our hero stumbling down the highway with a smashed up hand and a bloody leg. Overall, for all the action junkies out there, Mad Max is certainly a must-see if you haven’t already experienced it. It isn’t the smartest film you are ever going to see, but its impact on action cinema does make it an essential film within the genre. However, the sins of the climax prevent it from truly becoming a classic.

Grade: B-

Mad Max is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965)

Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster #1

by Steve Habrat

When it comes to diving into the realm of B-movies/drive-in flicks from the 1950s and 60s, one expects to see some major turkeys. These films usually had titles that were infinitely more exciting than the actual film and their colorful posters promised terror beyond your wildest imagination as scientific abominations duked it out with each other or carried off some bikini clad bombshell into the unknown. Despite these enormous promises, all they ever delivered were bottom-of-the-barrel performances, chintzy make-up effects, no-budget special effects, cheesy monsters, and confused plots that failed to fully explain crucial elements of the story. Occasionally, one of these dreadful B-movie/drive-in flicks would be so bad that they’d actually be, well, semi-entertaining. One of these straight-to-double-bill features that manages to actually hold your attention is director Robert Gaffney’s 1965 cult classic Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster, a stock-footage heavy science-fiction/horror film that has everything from girls in skimpy bikinis to hulking extraterrestrials from outer space to an Atomic Age Frankenstein monster with a melting mug. It’s like something straight out of a forgotten comic book.

Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster begins with an endangered alien race led by Princess Marcuzan (played by Marilyn Hanold) and her right-hand man Dr. Nadir (played by Lou Cutell) arriving in Earth’s atmosphere. The aliens, who are the sole survivors of an atomic war that took place on Mars, have arrived in an attempt to kidnap Earth women to breed with. The aliens instantly start monitoring and shooting down NASA space shuttles that they believe to be missiles being fired at their ship. Meanwhile, NASA is preparing to launch a brand new shuttle crewed by Colonel Frank Saunders (played by Robert Reilly), a charismatic android created by Dr. Adam Steele (played by James Karen) and Karen Grant (played by Nancy Marshall). Princess Marcuzan and Dr. Nadir proceed to attack the space shuttle operated by Frank, but they fail to kill him. Frank ejects at the last second and he lands in Puerto Rico with the aliens hot on his trail. After a face-to-face encounter with the aliens, Frank is horribly injured and his circuit board is badly damaged, causing him to turn into an unstoppable killing machine. With Frank’s killing spree distracting the army, the aliens begin snatching up as many women as they can get, but they inadvertently grab the U.S.’s attention after they abduct Karen.

While most of these science-fiction/drive-in releases waited until the final moments of the film to show off their monsters, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster can’t wait to yank the sheet off its two main beasts. The bloodthirsty android Frank is all-American good looks until he is on the receiving end of an alien laser blast, which melts off part of his face to reveal a fried circuit board. He consistently turns his head to show off his grizzly wound, which is actually sort of creative if you’re willing to forgive the fact that it looks like a piece of rubber pasted to the side of his face. He’s given a bit more personality through his charred space suit and his confused shuffle. The other beast that Gaffney allows us to marvel at is Mull, a radioactive creature that is held captive aboard the alien ship. Mull is largely seen in extreme close ups, partially hidden behind bars as he swipes his massive claws at the camera. He is mostly concealed until the final ten minutes of the film, when Dr. Nadir and Princess Marcuzan unleash him to do battle with malfunctioning Frank. Their battle is brief, but it is thrilling in a kitschy way. The two monsters look like they’re locked in a bear hug but Gaffney fills the set with thick smoke and deafening growls that really set the mood for the brawl.

Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster #2

With so much emphasis placed on the cartoonish monsters, it is much easier to overlook the abysmally bad performances. Hanold is stiff and scripted as the evil Princess Marcuzan, the alien’s fearless leader who largely sits in a swivel chair and nods in approval at half-naked girls. Cutell is forced to wear some of the worst make-up effects you are ever likely to see but he doesn’t seem to be bothered, as his Dr. Nadir grins maniacally for the camera in extreme close ups. James Karen is given the heroic role as Dr. Adam Steele, who basically just rides a Vespa from place to place, looks worried, and reports to a bunch of lookalike army officials. Nancy Marshall barely registers as Dr. Steele’s pretty sidekick Karen, the only gal who seems to be afraid of the sinister aliens but she never challenges them. David Kerman is also present as General Bowers, but he blends in with all the other army officials. Reilly is the only one who does anything animated with his role as Frank, but his make-up does most of the work. Watching him wandering around the rocky landscape or trip and fall on the beach is vaguely sympathetic but with as many characters as this film has, it is difficult to really grow attached to him.

With such a busy plotline and a brief runtime, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster doesn’t have a wasted moment. A good majority of the film is comprised of stock footage of space shuttles taking off or soldiers pouring out of helicopters. Without this stock footage, Gaffney wouldn’t have been able to make the movie, as it makes up over half the picture. With the dueling plotlines and condensed runtime, Gaffney has a difficult time keeping both plotlines focused, leaving many questions unanswered. As far as the sets and props go, they all resemble something that you would have seen in an Ed Wood movie, but the swinging rock n’ roll soundtrack really keeps things moving along nicely. It should also be noted that despite the name “Frankenstein” appearing in the title, the film has little in common with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Overall, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster is undoubtedly a slapdash effort, lacking any form of suspense, terror, coherency, or social or political commentary. However, the film does pack a number of unintentional laughs and a slew of performances that will have you blushing in embarrassment for the actor or actress. And if there are any other positives to be pointed out, the film has plenty of monster action to keep B-movie fans coming back for seconds and thirds.

Grade: C

Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster is available on DVD.

TRAILER THURSDAY!

Is that a trailer for Dawn of the Dead?! Nope, it’s just the trailer for the 1980 Italian knockoff Hell of the Living Dead, directed by Vincent Dawn.

Hell of the Living Dead Poster

The Lords of Salem (2013)

The Lords of Salem #1

by Steve Habrat

Rob Zombie could be one of the most polarizing individuals working in the horror industry. The mere mention of his name in a conversation can elicit either groans or praise, depending on that person’s taste in horror. Whether you love him or hate him, it’s undeniable that the man leaves a strong impression. It’s been four years since Zombie’s Halloween II, his reluctant sequel to his grisly 2007 remake of the John Carpenter slasher classic Halloween, and it’s been eight years since he unleashed The Devil’s Rejects, what is considered by many to be his unholy masterpiece. With his creative juices following again, Zombie now gives his fans The Lords of Salem, a static departure from his usual brand of hillbillies-from-Hell horror. Clearly drawing inspiration from early Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick, and Kenneth Anger, Zombie makes one of the most ambitious films of his career and you have to hand it to him for attempting to show a bit of range outside of the handheld grittiness that he was limiting himself to. The Lords of Salem is overflowing with overcast atmosphere and it packs plenty of shock scares that thankfully aren’t accompanied by a deafening musical blast, but the final stretch of the film is weakened by a flurry of satanic images that would have seemed more at home in a heavy metal music video rather than a serious-minded horror film about the Salem witch trials.

Heidi LaRoq (played by Sheri Moon Zombie) is a recovering crack addict living in Salem, Massachusetts. She shacks up in a small apartment with her landlady Lacy Doyle (played by Judy Geeson) and she works at a local radio station as a DJ alongside Whitey (played Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman (played by Ken Foree). One day, the station’s receptionist presents Heidi with a wooden box that contains a record by a mysterious band called The Lords. Heidi, Whitey, and Herman decide to play the mysterious record on the air, but as the hypnotic music grinds out, Heidi begins to suffer from horrific hallucinations. The music captures the attention of local historian Francis Matthias (played by Bruce Davison), who believes that the music may have a link to a coven of witches that were referred to as The Lords of Salem and hunted by Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne (played by Andrew Prine) in 1696. As the days pass, Heidi’s visions grow more and more disturbing, but things get even more bizarre for Heidi when Lacy’s suspicious two sisters, Megan (played by Patricia Quinn) and Sonny (played by Dee Walace), suddenly arrive at the apartment complex.

Abandoning the bludgeoning violence that he has become known for, Zombie takes a radical new approach to The Lords of Salem. The film begins with a filthy flashback that finds a coven of witches led by Margaret Morgan (played by Meg Foster) huddled around a campfire in the nude and howling about Satan. It’s shrill and graphic, but then Zombie instantly abandons this assault in favor of hushed pacing that hums with evil. The weather is gray, the leaves suggest that it’s October, and the ghostly specters that haunt Heidi slowly make themselves known. The spirits are revealed when Heidi walks slowly past her bathroom or when she flips the light on in a darkened room, but they are not accompanied by some loud soundtrack cue to make us jump. Zombie simply lets their sudden presence alone creep us out and it is very effective. As the film inches along, the hallucinations become more and more severe, one of the most disturbing being a satanic sexual assault in a church that finds a priest coughing up black sludge and Heidi catching a glimpse of a faceless ghoul walking his pet goat through a cemetery. It’s some seriously wicked stuff that is just extreme enough to work.

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The biggest change in Zombie’s aesthetic is the use of static cameras in place of the gritty handheld camerawork that House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects, Halloween, and Halloween II all applied. There are crisp outdoors shots that called to mind some of the early moments of The Exorcist and there are prolonged symmetrical shots that wouldn’t seem out of place in a Kubrick film, a director that Zombie heavily admires. At times, the story and even a few shots near the middle of the film were reminiscent of Polanski’s Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, especially the inclusion of the three sisters who may be up to no good just down the hall. The end of The Lords of Salem is where Zombie begins to loose his handle on things, as he fires a string of psychedelic satanic images that would make experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger smile. These acid washed images are loaded with faceless priests clutching dildos, Heidi riding a goat, a demonic dwarf waiting at the top of a grand staircase, a satanic rocker groping the dreadlocked gal, and images of Christ’s face contorting into the face of the devil himself. These images will shock those who are easily offended, but as they unfold before us, they start to resemble a music video rather than anything we would have seen in Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome. They complete destroy that atmosphere of doom that Zombie worked so hard to build up but he doesn’t seem to care because he thinks they look great.

As far as the performances go, Zombie manages to capture some downbeat work from a slew of cult actors and actresses. His previous four films were loaded with a cast of colorful psychos who all cursed like sailors and looked like unused extras from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This is not necessarily the case for The Lords of Salem, as these characters all seem to be a bit more grounded than anything he has ever come up with. Sheri Moon Zombie steps up her acting game as Heidi, the recovering drug addict that is seemingly on the right path to happiness. Watching her slip into a world of madness is harsh, but Zombie wants it that way. Jeff Daniel Phillips gives a softer performance as Whitey, Heidi’s love interest that just can’t seem to find a way into her life. Ken Foree is laid back cool as Herman, the smooth-talking DJ that really seems to serve no purpose at all to the story. It seems like Zombie included him in the film simply because he is a big fan of Foree’s work. Geeson shows some serious menace as Lacy, Heidi’s secretive landlord, Patricia Quinn is frizzy intensity as the palm-reading Megan, and Dee Wallace’s Sonny is peculiarly seductive. Rounding out the main cast members is Davison’s Francis, a concerned acquaintance who may be too late to save Heidi’s soul, and Meg Foster as the cackling hell spawn Margaret Morgan, who bares rotten fangs right in the viewer’s face.

Despite some of the drastic shifts, The Lords of Salem isn’t without Zombie’s cinematic fingerprints. The soundtrack is filled with classic rock like The Velvet Underground, Mannfred Mann’s Earth Band, and Rush, all which heavily compliment the retro 70s feel of the picture. Budget restraints seem to have prevented Zombie from actually setting the film in the 1970s, but you can tell he desperately wanted to, as every character is dressed like they stepped out of that era. While it is a bit spare, there are several fits of Zombie’s stomach churning violence. A witch licks amniotic fluids off a newborn baby, one character’s head is smashed into hamburger meat, and a gruesome birth accompanies the neon evil at the end. Overall, Zombie has claimed that The Lords of Salem is his final trip into horror and if this is true, it finds him bowing out on a confident and frankly refreshing note. It is a bit more mature even if the final moments give way to strobe light silliness that wouldn’t even shock your grandmother. The Lords of Salem is all about atmosphere and scares that will curl your spine.

Grade: B

The Lords of Salem is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

TRAILER TUESDAY!

John Carradine and Tura Satana in the same picture?! You crazy cats out there in cult land are really going to dig this ultra gritty and ultra gruesome trailer for the 1968 B-movie The Astro Zombies, directed by Ted V. Mikels.

Astro Zombies Poster

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