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.
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.
The Lords of Salem is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If you’ve ever found yourself pondering about what film Roman Polanski made after Charles Manson and his bloodthirsty band of cult killers slaughtered his wife, his unborn baby, and a handful of his friends, the answer to that question is a dreary, mud caked version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Perhaps one of the bleakest films you will ever see, considering that in August of 1969, several of his loved ones were so senselessly slain, the film was made out of his engulfing depression, and the result is all sound and fury indeed, but not necessarily signifying nothing. In fact, Macbeth signifies a lot, mostly the events that surrounded the Tate-LaBianca murders. There have been a handful of films made on the notorious Charles Manson, but none have been as lingering as Macbeth is. Polanski molds the tragedy to fit with certain events from the infamous murders, descending into trippy montages, blood-spattered hallucinations, and at the center, a devious Macbeth who dispatches his loyal cohorts to slaughter at will to make the prophecy that was predicted by a motley band of witches remains true. Of course, anyone who has studied the Manson Family murders understands that Charles Manson was a fan of the psychedelic rock record The White Album by The Beatles. He was convinced the album was a witchy message to him about the end of the world, a race riot between the whites and blacks that would devour the earth and leave only him and his followers to rule the world.
In Roger Ebert’s review of Macbeth, Ebert declares that the reason the provocative Polanski elected Macbeth as the film he would make in the wake of his beautiful wife’s death is elusive, and I have to agree with his insight to an extent. It is confounding that he would find solace in the Bard’s material, but Polanski has also made the point that he found himself in a bottomless pit of depression, a depression he had to so desperately shake from his life. He makes the claim that he always wanted to tackle a Shakespearean project and that critics would have labeled any film he would have made as a subtle commentary on the murders. After watching his vision, I found it be one of his most terrifying films (creepier than Repulsion or Rosemary’s Baby), and perhaps a more personal, cathartic film. It’s virtually impossible to watch the intrusion on Macduff’s castle while he is away by two murderers who hack up his wife and children. Maybe it is, after all, easy to see why Polanski gravitated to this material. There is fury and superstation leaking out every shot in this film to the point where watching it in halves makes it easier to endure. I should add that it is even harder to watch the climax, which is a handheld shot of a savage fight between Macbeth and Macduff, and not think that maybe this is a personal fantasy of Polanski, where he imagines himself as the vengeful Macduff attacking the despotic and ignorant “king”–Manson.
If you find yourself drawn to this film, you should be aware of what you are getting yourself into. This is Shakespeare after all and the furthest thing from modern day interpretations like 1996’s Romero & Juliet or 2001’s O. The medieval surroundings may send some casual film viewers fleeing, especially when the Bard’s dialogue starts erupting from the mouths of these thespians. For the viewers who watch this with a glass of red wine in their hand, theater junkies at that, they will be tantalized with overdramatic delight as they quote along with the renowned dialogue. I’ve always found medieval projects a tough pill to swallow, and theater even more grueling. Although I find that the underlying implications this film contains to be attention grabbing and an opportunity to watch someone mend wounds that will never truly fade. I don’t believe Polanski when he says that this was an excuse to get back to work. In fact, I think it would be more commendable if he were to admit just that, that it was made in response to the atrocity that shook his very existence and to publicly mend.
Polanski’s Macbeth is a gruesome affair, one that seems hell-bent on showing the audience the carnage that Polanski saw in his home. The film is also a Playboy Production, yes the same Playboy responsible for the nudie magazines created by Hugh Hefner. He serves as a producer here, and judging by some of the films graphic nudity, heavily involved with some of the production, especially with the casting of the beautiful Francesca Annais as Lady Macbeth. This film contains a sequence in which Lady Macbeth sleepwalks nude, a result of oppressive fear, guilt, and paranoia for all the terrible manipulation running rampant in her life. I will only sum up Macbeth briefly, as many should already be familiar with the story. The story follows a Scottish lord Macbeth (Played by Jon Finch) who stumbles upon three witches whom prophesize that he will become king. Macbeth becomes obsessed with the idea of becoming the ruler, taking control of fate and destiny, and murdering the current king. Macbeth gets what he wants and becomes a vicious ruler who will stop at nothing to keep his secret that he murdered the previous ruler to ascend the throne even as suspicion bears down on him. Meanwhile, his wife Lady Macbeth slowly descends into madness in the wake of her guilt.
There is much to compare and contrast with real events in Polanski’s Macbeth. The witches could be seen as mirroring The Beatles, who Manson believed were predicting Helter Skelter, which would bring about the end of the world. He believed that he was to become king of a new world and his followers would be his loyal disciples. Loyal in the pre-apocalypse they were, when at his command, they were sent out to butcher innocent people, primarily wealthy white families and leave “witchy” messages in the hopes that the white cops who would find the scene blame African Americans, sparking a race war. The witches prove to be false, dabbling with psychedelics, which coincidentally The Beatles were too at the time. I have also pointed out the similarities in the siege on Macduff’s home, which ends in slaughter. Funny enough, he is away while this takes place. Polanski has said that he found the inspiration for this scene from when a Nazi SS officer terrorized his home. Manson was also rumored to be a sympathizer of the Nazi party. The scene in which Macbeth stabs to death King Duncan is also graphically violent as Macbeth stabs relentlessly, evocative of what the Manson Family did to his friends and family, all of which were stabbed multiple times all over their bodies. Even during a trippy hallucination montage, we catch a brief glimpse of a baby being ripped from the mother’s womb, an image all to personal to Polanski, who lost his unborn child at the hands of the murderous intruders.
Earlier on in this review, I said that Macbeth was Polanski’s most terrifying film, even more so than Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, two films I highly respect and our proud members of the horror community. Macbeth scares because of it’s scowling pessimism, understandable at the time. It scares because of Polanski’s bobbing authenticity and the darkness of its soul. Macbeth is the ultimate Manson Family film, proving to be higher brow than the decadent exploitation wannabe The Manson Family and more eloquent than Manson, My Name is Evil, which both tackle the Family head on. I believe that Polanski denies that this film is about Manson because he wishes to give Manson zero satisfaction. Manson was blatantly power hungry and had a voracious desire for fame. Definitive if slyly indirect, Macbeth peers into a troubled soul, stanch and grisly about what it displays, even if there is some dishonesty and recoil when it is confronted.
by Steve Habrat
Over the course of the next few days, I will be listing off the 25 films that have scared the hell out of me. This is not a definitive list of the scariest films ever made but rather recommendations of films that I think will spook you. Feel free to comment on this and let me know which films scare you. Let the terror begin!
25.) The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
In the opening moments of this silent film chiller, a man explores the underground tunnels of a Paris opera house. He is alone in the dark and armed with nothing but a lantern. The camera remains stationary in front of him so we only get to see his reactions. Keep in mind there is absolutely no sound. All of a sudden, he sees someone or something. Not anything or anyone he recognizes. We the audience are not permitted to catch a glimpse. Judging by his reaction, I do not think we want to. This is the magic of the crown jewel of the Universal Movie Monsters heap. We are not assisted by the luxury of sound effects. Our brain fills in the horrors for us and sometimes that can be the most effective way to send an icy chill down your spine. While many of you probably are familiar with Lon Chaney’s legendary hellish phantom and you do not even realize it, he plays the phantom like he may never have had the chance to star in anything ever again. And it also features a breathtaking sequence in color (gasp!). This is a truly unforgettable epic that mesmerizes and horrifies.
24.) The Hills Have Eyes (2006)
Many have expressed their disapproval at this remake of the 1977 Wes Craven classic of the same title. But in a rare case, French director Alexandre Aja actually improves upon it. And it refuses to play nice. Vile, upsetting, disgusting and downright repulsive, it hits the ground running and barrels at you without slowing down. The opening sequence and credits are enough to give you nightmares for a week and all it consists of is a few scientists in HAZMAT suits testing radiation who meet a grisly end. This is followed closely by lots of stock footage of atomic bomb tests. Following a family who ends up getting trapped in the hills of New Mexico and who begin getting terrorized by colony of mutant miners who were subjected to radiation from bombs set of by the US government may not sound all the brutal, but trust me, do not enter lightly. It’s an unapologetic and unflinching little movie. About half way through the film explodes like a ticking time bomb and it’s incredible to me that this avoided an NC-17 rating. Oh, and I should tell you that the family has a newborn baby with them. And the mutants kidnap the child and plan on eating it. Start covering your eyes and chewing off your fingernails now. Not for the faint of heart.
23.) Inland Empire (2006)
What’s it about? I couldn’t tell you. What’s the underlying message? Beats me. What’s the point? The point is that it scares the living hell out of you and it’s impossible to know why. David Lynch’s three-hour grainy epic that appears to be about a remake of a film that was cursed blurs the lines of what is real and what is a nightmare. Half way through you will give up trying to follow it but you will not be able to avoid it’s icy glare. The trailer alone will have goose bumps running up and down your arms. What elevates it is Lynch’s use of surreal imagery. There truthfully should not be anything particularly scary about it, but there is. Through his use of close ups, every single character takes on the look of a deformed specter that is staring right into your soul. And wait for one particular image of a deformed face that, in my opinion, is one of the most disturbing images I have ever seen on film. I understand that the film may frustrate you on what is actually happening and what isn’t, but I can assure you that that is exactly what Lynch is going for. To drive you mad.
22.) The Mothman Prophecies (2002)
Have you ever had someone tell you about his or her encounter with something paranormal? I would guess that while they are telling the story, your imagination was busy bringing their story to life. The story was creepy because you were not there but you believe this person is telling you the truth. Plus, your imagination has filled in what took place. Long after they have told you the story, it still plays in your brain like it was your own experience. That is kind of what The Mothman Prophecies is like. And it’s based on true events that happened in the late 60s. Through the strong performances by Richard Gere, Debra Messing, and Laura Linney, they make you feel every ounce of their confusion, frustration, horror, and weariness that is brought on from the events take place throughout the film. Centering on the sightings of an otherworldly winged creature with “two red eyes” in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, the film has an unshakeable sense of doom woven throughout. We are constantly left with some strange account that leaves us gripping our seats or a notion that something truly horrifying is lurking just around the corner. Pay close attention to the details in this one. It’s what doesn’t jump right out at you that is actually the creepiest. The Mothman is everywhere even if we never really get a good glimpse. But it’s like your reaction to your friend’s paranormal experience, you do not know, but you can imagine.
21.) Repulsion (1965)
Going mad has never been this unsettling. Roman Polanski’s portrait of a young woman (played by the gorgeous Catherine Denuve) who is seemingly losing her mind after her mother goes away for a weekend is all the more surreal because we cannot pin point the reason why. She is so normal! Turning an apartment into a claustrophobic living nightmare, the film makes exceptional use of space. Polanski makes the audience actually feel the walls closing in. And when someone knocks on her door, talk about tense! What truly makes Repulsion work is that it is a patient horror film. One that is all the more unsettling because this could be happening a few doors down in your apartment complex or just a few houses down. And to such a lovely woman at that! It’s a shame that Polanski’s other horror film, Rosemary’s Baby, overshadows that gem. Through it’s gritty scope and enclosed spaces, after seeing it you may want to evaluate your own sanity, go stand in an open field for a couple of hours, and you’ll never want to eat vegetables again.
Drop by tomorrow for more of the films that have scared the shit out of me. You know you’re intrigued and the terror has hypnotized you. And feel free to let us know what horror films scare you. Also, if you have not voted in our tiebreaker poll yet, Click Here to do so.