Saturday, April 20, 2013

Rotten Tomatoes Hates The Lords of Salem

"God Hates the Lords of Salem."

I feel like Rob Zombie's gotten a lot of shit over the years he hasn't particularly deserved... though I guess that's true of literally everyone who did anything after The Internet existed. Don't get me wrong, each year that passes is a year I like House of 1000 Corpses just a little bit less, and I won't say that Halloween 2 wasn't a film rife with both structural and idealogical problems, at least it took a stand against a slasher movie sequel literally being the first film with a number tagged onto the end of it. I'm a firm believer that anything less than praise levied against The Devil's Rejects is little more than bitter heresy, and while I totally understand why some people can't stand the grim, trashy reboot of the archetypal bogeyman, I stand by my affirmation that Rob Zombie's take was dramatically more interesting than John Carpenter's. Perfect? No. A fuck of a lot better than literally any of the other sequels to Carpenter's original Halloween had been (barring, perhaps, Season of the Witch)? You bet your ass, boys and girls.

While I wasn't thrilled hearing that Zombie's new film was being produced by the same folks who were responsible for the Paranormal Activity franchise - my opinions of which can be summed up very well with "Well, that sure was clever. The first time." - the promise of him being offered Final Cut was appealing enough, as was Zombie's own description during preproduction that it would be a film akin to if Ken Russell had directed The Shining instead of Stanley Kubrick. Psychedelic isolated clips and a jaw-dropping gonzo bizarro trailer made the rounds, all of them showcasing Sheri Moon Zombie - Rob's muse, and seemingly his detractor's personified ire - trapped in a supernatural struggle between the world we know and the dark existence of a witch's coven, seeking vengeance for their brutal punishment in the 17th century. Having thought Rob got the shit end of the Internet's opinion stick, and having spent most of my life living in New England - and, being fascinated by horror from a young age, having always been enchanted by the gruesome history of Salem - this was a film set to hit every chord on my list...

And yet I walked out confused, wondering what might have been. I wouldn't say I dislike the film - it isn't terrible, not by any worthwhile measure - it just isn't what it could have been, or perhaps even should have been to justify its very unique and potentially genre-shattering position as a serious horror film sprung from the very real tragedies that befell the accused women of a little town in the Americas. Was this movie for real? Was it an experiment in terror, boiling the elements of the masters down into their most simplified parts as a study of why we're afraid, or the groundwork of a master inspired by his childhood throwing everything at the wall and watching very little of it stick? The answer is inevitably somewhere in the middle, and while it's clear Zombie was pulling from masters like Kubrick, Argento, Polanski and Russell... the final film is more akin to the dreamlike, sometimes wholly disjointed works of Jean Rollin, Lucio Fulci and Karim Hussain. Initially, I'd have compared the films to David Cronenberg or Michael Soavi, but no, both of these men have a grouding of emotional, structural and theological symbolism to tie everything into, at least, a single cohesive whole, if only sometimes in a meta-textual way; Rob Zombie's latest film doesn't seem to be interested in anything grander or deeper, just... well, weirder. It accomplishes that and then some, and I'd be lying if I said the film wasn't quite a bit of fun just to look at all the over the top set pieces lurking in the shadows, even if it doesn't add up to much. It's just not the epic send-off to the supernatural that I still believe is burning away inside of Zombie's brain, and is a frustrating reminder that even talented artists can only accomplish so much when under relatively major time and money constraints.

But what makes this mish-mash of surrealism all the more frustrating is how good the first forty minutes or so of the film are. There's moments of pure, distilled WTF to be sure, but they're balanced by a level of restraint and subtlety that I hadn't been aware Zombie possessed that honestly doesn't break until the final act. Absolutely none of the rampant nudity in the film is there to be sexy (apart from, maybe, the opening titles), and while the brutal punishment of the Salem Witches is presented in the most sadistic manner possible, there's virtually no other acts of murder or blood-letting on screen that aren't trippy cut-aways to what may or may not be a violent realizations of a shattering subconscious.  The mounting, grinding soundtrack and the shifting landscapes of the dull tones of reality clashing with the super-saturated world of Satan's wrath envelop every second, becoming so intertwined that, yes, I'd argue the style is the film's ultimate substance, in the same way that Suspiria and Eraserhead operate entirely on fuzzy dream logic, but become burned into your memory through the sheer hand of the director assaulting you with the raw, unhinged experience of it all.

Sherri Moon Zombie is, as ever, adequate. Look let's be honest; she's gorgeous, she's willing to go to damned ugly places to please her man's need to be a demigod of exploitation film making, and Rob is comfortable asking her to be sexually assaulted in the face by a Satanic blood-belching priest. What the hell else do you guys even want? Can you think of anyone else who'd even agree to be in this mess, much less knock it out of the park if they did? Christ. This really shouldn't warrant special attention - Sherri's merely "okay", not especially noteworthy one way or the other - but I swear, if that ever gets brought up as a complaint against a Rob Zombie movie by default, whoever says it is getting punched right in the dick. Dead goddamn dick-center. Internet, we're officially done with this particular bitching, and we should have been done with it 8 goddamn years ago when she proved herself to be an adequate character actor to begin with.

The three ladies who play Sherri's scheming landlords - all genre veterans, as is typical of a Zombie casting call -  are all fantastic in their own right, and many of the comparatively minor roles are filled with talented Zombie regulars (blink and you'll miss Sid Haig and Michael Berryman!), but hands down it's Meg Foster as the wicked Satanic matron who steals the show. She was utterly terrifying. Seriously, if you only see the first three reels of this movie, she is what the rest of your nightmares will be made of; pure, unadulterated malice. And this is coming from the hot chick in Masters of the Universe - Jesus Christ, how could we have seen that coming?! The film even makes fantastic use of her as a sort of barometer as to how far down the rabbit hole we've gone, slowly wearing down the walls of reality by combining Foster's horrific turn with Sherri's more worldly existence, until the boundary is finally broken, the last seal laid bare, and then... and then...

...and then Satan shows up looking a bucket of KFC haphazzardly glued back together and wearing an El Santo gimp mask. The whole scene is set to glowing, soft-focus, romantic photography and totally un-ironic, sweeping classical music. And then... I can't even tell you what happens next because you won't believe me 'till you see it for yourself anyway. Mrs. Kentai couldn't take another second of it, and just busted out laughing. I couldn't pick my jaw up out of my own lap long enough to make a sound. I'm not spoiling this because it's in the trailer, and it's the Weirdest. Fucking. Thing. I have EVER SEEN in a movie theater... and, sadly, I don't mean that in a good way.

Seriously, Mr. Zombie. Rob. Whatever, I'm asking as a fan here, and as someone with a penchant for loving the hell nonsensical weirdness - what the fuck just happened to your amazing atmospheric horror movie? As director, Zombie walks a fine line for the first four reels, gradually teasing us with what look to be intentionally artificial stage-show quality neon nightmares are juxtaposed on a lifeless, almost uninhabited and monotone vision of Salem, and brings them both crashing into a violent mix that gels neither as a work of pure, apocalyptic terror nor even as B-movie excess as it did, more or less, in House of 1000 Corpses - that film certainly wasn't a masterpiece, but it's still amusing enough watching Bill Mosley turn Rainn Wilson into a bloody arts and crafts project. There's a subplot about Sherri being a recovering junkie, building to the idea that maybe it's all in her head - hey, just like Jack Torrence in The Shining! - but most of that looks like it was left on the cutting room floor, and only pops up when the narrative left them no choice but to bring it to the forefront. A lot of stuff does that, now that I think of it, but that's the most blatant obvious of a loose thread, just waiting for the viewer to start tugging away.

Much like the final confrontation in Argento's Inferno, the film tries to gamble with its big ideas and loses credibility for it, trying to build to a Book of Revelations and ending on a minimalist stage play. I'm not giving Zombie the pretentious benefit of the doubt on this one either, because interviews have all sort of confirmed that the film we saw wasn't the film he wrote; in other words, I "get it", I just don't think it works... and that makes me incredibly sad, because I feel like he was on the verge of something amazing. Not since Prometheus have I walked out of a theater feeling like a masterpiece was side-stepped this hard, but the reasons why both of these films fail are so vastly different, it's not a very fair comparison. Without actually spoiling anything (else?), the final 10 minutes in particular really left me holding my head and wondering if I was just hallucinating. Rob Zombie has ushered in an apocalypse, and it turns into a low-budget music video complete with garish After Effects wipes and Sherri grinding on a Black Metal guitarist for no discernible reason - you know, the sort of goofy, nonsensical bullshit I'm already on the fence with coming from truly independent films made by fucking nobody in Eastern Europe for 1/10th the budget this one had.

It tries to bring it all back just before the end, but it manages to somehow infect both narrative threads so hopped up on its own indulgence that the finale of the Salem Witches is rendered borderline parody, and the final moments in Sherri's story are so over the top that... well, at that point, all I could do was laugh. Because it was so absurd it was funny as hell. It's clear that Rob Zombie was trying his damnedest to become Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski, but in the end he crashed and burned somewhere between Jean Rollin and Alejandro Jorodowsky. It's not goofy enough to be a rollicking B-movie to be jabbed at by drunken friends, but it's just not good enough to be anything more than the sum of its fragmented, uneven parts that can't decide if it's a legitimate retro masterpiece of Satanic horror, or a stumbling remake of yet another generic East Asian ghost movie. It's just... a mess. A fascinating, unintelligible mess that's so off the wall I can't help but recommend everyone in ear shot see it for themselves, just to experience it. I can call Zombie a lot of things right now, but "unoriginal", "risk averting", and "giving the slightest of fucks about what a typical audience wants" wouldn't be in the top five hundred.

I can't say a word of this without acknowledging that, why yes, I've followed Rob Zombie's usual press tour of brief, professional interviews. I know that despite having been given Final Cut on the project, the $1.5 million dollar budget and month long shooting schedule simply weren't enough to do whatever he had written. The scene used for the film's poster - the one that proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this film no longer knows what the fuck it's trying to be anymore - was one they had to improvise that day because the original concept was simply never going to be made. I can't fault Zombie's creativity, his aesthetic, or even his heart; all of them were in the right place when he made this film. He just bit off so much more than he could chew, and I have a feeling this is going to sit next to similarly bizarre, transgressive, and frustrating messes like... honestly, I can't even think of a proper comparison. Kazuaki Kiriya's CASSHERN or David Lynch's DUNE both come to mind, gorgeously realized and thematically rich epics that just unwravel before your very eyes, spawning a giant mess that's impossible to fully respect, but too gloriously decadent and bizarre to hate. I'd recommend anyone interested in this film see it - it isn't a swing and a miss scenario so much as it is the ball whizzing right past the batter and decapitating the pitcher. It's literally just that off. And if nothing else, I'm confident it'll be the single strangest, most difficult to describe film I see all year. If that isn't a compliment when I'm looking forward to the next Astron 6 feature, I don't even know what could be.

Rob Zombie has announced that his next film will be a historical drama about the 1974 Philadelphia Flyers team now known as "The Broad Street Bullies". (For those as hopelessly clueless about "Sports Stuff" as myself, just picture The Bad News Bears, but everyone has more whiskey than plasma in their blood and play 'sports' mostly as a legally justified Fight Club. Christ, that does sound kind of fun, doesn't it?) I was honestly sad at the knowledge that Rob Zombie is finished with making horror films for the forseeable future, but having seen him go for the gold and stop half way... maybe it's for the best. I still believe that Rob Zombie is a largely overlooked talent, and if nothing else, this will convince the rest of the world that his talent isn't directly tied to how many throat stabbings a film has. This, however, won't convince anyone but the biggest fans of gonzo insanity that he's got anything else to offer that The Devil's Rejects didn't already cover.

Recommended, but only for those who already know they're walking into a trap. Here's hoping the Blu-ray includes 3 hours of deleted scenes, and a 3 hour epic might at least restore something resembling thematic cohesion to this glorious pile of flaming wreckage. For what it's worth, the original screenplay has been published as an old-school "Novelization", and having heard confirmation that it was based on the last script Zombie made before actual production began, I might sit down with that over the next week and try to piece together what in the name of fuck happened between then and now.

And also, how weird is it that the AMC 16 was doing the semi-fancy Los Angeles premier with Rob and the female leads all doing a Q-and-A? Much as the film wasn't what I had hoped it would be, that whole experience was just lovely, and being able to sit just a few rows behind Michael Berryman and Ken Foree was pretty goddamn nifty. And for the record, however fun and crazy you think Patricia Quinn is, you're wrong. Dead wrong. That sweet ol' biddy is insane.

Warning: The following post is made in a fit of exhausted and fury/coffee fueled frustration. I TRIED not to spoil anything major and make the slightest bit of sense, but I'm not awake enough to tell anymore. Take from this what you will!


Tommy said...

I haven't seen the film yet (I'm hoping to go this week), but reading your review I couldn't help but feel that you nailed it (although I hope you're wrong). Everything I have heard or seen so far has pointed to a potential masterpiece that lost it's way in a sea of budget/time constraints and Zombie's self indulgence. In my opinion it has been a steady decline ever since 1000 Corpses...H2 being the only film I outright dislike. And you might have to punch me in the dick, because I absolutely can't stand Sheri Moon, especially when she is meant to be taken seriously with white horses and what not. Yet still...I can't help but squeal with delight at some of your description of Lords, so I'm hoping I might end up enjoying it a bit more than I have a lot of respect for anyone who is willing to even attempt to crack into the lost realm of Argento style fever dreams. Hell, Argento himself won't even try it anymore. Anyways, I'm hoping to get out to see Lords tomorrow (its a long drive)...can't wait to see how it hits me.

btw, I posted a detailed endorsement of Killing Birds, as per your request, back in the evil dead thread when you have a moment :)

Kentai 拳態 said...

Sorry I've been busy as hell for the last week, Tommy: Had a follow-up written but it got lost in the shuffle at one point or another, and I just haven't had the time to re-iterate it since.

I think it's fair to say if you preferred HOUSE OF 1,000 CORPSES to THE DEVIL'S REJECTS, you're more willing to ignore the leaps in tone and gaps in storytelling finesse than I am. It's not that I can't - if I couldn't, I probably wouldn't love David Lynch, Alejandro Jodorowsky or Jean Rollin - but the problem is that Zombie is crafting something special here, something uniquely dark and rooted in New England's original sin. He's also proven that he *CAN* make a cohesive, competent film without needing to use Dream Logic as a crutch. Much as I love Lynch, for example, when you see his "normal" work - say, THE FRENCHMAN AND THE COWBOY - you realize that his style and method only works when he's focusing on subjects that lend themselves to it.

It had every chance to be a disturbing, uncomfortable masterpiece like the films it's taking so much care in emulating - THE SHINING, ALTERED STATES, ROSEMARY'S BABY and so on - but the final result feels much closer to the cheap EuroSchlock knock-offs of those better features. And if the film weren't so obvious and dedicated to its hodgepode of homage, maybe I could groove on it from that perspective. But it gets too close to the sun and fails to stick the landing; it ceases to be justified as "just a silly supernatural flick" when it does such a damned good job of it for about the first hour.

That said, I've always thought Sherri's HALLOWEEN 2 appearances - and the absolutely trippy PTSD dream sequences that accompany them (which appear in LORDS OF SALEM to varying degrees of success) - were always a giant "fuck you" to his detractors. Hell, if I were Rob Zombie I'd be sick of hearing nerds bitch about how much they hate what I did with a cypher character and are bored of my wife, too... why not rub their nose in something that not only would piss them off, but reinforces the core idea that makes Halloween 2 so different from basically every other film in the canon? I really should re-watch and perform a vigorous brain dump on the merits of H2... it isn't good, no, but it's one of the very few slasher sequels that draws a line in the sand and goes down a completely different path from the norm, and what it has to say is interesting on its own.

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