The Lords of Salem and some halfbaked thoughts about auteur theory

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Love him or hate him, I would argue that Rob Zombie is American horror film’s only decently distributed auteur. Before you start poking holes in that statement and before we start talking about Zombie’s latest, let’s back up a bit and do some surveying of what brings us to The Lords of Salem.

First came House of 1000 Corpses, which might have well have been billed as “the film Universal didn’t want you to see!” Even though the company fit the bill for Zombie’s candy-colored, Southern-fried debut, they wimped out when it came to distribution. I was a freshman in high school and after what seemed to me an unbearable series of delays, I found myself loving the film once it saw the light of day. Looking back, House is more than a little shrill, but I still love certain moments in that same way I did when I was rocking poorly fitting jeans and self-confidence issues.

The neon spookhouse monsters (sure they’re “human”, but come on, that’s some classic movie monster-making on display) of House of a 1000 Corpses work when we allow them to engage us. Instead of focusing on what Zombie’s vocal deriders would rather we take away (the affected dialogue, stunt-casting), we need to relish in what musician turned first-time writer/director does well: present us with the cinematic equivalent of the “murder ride” that our protagonists take in the beginning of the film.

Next up is The Devil’s Rejects, a film that up until yesterday, I would have pointed to as the high point of Zombie’s output. Again we have a film that is colored by my boyhood perceptions of it (I actually conned my way into the film’s San Diego premiere during 2005’s Comic Con, try to dislike a movie when you’re a teenager sitting next to Brian Posehn), but also one that holds up remarkably well. There’s better character work here (in that there are characters) and the film’s mix of ugly naturalism and Zombie’s trademark trailer-park shtick leads to some thrilling, tense moments. Plus the soundtrack lets us know that Zombie has some major league good taste in music.

Paradoxically, his Halloween films are his most widely seen and most derided, but even those give my inner teenage horror fan something to cling to. I was a college sophomore for the first one and a senior (I think) for the second. Zombie’s interpretation of the material is admirably out-there in some respects, and slavishly faithful in others (the second half of Halloween feels like it comes from different movie). For example, I enjoy the way he changed Doctor Loomis into an evangelist huckster instead of a wizened sage. Zombie is making his own films here, even if he’s butting heads with the studio and losing final cut.

It’s unfair to do so because they’re such disparate movies, but compare the abysmal, tone-deaf Nightmare on Elm St. remake to either of Zombie’s Halloween films and you’ll get an idea of why I feel the need to defend them when they get spoken ill of in horror circles. Even if I don’t love them, they’ve got a soul. Zombie’s love of the horror genre and attempt (however flailing that attempt may be) to do something different is palpable in both of his Halloween entries. But even in the highly “experimental” second film, which is a real-deal movie with themes and ideas floating around in it,  Zombie is still tethered to the demands of the franchise and that hurts the final product.

Nobody is happier than me that all the Kubrick and Jodorowsky-influenced tricks that Zombie tried in his second Halloween film are pulled off with much more success in The Lords of Salem. After two franchise pictures, Lords feels like the smaller, more mature work of an artist who’s learned from past mistakes but is still open to trying to push their style forward.

The camera has been bolted back down to earth in this picture, gone is the frenetic style of earlier Zombie films, replaced by a more painterly, European style. The third scene in the film, a nude Sheri Moon Zombie in repose (the filmmaker’s wife and muse, taking center stage here) is photographed in a way that calls to mind Jess Franco and Lina Romay’s creative and romantic relationship (more so now with Franco’s recent passing than it would have a month ago).

By placing the film in a real-world town, as opposed to the imagined suburbia of Haddonfield or the nostalgic south/western locales of his first two films, Zombie and his characters reach a level of believability and likeability heretofore unseen in his work. These are really the streets of Salem, not a Toronto mock-up or an “in season” cartoon version (hundreds of thousands of tourists swamp Salem every October, but that’s not the town we get here). In that way we’re offered a sense of place that works so much better, even if the viewer has never stepped foot in New England.

The film’s still populated by Zombie’s cadre of actors, but they don’t feel like cameos here and I really love seeing Ken Foree show a bit of range. Bruce Davison (Willard), Meg Foster (They Live) and Andrew Prine (Simon, King of the Witches ) are recent, welcome additions to the stable.

The film lost steam for me at the end, but mostly because the finale felt perfunctory. Even while I successfully avoided every trailer for this movie, I was still anticipating the psychotronic freakout that caps the film, just because it’s broadcast so far in advance (we even have character’s musing about the immutability of fate around the halfway point). Even with this undercutting of what was meant to be the most engaging part of the film, I still find myself very much enamored with what Zombie does in The Lords of Salem.

This love/apathy/respect relationship I have with Lords is a microcosm of the relationship I have with Zombie’s decade worth of films. I may not agree with everything Rob Zombie writes or directs, but I will lay down life and limb in the comments section to defend his right to do it.

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