Critics Tended to Hate 'The Lords of Salem'. They're Wrong.

There’s a lot going on here that’s worth your time. Beautifully photographed and drenched in creepy atmosphere, The Lords of Salem is gorgeous to look

The Lords of Salem

Director: Rob Zombie
Cast: Sheri Moon Zombie, Bruce Davison, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Ken Foree
Distributor: Anchor Bay
Rated: R
Release date: 2013-09-03

Some cineastes will not want to admit it, but Rob Zombie is an auteur. He brings to all of his films a recognizable visual style and set of themes. He self-consciously employs the history of the horror genre, doing homage to some of its classic documents and classic directors.

And, like most auteurs, he has a devoted fan-base. They have followed him from the blood-drenched abattoir of House of 1,000 Corpses to the southern-fried fever dream of The Devil’s Rejects. A lot of us even enjoyed his Halloween that significantly reimagined the 1978 narrative even though the last third of the film turned into an almost shot-for-shot remake. We might not have liked a lot of things about it, but we understood why he had to be the one to make it. Rather than another cash-cow reboot, it made the same kind of cinematic sense as John Carpenter doing homage to Howard Hawks and Hitchcock.

Now comes Lords of Salem, a film likely to divide Zombie's already highly defined fan base. Available on Blu-ray and DVD, many fans will be seeing the film for the first time, given its narrow distribution and brief life at the theatres. Some won't care for its rather significant differences from the rest of his oeuvre.

Don’t get me wrong, you will recognize this as a Rob Zombie horror-fest if you are even vaguely familiar with his work. It’s stylish and weird. Not quite the bloodbath of some of his earlier films, Zombie dispenses the gross-out sparingly even as he hits some body horror high notes along the way. Music and hard, dissonant clangs drives the aural experience, set to a sound track that covers everything from death metal to Velvet Underground to Mozart’s Requiem.

Still there are very real differences from his earlier outings. Zombie fans, and plenty of horror fans in general, are used to films that offer 90 minutes worth of assaults on the consciousness, one fright or mangling after another until the final tense and over-the-top denouement. In Lords of Salem, Rob Zombie has prepared a different kind of dark fête.

Lords of Salem tells a story of a rock DJ (Sheri Moon Zombie) who receives a mysterious record from “The Lords”. In the logic of cursed objects, this delivery pulls her down a terrifying rabbit hole to hell.

Lords of Salem takes an approach that fans of Ti West will be able to appreciate, even if they don’t think that Zombie exactly pulls it off. Much like House of the Devil and Innkeepers, Zombie employs the slow burn. The roller coaster slowly cranks to the top of the incline for most of the film’s run-time and then drops us into the abyss for the last ten minutes or so.

Critics tended to hate this film and they are wrong. There’s a least a contingent of film writers who are dismissive of Zombie’s work to such a degree that I’m not sure they really pay attention. Add to these the writers who don’t take the horror genre seriously to begin with, and you come up with an avalanche of criticism for Lords of Salem.

There’s a lot going on here that’s worth your time. Beautifully photographed and drenched in creepy atmosphere, it’s gorgeous to look at. Sheri Moon Zombie will never get the credit she deserves, it seems, but carries her lead role with more than aplomb. She’s really a brilliant actor that I’d like to see in other genres. And, on top of that, there’s some interesting ideas bouncing around in this gothic echo chamber of a movie, ideas about the relationship between history and horror and place and time that seem to show up in every one of Zombie’s flicks.

After seeing the film once, a second viewing with Rob Zombie’s commentary proves helpful. It’s a serious chat about some of the decisions he made and why he made them. You’ll even find a few moments of the film that made little sense the first time around making more sense. A bad sign, I know, but I honestly enjoyed hearing a filmmaker as gifted as this talk about his work even when, especially when, that work needs some Talmudic parsing.

The commentary almost, but not quite, makes up for a complete absence of any other special features on the two-disc set. The second disc includes an Ultraviolet download. Otherwise. There are no “making of” featurettes or other treats for the collector.

Let me also note that this review is based on the Blu-ray edition. In fact, seeing the film for the first time deserves the 1080p treatment. It’s a film so visually rich that it needs a high-definition presentation.

Horror fans should see Lords of Salem if only because Rob Zombie made it. This is not irrational fan-worship, only recognition of his importance in the genre. Moreover, his own following will hopefully take pleasure in seeing a very different kind of film from one of the undisputed masters of modern horror. This peculiar little gem will find its admirers over time. Give Lords of Salem a watch.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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