Witches have long fascinated the arts and cinema is no exception. We can trace their lineage right back to the Great Grandmother of them all ‘Haxan – Witchcraft Through The Ages’ a Swedish/Danish film directed by Benjamin Christiansen way back in 1922. It is fair to say that cinema is not quite so bogged down with films about idolatrous spell casters as it is the more fantastical zombies, vampires and werewolves which kind of makes new features appeal more. If you cast you eye back in time there have been some great films of powerful sorceresses and in my opinion it has always been the Italians and the British who have led the way. Who can ever forget the simmering sexy witch portrayed by Barbara Steele in Mario Bava’s seminal Black Sunday (1960) and Antonio Margheriti’s lesser known Long Hair Of Death (1964)? Two of my favourite ever UK horror films feature the witch hunts of bygone days Witchfinder General by Michael Reeves (1968) told the story of Matthew Hopkins in lurid detail only having the finesse not to go all the way on the torture scenes; leaving that one for Michael Armstrong’s Mark Of The Devil (1970). Of course the other one was a film that showed not all witches were quite so innocent and once viewed nobody can forget Linda Hayden’s beguiling, simmering performance in Piers Haggard’s Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971) It was Italy again who were responsible for the Three Mother’s triptych and Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) should be at the top of every horror film lovers list. Inferno (1980) may well not quite be as revered and Mother Of Tears (2007) certainly not but the fantastical elements and outlandish set-pieces of the films really put witchcraft and sinister covens on the map.
I had a good think about American films that dealt with the subject and have to admit to it being a poor show all round. There are a couple of obvious titles such as Andrew Fleming’s fun and sexy 1996 feature The Craft and George Miller’s sexy if you are a pensioner 1987 Witches Of Eastwick. Forgetting disasters like Friedkin’s The Guardian (1990) and Ti West’s dire retro derivative House Of The Devil (2009) they have not exactly done much in the way of putting witchcraft on the map. Perhaps Hollywood feared a satanic supernatural backlash, who knows but The Lords Of Salem could well be the film to redress the balance?
Having been touted around for what seems like forever there has been a fair amount of hype surrounding Rob Zombie’s sixth (if you count El Superbeasto) feature. Personally I loved the raw grindhouse feel of House Of 1000 Corpses (2003) and its slicker (2005) sequel The Devil’s Reject’s. Similarly I loathed his first trailer trash swearathon Halloween (2007) remake and am pretty sure I did not even bother with the sequel. I was poised to look around and go see Lords Of Salem at the flicks but it is on very limited almost non-existent release and I much prefer watching films without the crowds nowadays so was going to pre-order it but luckily enough a review screener (should that be screamer) turned up so I was able to line up some beers and finally watch it.
If you are expecting a) a film that is a fast and furious hyper paced, action packed killing spree or b) not to see the director’s wife Sheri Moon Zombie’s gorgeous naked bum let me tell you now you are in completely the wrong place. Those nice rounded cheeks belong to Heidi a dreadlocked radio DJ who puts on a metal based show in downtown Salem Massachusetts. Her co-hosts are love struck friend, big bearded Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman whose rich radio voice is just perfect, played by Dawn Of The Dead’s unmistakable Peter; Ken Foree. They seem to have a good show and are happy playing and interviewing odd corpse pained black metal bands but when they have the chance and Heidi does a ladies pick the unmistakable tones of Rush classic ‘Spirit Of The Radio’ is re- immortalised by the director for another generation. A strange box is left for Heidi and the resulting slab of sinister plastic by a band called The Lords (not of the New Church, or of Brooklyn, or of Bukkake but Of Salem) has a strange result when played. We are perhaps back to the Japanese theme of haunted videos, phones etc but it is not quite as straightforward as that.
The landscape of Salem plays a large part in this and the New England setting which is synonymous with the fact and fiction of witchcraft adds to the atmosphere. The austere looking building that Heidi rents from is very characteristic and scenes within are going to draw some comparisons which have already been mentioned by others to Roman Polanski be it Repulsion (1965) or the more obvious Rosemary’s Baby (1968). We do go back in time and revisit the witch rites and their instigators comeuppance and these scenes are the ones that do have some of the extremity one would expect. The russet tinged camera making it all the more lurid and watch out for a couple of famous genre faces in the cast here.
It has to be said that the use of colour is excellent as is the cinematography of the film. It would not be a Rob Zombie film without a certain amount of psychedelia injected within it and these parts are done with great panache. The tripped out scenes are at times highly reminiscent of Ken Russell on the likes of his Lair Of The White Worm (1988) and the last reel of the feature is a complete and utter trip and a half.
I thought the acting was excellent throughout; Sheri Moon was a million miles removed from the hyperactive ADHD zoned Baby of the House films and plays her part with a maturity and seriousness that fits perfectly. Others in the cast such as Meg Foster, Bruce Davison and the excellent eccentric Englishness of Judy Gleeson make this a delight to watch and had me pretty much on the edge of my seat. The soundtrack is good and at least the director does not have us overburdened with his music leaving the score to his lead guitarist John 5 and producer Griffin Bolce to add to the drama well. The retro sounds such as Rush, Manfred Mann, Rick James and particularly The Velvet Underground is perfect too and as said will hopefully have some younger audiences checking things out.
On the whole I avoided reading pretty much anything to do with the film and went in with no expectations but was more than happy to find a film that surprised and one that delivered succinct shocks and intrigue rather than going for all out grossness (not that I have any problems with such films). It showed that Rob Zombie and his muse Sheri Moon have both grown admirably and if they can continue on this path and stay away from remakes he could have a serious career in this medium ahead of them.
There were no extras apart from trailers on my disc so I shall be looking to see if there are any on the official release as I certainly enjoyed this enough to buy it and will most definitely be watching it again in the future. Is it worth the hype? Probably not but as it stands in the limited pantheon of witchcraft features it is a worthy entry and for me it weaved its spell well.