"Only bad witches are ugly." - Glenda
Much as I love WIZARD OF OZ there's something messed up about Glenda's shallowness. Look at these bangin' old broads (above) bringing tea and cookies, and hell yeah the tea's probably spiked with tannis root but when these sexy evil bitches show up at your door you should be fucking honored. They're not there to get all petty on you with who's good and who's bad, ugly or pretty. Glenda's the ugly one for perpetuating a stereotype started by the church to keep a sister down. In Salem, for example, a horde of hot witches were hung for their presumed evil, including some of my ancestors.
If they weren't evil before you hung them, they are now, o paranoid projector of your own subconscious devils!
Now they're coming back, in my DNA, arm-in-arm with every kid whose life was ruined for getting caught expanding his mind in the Reagan-era 80s. Fear us, then, o descendants of the evil and corrupt Salem and Texas judges, all smug in your hypocrite robes and stetsons. We are watching you as you sleep, through Meg Foster's crystal blue orbs. Your time shall be soon.
In other words, sons of sinuses blocked and lungs a-resinated, hail the new flesh and toad of newt, hail MacBeth, Val Lewton, the Cramps, Bob Dobbs, Nic Cage, Sammy Davis Jr., Lamont Cranston, D.H. Lawrence, and John Doe.
LORDS OF SALEM (2012), Rob Zombie's nearly abstract, post-vaguely-modern 70s devil film, tosses cauldron-ward the old 'conspiracy to impregnate unwitting chick with the devil's child' thing-- already tossed back a few years earlier by Ti West (HOUSE OF THE DEVIL - 2009)-- adds the actual Salem and spoon of film references, heats to overflowing, goes in the other room to change the record, becomes obsessed with finding the right cauldron stirring Velvet Underground song, and never comes back (1). Does it end up a stew? Well, what is it trying to be? If it was trying to do for devil movies what SCREAM did for slashers, then it failed. If it wasn't trying to do that, if it was trying to be a SHINING for New England, then why the tattoo-parlor ambiance? Why the vintage punk thrift store symbolism that means nothing? Why the EXORCIST-cycled dialogue, (bringing "cunting" back home)? Why the carny ride haunted house tableaux that go nowhere, as if we're meant to glance their way, gasp, clutch our date's arm, and walk on through the dry ice fog and strobe lights to the next attraction? Aside from the goofball cranberry juice elevator flood, and the climactic gold room of dusty corpses, Kubrick would never be so obvious. So what is LORD OF SALEM really trying to be, aside from a showcase for Rob's tattoo and customized neon artist Florida posse to display their wares?
It's being Rob Zombie, the Kubrick of the Daytona trailer park, the Neo-pagan who goes on a killing spree at Burning Man, and everyone mistakes it for performance art.
Dude, they were so high, those who mistook it. Take it from me.
You can't take it from them. They're all dead.
Left to its own devices, without all the post-modernist post-punk flippancy royalties can buy, LORDS does generate some hypnotic power, some echo of that great stretch of THE SHINING, set to the avant garde vocalizing drones of György Sándor Ligeti, involving 'the woman in room 237.' Zombie's own version of that same ominous inexorable creep towards some dreadful finish has a uniquely palpable abandon; the psychic force of the gathered middle-aged actresses--heavily and picturesquely filth-encrusted--creates a combined psychic release. Compare this with most lame attempts to create a Satanic ceremony: wherein half-asleep actors gather in black robes, read Latin, light candles and splay a topless virgin on the dais rather than do real research on altered states of consciousness achieved through hallucinatory herbs, smoked and drunk, taken in conjunction with prolonged periods of group chanting.. Like Ken Russell before them, those who'd depict witchy states of consciousness just show flashes of weird sick MTV images and a bloody Jesus and a nun naked but for bloody habit, strobed over a dosed pupil... and hope for the best.
|Only bad witches are ugly... yeah, right (Glinda in the Jezebel fire) - collage 2015 by-EK|
But when a gold-flecked theater shows up at the end of SALEM (referencing Overlook's 'Gold Room' and MULHOLLAND DR.'s Club Silencio), though it offers quite a show, it conforms not to Kubrickian displays of mind control, nudity and submission/surrender, nor stark terror/beauty, but back to those old images of evil that are speckled with the cruel dust of the demonization process begun a thousand years ago by the Catholics. As Moncure Daniel Conway's Devil Lore book notes:
Of course Zombie makes sure that same damnation is applied equally to the hideous Puritan torturers, here re-imagined with big pointy caps and excessively unguided facial hair. In other words, both sides are twisted, evil grotesques. Then--in modern Salem--our protagonist Sherri Moon is supposedly descended from the judges, but is in practice just a smarmy, skin deep-pagan, and so is Zombie apparently, for he forgets we have to believe these torturers of witches were genuinely under psychic attack if the witches are to be actually evil, too. You can't have it both ways! If you try, the whole thing falls apart, for there's no clear 'side' you necessarily want to be on. Puritan evil vs. Heathen evil leaves no tension, so we may just admire the artsy detail of the tableaux, clutch our date's arm again and follow the crowd off to the next tableaux, already wondering where to eat after we leave.
The great representations of evil, whether imagined by the speculative or the religious sense, have never been, originally, ugly. The gods might be described as falling swiftly like lightning out of heaven, but in the popular imagination they retained for a long time much of their splendour. The very ingenuity with which they were afterwards invested with ugliness in religious art, attests that there were certain popular sentiments about them which had to be distinctly reversed. It was because they were thought beautiful that they must be painted ugly; it was because they were—even among converts to the new religion—still secretly believed to be kind and helpful, that there was employed such elaboration of hideous designs to deform them. (c. 1879)
|The turf is ours by right...|
This spectacle might keep our interest more adroitly if the lead actress was stunningly beautiful, like Jocelin Donahue in HOUSE OF THE DEVIL, or Mia Farrow in ROSEMARY'S BABY, or Cristina Raines in THE SENTINEL, or even just interesting, vivacious, charismatic, but the leading actress in Zombie's film is of course his wife, Sherri Moon Zombie. And she was all those things a few years ago, in HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES and DEVIL'S REJECTS. Now gettin' too old for this shit. As Glinda might say, a hard-lived life leaves no loveliness.
Decked out like a Williamsburg hipster, Moon's character, Heidi Hawthorne is an enigma only to herself. Way too old to either believe in the supernatural or stop dressing like an extra in ALMOST FAMOUS. She considers herself a badass, clearly, and has a good job as a Salem radio station DJ. She still snickers like a dirt bag middle-schooler at any hint of genuine insanity, balls, magic and/or evil--such as when the metalhead from the band Lords of Salem is a guest on her show. She's the type of girl who has Celtic symbol tattoos but openly sneers at anyone who tries to point out what the markings mean. She is just the sort of person any self-respecting punk rock contingent recognizes as a slumming poseur and ostracizes a priori just as she des the truth behind all the witchy symbols she surrounds herself with. She's got nothing going on but thinks she's all that, and that's the biggest red flag of all.
Of course we know why we're supposed to be so intrigued by Heidi: the director still loves her, and he mistakenly presumes we're as bewitched as he is. Well we were, Rob. Ten years ago, she was freakin' sexy as all hell. But Rob we're fickle. Ain't no ring on our finger. And that's part of the problem when you cast your wife all the time; sooner or later she's going to be too long in the tooth to play the babe she still thinks she is, and you're going to be the one to have to tell her, and then you'll have to start auditioning younger leading ladies all while dodging hurled frying pans.
|The Moon wanes: 1000 Corpses (2003), Rejects (2005), Salem (2013)|
I know what it feels like to make out with thin-lipped women. It's like kissing a skull. Scary! Is that why he puts her in skull makeup paint? I hope he's trying to convince her to use some collagen. None of these 18 paragraphs would exist had she done so. You think I'm a fucking lippist now, but if not me, whom? And who else are collagen lip-augmentation shots for if not for her? Who but a classic horror fan may say so, may hold her to the same barroom benzedrine social standard the rest of stardom is bound unto? I'm no fan of collagen but just 'cuz some girls overdo it to ducky extremes doesn't mean a small dose should be shunned by those who need it. Her later skull make-up helps her look like some scraggly skate punk who got caught in the rain on his way home from a Stockholm death metal show (below) muttering "fråga inte!" to his parents as he drips up to his bedroom." as he passes his parents on his way upstairs. But I doubt that's the look she wanted. It's just the look she had, so she ran with it - again not an un-admirable motive, that old Buddhist saying: when you're falling, dive.
Pastiche Without Purpose
Maybe SCREAM auteur Wes Craven had it easier since he focused on 80s slasher films, so ignored horror history prior to HALLOWEEN and after SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Zombie goes back to the silent era's HAXAN through to the occult crazy 70s, Kenneth Anger's LUCIFER RISING, ALUCARDA, every Spanish and Italian Exorcist rip-off ever made, then buzzes THE HOWLING, and various old films Heidi watches while asleep in her apartment like KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL and CAPTAIN KIDD.
|Burnin' up his fuse up here alone|
That's what made SCREAM so unnerving; these characters knew what was coming--they'd seen it in the movies. As kids kept awake at night all through the slasher 80s, vowing in our slasher-fueled anxiety that we would never drop the knife by the killer's prone body, we resonated with those SCREAM kids. SCREAM used the dread inspired by those earlier movies, which had by now settled in our collective dream unconscious, and re-activated it, showing even a kid who knows HALLOWEEN by heart and has already thought through his bedroom defense, might be killed anyway. It was a terrifying thought.
Zombie can only admire that collective unconscious and that terror from a safe distance. He's a fan, not a player. He doesn't know why he likes them - so he just apes the box covers. He's the R-rated Tim Burton, i.e. for a director he makes a good set designer. They both gravitate towards familiar narratives--remakes of their favorite films--because they have no gift for story structure or pacing: they just want to create the fantasy setting they dreamt of inhabiting as children. Once they do, it's like one of those Halloween parties where people in fancy costumes just stand around awkward all night.
Luckily Zombie is free of the awful whimsy-packed orchestral pomp of those Danny Elfman scores Burton uses. Now you think I'm whimsist!? Fuck yeah, because it pollutes the real madness. Whimsy is the way an insecure artist of the macabre, or MST3000, chews your food for you.
|Oddities seems such a lonely world|
Now you think I'm an anti-faddist. Well no. It's just that I'm really crazy. And while I don't trust carnies and their little hairy hobbit hands, their undiagnosed Hep-C and permanent smell of diesel oil, I trust normals even less. Dude, the truly crazy try to be normal. They fail! And the result of their failure are the real eccentric tics; the vice versa are only sad - or am I jealous of 'stability?' Around 1983, vefore I started wearing black fingernail polish, growing my rat tail, and wearing combat boots with white circles I painted on them in white-out, I guess I was similar. Are you calling me a poseur now? Yeah, maybe.... but I escaped it, through psychedelics, alcoholism, and being in a band, and... hmm, no, that's it. Just those three things. Goddamn it! I was depressed, is the thing, undiagnosed - as was all the depression not suicided over. That level of depression will make you reckless in what you do, you scramble for the intense experience, and CBGBs and City Gardens are like soothing beach trips. When you're a drunken acidhead, it's the same, but now you're free.
|CBGB's: Smell on Earth|
But Heidi is a tourist.
There some indications here that Zombie can make the post-modern jump, and that's what's frustrating. He jumps but doesn't stay on the other side of the line long enough for the ref to take a measurement. He just decorates the jump-off point in punk rock iconography and gestures off into the fog and whoosh -- he's gone onto the next wild attraction. But in one great scene, Heidi is chilling out at her friend's house and suddenly she's coughing up blood, and faceless doctors appear in the room and Charles Laughton's voice on the TV jibes with the demons almost as effectively as in MYRA BRECKINRIDGE or the films of Nicolas Roeg or Alex Cox. "This just may be to your benefit," Laughton says, as the merciless CAPTAIN KIDD (above). For this tiny stretch, it's sublime work.
Later her bonding with the weird fat devil baby (whose lopsy-topsy mutatedness is a perfect dark evil mirror to Laughton's leering image onscreen) mirrors that of TV and viewer, umbilical extension cords plugged right into us and hell, and with its embryonic red eyes and slit middle you'll wonder if this demon embryo is a metaphor for an abortion or if his froggy face is supposed to be the ski mask in TORSO, and the priest looks like he might be a reference to the stitched-into-eternity Dr. Freudstein in Lucio Fulci's HOUSE BY THE CEMETERY (1981)... but we have no clear idea why or if its conscious on Zombie's part, or the make-up guy's.
|Top: Salem / Bottom: House by the Cemetery|
My Mary Easty/ Rebecca Towne Nurse Connective Genealogy
(on my Dad's Mother's Mother's Side)
For an aside: I have to mention, as always when discussing Salem and genealogy (characters here are descendants of the hung witches and/or judges and executioners) that all these descendant movies are fascinating on a personal level for me because the one side of my family tree that kept immaculate records is from Salem, having arrived in Boston in 1631 (with fellow passenger Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island): This side of my tree includes nuggets like these (copied direct):
The family of John Perkins 1583-1654 - freeman 18th May 1631
Married Judith Gates, born Newent, Gloucestershire, England
1. "Quartermaster" John - b. 1614 0 d. Dec, 14, 1686
2. "Deacon" Thomas 1616-1686 (not the witch hunter, he died before that)
3. Elizabeth 1618-1700 / married William Sargent (5 children)
4. Mary 1620-1700 - "She was accused of witchcraft, sentenced, but the execution delayed and the citizens recovered from the delusion." (+5 more)
The Family of Elisha Perkins (born - 1656 - Topfield) died - 1741 in MethuenI have other relatives farther up in the years worth mentioning: Joseph and Ichabod Perkins, who "were in Capt. James Jones' Company which marched to Concord at the alarm of Paul Revere in 1775. And 34 other Perkins of Topsfield and Ipswich and cousins of Goulds fought in Revolution (MP)." Etc. I didn't even know Ipswich was a real place! I wish there was a reason for me to research a paper there, and find the population to be a hideous bunch of fish god cult worshippers. And then grow gills m'self and swim off with a fine bonny lass!
Married Catherine Towne - 1680
(9 total), including: John (third son) born Aug. 12, 1685 - died June 22, 1750
married Mary Easty (whose mother Mary Easty and Aunt Rebecca Towne Nurse were hanged for witchcraft) --etc.
This branch of my family tree owned a lot of property and decent fortune up in the Boston area, but lost it all when it was inherited by two brothers who whored, gambled, and drank away in a few years what it had taken their forefathers five generations to accrue. If women had been allowed to inherit property, I might be a rich scion making my own damned horror movies today!
Alas, the same streak of olde Enlgish alcoholic mysticism that would help me be a 'good' horror auteur prevents my actually getting it together to do so. My whole freaking life is jerry-rigged in this fashion.... how is that for a lingering curse and/or inherited magic, o Rationalization Guru? Do you not see yet the link between chemical dependency, magic, and right-brained visionary artistic ability? Why are all great writers tripping alcoholics, and all hacks cursed by sober sanity's boundaries?
|Top: Horror Hotel / Bottom: Alucarda|
From top: THE DEVILS, SALEM, SHINING, SHINING, SALEM, SALEM, ROSEMARY'S BABY, young Ruth Gordon publicity shot.
Another redeeming trait of the film is just how GILF-ish are the three witch sisters (see CinemArchetype #20): Judy Geeson (GOODBYE GEMINI) has still got it and delivers her bloodthirsty lines with relish, as only a saucy older Brit lady can -- you should check out her amazing half-forgotten 70s sci fi TV series, STAR MAIDENS (my analysis here); also slamming it home with crisp hot fire, Dee Wallace (THE HOWLING) and Patricia Quinn (the gonzo maid in ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW) as the palm-reading sister Megan. And as the dirtiest and most evil witch coming back from the past, Meg Foster. As we've seen them in younger incarnations (doing the time warp / "again"), their aged state seems temporary; soon they shall drink the blood of the 'young' and--with a mere press on the magic wand DVD remote--return once more to their former lovely selves.
|WELCOME TO ARROW BEACH (but too pretty to eat)|
From top: Moon Maiden Mummy Mother of Lucifer; alien grey, LUCIFER RISING, 2001, LORDS OF SALEM, TWILIGHT, Aborigine drawing, 2001, SALEM
Also, check out my review of the History Channel's documentary, The Gates of Hell, which I loaded with pretty intense photographs from the 70s occult revival.
The only sympathetic characters are an exposition-mouthing scholar and his wife, living in a beautiful apartment that looks like it will resume being a Brentano's as soon as filming is finished.
I'm no fan of Ti West's, not after he subjected me to the awful hipster hair and cheap shocks of THE INNKEEPERS (2011), but HOUSE OF THE DEVIL has a few things going for it, some ideas which Zombie might have gleaned but didn't. The main thing Zombie really needed, which Ti West is clearly a proponent of, is tick-tock momentum. That's the 'honest' way of building suspense, wherein dread builds through the careful setup of a particular place over a single evening or 24-hour period, in linear time with no flashbacks and minimal cuts across time and characters. As in its most textbook example, the original HALLOWEEN (it stems from Carpenter's main influence, the great Howard Hawks). After a prologue or night before or a few set-up scenes, the momentum of the remaining bulk of the film usually starts in late afternoon as the sun begins to wane and cast ominous shadows, and the editing seems to slow the progression of time down. Rather than the constant flashy cross-cutting back and forth and sudden wake-ups from nightmares that 'cheat' on situations, tick-tock momentum is a style of storytelling most horror filmmakers never pick up on, even when they rip off HALLOWEEN. West, however, does. Zombie doesn't. Yet these two films have such similar plots they warrant close comparison. They should get together and compare notes.
The girls in HOUSE by contrast are believably tied up in petty matters that seem huge to them because they're broke and/or just starting to take care of their own finances. They're believable, and they're girls in a dark autumnal college in upstate New York, where every sunset comes earlier and earlier and bring a deeper and deeper chill the moment the night falls (with a thud).
The girls in HOUSE rule: Gerwig sports some great feathered hair and a cozy college sports shirt and in her late afternoon fast food joint scene with Samantha (Donahue) you feel the ache of an upstate New York fall winter in your bones and want to be able to curl up with them both in a cozy dorm room and not have to go anywhere; you feel the sense of desolation creeping up like tendrils of cold around her broke buddy Samantha for needing to take this babysitter job so badly. Mary Woronov and Dee Wallace (double dose of Dee!) are on point, stunt casting-wise, of course: they were born to this
Alas, in HOUSE the mean fail. The 70s-80s Satanic panic tick-tock momentum vibe of West's mise-en-scene is undone with the sudden arrival of a distinctly modern crustpunk (A.J. Bowen), who comes rolling up on Gerwig's car like an angry Williamsburg hipster fresh from teeth gnashing class. And another anachronistic blow follows with the the old man who hires Samantha, played by Tom Noonan, who is just way too mumblecore, too naturalistic. He has that 'gentle' voice no actor in the 70s or 80s would ever use at least not when trying to sound normal, like a man, like an adult. His blank slate stare and flat wispiness worked in MANHUNTER, where he was trying to seduce a blind girl by being all Fred Rogers, and it might even have worked in SALEM as one of Sherri Moon's dopey fans, but not HOUSE, which is already too subtle.
The combination of him and Bowen derail all the careful build-up provided by the women and setting. Add this pair up alongside the insufferable twerp (Pat Healy) with the terrible hipster hair in West's follow-up, THE INNKEEPERS, and you get the feeling he is insecure around his male actors. They seem like they didn't get the memo of whatever the film is about, or what upstate NY is about, or what the 70s-80s was about, or what acting is really about, outside of twee mumblecore rom-coms. They know nothing about projecting themselves into a room or a situation. Ti West should just keep all men out of his films, like I do, until he finds an actor with some gravitas he's not afraid of, like Scorsese found De Niro, or Tarantino found Samuel Jackson.
|The Right: Greta Gerwig note correct hair and clothing)|
|The wrong: A.J. Bowen (note anachronistic townie hat, beard, and clothing)|
But then Zombie shuts that aside, too. Maybe he presumes we've already seen PONTYPOOL? We haven't!
In the end, West may be too cool for his own good, and cowed by manly-voiced men; and Zombie is still a music video maker who hasn't yet figured out the rhythms of narrative, but hey! Kudos to both for their subject matter and attention to detail. West's HOUSE wins handily as the post-modern devil pastiche of choice, though LORDS is solid and gorgeous to look at, with more consistency in the cast. These old Brit ladies give it their all and make us gradually lose all interest in the by-then scabby and deranged Heidi as she moves forward into the Satanic mass as via airport moving walkway. Indeed I can see this film ruling like hell if 40 minutes were cut out and Sherri was ten years younger, and the whole thing was timed to the complete Velvet Undergound and Nico like LUCIFER RISING is timed to Bobby Beausoleil's masterfully celebratory soundtrack. But otherwise, what are you left with, in either film, besides admiring Zombie for finding the true Satanic Mass sturm und drang of "All Tomorrow's Parties" and admiring West for his loving recreation of a time and willingness to plunge deep and impressively into tick-tock momentum despite a composer and two male stars with no idea what decade and state they're supposed to be from?
So my advice: West, don't be afraid to put some real men in your films once in awhile, and Rob, that narrative momentum thing will come your way yet. You're already better than the late great Ken Russell. Almost. At any rate, you're already way better at mix-tape movies than Cameron Crowe (see my rant on mix tape movies, Aural Drag). And West, you're the only guy doing tick-tock momentum these days, period. Not even Carpenter still does it!
So, be proud.
As the shrouding darkness crowds the burial mound
and the score carpets the surrounding ground, and the sisters wake
and bait the beguiled bear to deep and dark despair, be proud.
Peel the newts and stir the baby bok choi in its bubbling cauldron bathwater, til tender
enough to breathe to life. And dry behind / the door.
No witch or cultist ever ages except between shoots (or after shots); no soul is worth stealing once its stolen a million times over by the camera. Magic disappears with the ability to constantly rewind. availability and scrutiny creates demystification. Karl Malden has all the time in the world to lift the shade from the lamp to get a good look at Blanche's wrinkles. Only one place is left where the black arts still occur: that foreboding wet hot jungle corridor deep within each of us...
Long as we're women.
|PS - The dog lives! Kinda!|
1. A descendent of mine, a Boston seaman in the War of 1812, was also almost "eaten first, due to his young tender flesh" when he and his crew were shipwrecked. Apparently that's what one did back then, ala the Donners. Only one didn't make such a fuss about it. Luckily they were rescued almost at the last minute before they actually killed him. I'm sure that trip home was plenty awkward. Anyway, I can joke about it now.... because my family lived through it. So this sheet says.