"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, Vane of Cawdor! All hail Val Lewton, the Cramps, Bob Dobbs, Nic Cage, Sammy Davis Jr., Lamont Cranston, D.H. Lawrence, and Mike Watt.
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 work? Well, what is it trying to do? 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, the vintage punk thrift store symbolism, 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?
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.
Left to its own devices, without all the post-modernist post-punk flippancy royalties can buy, LORDS does generate some hypnotic power, some of that great stretch of THE SHINING set to György Sándor Ligeti, the stuff with Room 237 and the witch. Zombie's own opening ceremony builds brilliantly to a palpable abandon; the psychic force of the gathered 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, or figure out how magic and the power of suggestion actually work. Like Ken Russell before them, they just show flashes of weird sick MTV images and a bloody Jesus, 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|
Of course that damnation is applied equally to the hideous Puritan torturers, re-imagined with big pointy caps and excessively unguided facial hair. In modern time, Sherri Moon is supposedly descended from the judges, but bears no ethical resemblance. Instead, she's 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 that date's arm again and march off to the next tableaux, already wondering where to eat after you 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, but the leading actress in Zombie's film is of course his wife, Sherri Moon Zombie. And she's gettin' too old for this shit, as Glinda might say.
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. In her mind, the Neo-pagan trappings of the Lord of Salem guy are the worst kind of college experimentation. 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. 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 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: From top: 1000 Corpses (2003), Rejects (2005), Salem (2013)|
I know what it feels like to make out with lipless women before, too. It's like kissing a skull. Is that why he puts her in skull makeup paint? He's trying to convince her to use some collagen up in there? You think I'm a fucking lippist now, but if not me, whom? Who but a classic horror fan 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 out of insecurity doesn't mean it should be shunned by those who need it, even if only to get back to their former lip level. Her later skull make-up helps her look like some death metal kid who got caught in the rain on his way home from the Stockholm punk club. But I doubt that's the look she wanted. I thought it was a picture of some snotty skate punk boy on the subway ad.
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 anxiety that we would never drop the knife by the killer's prone body, we resonated. SCREAM used the dread inspired by those earlier movies, which had by now settled in our collective dream unconscious, and re-activated it.
Zombie can only admire that unconscious 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 bedroom they dreamt of as children.
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 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 I don't trust carnies and their little hairy hobbit hands. But I trust normals even less. Dude, the truly craz try to be normal, and fail and the compromise are the eccentric tics; the vice versa are sad - or am I jealous of 'stability?' Before 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!
|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. He just decorates the jump-off point in punk rock iconography and gestures off into the fog. 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).
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)
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 it's 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):
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 Methuen
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)
I have other relatives farther up 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.
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! 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, o Rationalization Guru?
|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 (ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW) as the irresistible 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 their aged state seems temporary; soon they shall drink the blood of the 'young' and become their former celluloid selves. As a great writer once said, "film is black magic."
|WELCOME TO ARROW BEACH,|
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.
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 which Zombie might have gleaned but didn't. The main being tick-tock momentum, wherein dread builds through the careful setup of a particular place over a single evening, in linear time with no flashbacks or disorienting cuts across time and characters. The momentum 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 flashing 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 when they rip off HALLOWEEN but West does and Zombie doesn't. Their 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 out taking care of their own finances.
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, so 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. I went to school in Syracuse, so maybe I relate. The evenings there are so oppressively gray they don't need Satan lingering in the edges to be mega ominous.
Mary Woronov and Dee Wallace (again) are on point, stunt casting-wise, of course: they were born to this. Alas, West is still an auteur subject to bad decisions: the 70s-80s Satanic panic tick-tock momentum vibe of his film isn't undone with excess of flair but with the sudden arrival of a distinctly modern crustpunk (A.J. Bowen), who comes rolling up Gerwig's car like an angry Williamsburg hipster fresh from teeth gnashing class. And another blow follows with the old man played by Tom Noonan who is just way too mumblecore, too naturalistic, with that 'gentle' voice no actor in the 70s or 80s would ever use, to be menacing, disarming, or anything (that blank slate stare worked in MANHUNTER, and it might even have worked in SALEM, but not HOUSE, which is too subtle to not have him drag the mood down into anachronism).
Add these two boys up alongside the insufferable twerp in THE INNKEEPERS and you get the feeling that Ti West has a stand offish relationship to his male actors. They seem like they didn't get the memo of whatever the film is 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's emotionally a man himself, or finds an actor with some gravitas.
|The Right: Greta Gerwig note correct hair and clothing)|
|The wrong: A.J. Bowen (note anachronistic townie hat, beard, and clothing)|
In the end, West may be too cool for his own good, and afraid of 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 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 genre and being able to plunge deep and impressively into tick-tock momentum despite a composer and two male stars with no idea what decade their supposed to be in?
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. Be proud! As the shrouding darkness crowds the burial mound and the score carpets the surrounding ground and the sisters wake and bake and bait, be proud. Peel the newts and stir that literal baby in its bubbling cauldron bathwater, and know that no witch or cultist ever ages, except between shoots (or after shots).
The problem with it all is, of course, that video itself prevents Satanic magic from actually happening. What soul is worth stealing once its stolen a million times over by the spectral reduction of the camera? Only one place is left where the black arts still occur: that foreboding wet hot jungle corridor deep within each of us... as 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 on a foodless island. Apparently that's what one did back then, ala the Donners. Luckily they were rescued almost at the last minute before they killed him. I'm sure the rest of the trip was plenty awkward. Anyway, I can joke about it now.... because my family lived through it.