Unelevated to the Gallows: The Lords of Salem


 

A certain tendency in recent horror cinema: atmosphere is everything. The tendency shows itself in well-known works of art-horror such as The Witch and Hereditary, and it rears its head also in lesser-known films that live closer to the familiar traditions of horror stories (The Dark and the Wicked and The Blackcoat's Daughter come immediately to mind). These are films of morbid and sometimes grotesque surrealism, films where story dissolves into association and characters are less people than figures in a landscape of mood. The mood is eeriness, unsettlement, and — more than anything else — ambiguity.

Or is it ambivalence? 

I am indifferent to these movies, which seem shallow and empty to me, and that sense of shallowness and emptiness is accompanied by a suspicion that the filmmakers are more interested in mood as a free-floating signifier than they are interested in the causes and effects of grief, trauma, pain. I am wary of this supicion, though, because it comes close to arguing that these filmmakers make their films in bad faith, and that is not what I want to do. I think they're trying to accomplish what they, in fact, accomplish. I suspect they value that accomplishment in their own films and others, and value less the ideas and effects that I see as absent. What is impressive about such films is also what, for me, is disappointing: how consistently, from beginning to end, they maintain their aesthetic. My indifference to these movies is probably just a result of our sensibilities being too different for me to be able to access whatever it is other people access within the whiffs of weirdness.

That indifference is not in and of itself interesting or worth analysis. However, I have been thinking about it because there are consistently moody, ambiguous movies I revere, from dramas of the international art film scene such as Burning (a favorite movie of recent years) to straight-up horror movies such as Rob Zombie's The Lords of Salem (one of my favorites of the genre), and my inability to pinpoint why I react to most contemporary art-horror with a yawn gnaws at me. 

It is The Lords of Salem I will work through here, because its many similarities with the atmosphere-is-everything horror movies allow its differences to be instructive. (Note before moving on: Zombie and B.K. Evenson wrote a novelization of the film, which I haven't yet read. I will one of these days, as I believe it was begun before shooting started and thus likely includes background material that proved too expensive to film, which could be interesting.)

First, I should acknowledge that my feelings are in the minority among horror film aficionados. It is vastly easier to find praise and reverence for the films of what has come to be called "elevated horror" than for the films of Rob Zombie. In fact, most horror fans likely think only a troll would believe, as I do, that Zombie has made three of the greatest horror movies of this century: The Devil's Rejects, Halloween II, and The Lords of Salem. (Of his other movies: House of 1,000 Corpses is an wild ride, but it's very much a first film; Halloween is often marvelous, but a little bit too compromised by needing to be a blockbuster; 31 and 3 from Hell are watchable and have their defenders, but to me feel like retreads that display some creative exhaustion — 3 from Hell, for instance, starts well and then deflates when its characters head down to Mexico. If they had stayed in the suburbs to cause mayhem, the film might have become a new classic.) The Devil's Rejects is stylistically quite different from the ever-more-oneiric explorations of trauma that are the Halloween movies and The Lords of Salem, but I see it as Zombie's first masterpiece because it so relentlessly embodies the 1970s grindhouse aesthetic he loves while also providing a vision of evil that starts by encouraging the audience to be repelled by the evil and then carefully turning the tables, revealing to us the simple truth that, for Americans at least, our heroes have always been sadists. (For more on this, see my text and video essays "Rob Zombie and the Cinema of Cruelty".) Devil's Rejects is a deeply unpleasant movie that is also thrilling, a strange emotional pairing that, to my mind, explores disgust, complicity, and abjection even more thoroughly than Salò did.

Halloween first sends Zombie's aesthetic in a new direction, one less grindhouse and more Lynchian, and then Halloween II, where he had a bit more creative control, brings the vision to fruition. One of the film's greatest appreciators, Willow Catelyn Maclay, says Halloween II is "one of the smartest films ever made about trauma and the aftermath of violence, because Rob Zombie understands it is never a singular event." (For more on this, see Maclay's essay "The Size of Your Love: The Psychological Effects of Violence in the Horror Films of Rob Zombie", which is the best thing I've read on the director's work.)

The Lords of Salem continues Zombie's interest in finding cinematic expression for the ways trauma wrenches any sense of reality away from us. Here, though, the scope of trauma is different — we don't get a deep dive into the origins of the protagonist's problems, we only know that at one time she was a drug addict and has been in recovery from that. Or, rather, I should say: We don't know the scope of her problems outside the fact that she was doomed hundreds of years before she was even conceived. If we see the world the film presents as not a delusion of Heidi's troubled mind but instead as basically real (and I think we should), then Heidi was cursed by Satan and witches at the time of the Salem Witch Trials because she is a direct descendant of one of the judges at the trials, John Hawthorne (historically: John Hathorne). What links Heidi in Lords of Salem to Laurie in the Halloween movies is that they are not being punished for anything within their own control. These are not morality plays. These characters are destroyed because they are members of a particular family (in Laurie's case, being the sister of Michael Myers) — punished, essentially, for being born.

Witchcraft stories (like exorcism stories) tend to rely on Christian (often specifically Catholic) mythology being real: Satan really does exist, witchcraft is just what the priests say it is, Biblical prophecies are true, crosses and holy water are powerful. If, like me, you are not a Christian, this constant reification of Christianity can get pretty boring, and watching a lot of popular horror films can feel like being subjected to biblical propaganda. (I yearn for a vampire story where somebody holds up a crucifix and the vampire looks at it with amusement and says, "Too bad I'm a Buddhist.") One of the things I like about what tends to get called folk horror is its resistance to Christianity: the magic comes from more primeval sources, or, as in Witchfinder General, the Christians are the monsters. It's not the Christianity per se that I object to; rather, my annoyance is with the dominance of Christian assumptions throughout the genre and the laziness with which those assumptions get deployed as default — usually not even anything about actual Christian beliefs, but rather some haze of demonology and eschatology left over from barely-remembered Sunday school lessons, or else just inherited from a hundred other stories. Certainly, this can be resisted — we can watch The Omen, for instance, as the inspiring story of the triumph of one child against the church-state hegemony — but doing so requires working against the films' own ideological grain.

The Lords of Salem escapes (to some extent) this laziness and reification by using iconography that mixes paganism with Christian kitsch. The most prominent cross is a neon light, and anything resembling an angel is closer to Jack Smith than the Renaissance. The witches' power feels older than Christ, and the force they call Satan is far from the horned devil of more debonair tales. This is also a movie that, while using witches as figures of horror, nonetheless recognizes that real horrors have been committed by holy men. The single scene with an actual priest is one where the priest's lasciviousness is intuited/imagined by Heidi, and then later images of priests in the film highlight their connection to lust. Even if this particular priest happens to be innocent, we know that Salem isn't far from the real-life setting of Spotlight.

What The Lords of Salem shares with the films I am indifferent to is dream logic and associational storytelling. It also shares this with films that are, unlike Hereditary et al., an essential part of my aesthetic existence: the work of David Lynch. Willow Maclay is right to draw a line connecting Lynch and Rob Zombie. Maclay highlights in particular the connection between Twin Peaks and the two Halloween movies, both of which wonder how there can "be beauty in a place where all elegance has died? It is difficult to move forward when you can still see the scars of the past." Lots of people are attracted to Lynch's disturbing surrealism, but Rob Zombie is one of the few horror filmmakers who seems to understand that style in Lynch's work is less about atmosphere, which is superficial, than sensibility, which is at the core of how a person sees, feels, and thinks their way through the world. Lynch and Zombie have different sensibilities, certainly, but they are united by their mastery of putting those sensibilities into cinematic form.

Like Lynch, Rob Zombie pays careful attention to the sound design for his films, and the rhythm of the sound is key to the experience. (The importance of sound is no surprise, since Zombie first made his mark as a musician.) Sound is even more essential to The Lords of Salem than his other films, because here the protagonist is a radio DJ and a piece of music is a major element of the plot. Certain moments of Zombie's films sometimes feel like music videos (think of the use of "Love Hurts" at the end of Halloween II), which is no criticism, nor is it a technique limited to Rob Zombie — just look at Wes Anderson. A heightened awareness of sound is common to a lot of horror films, of course, going back to, for instance, The Leopard Man and contributing to what makes atmospheric horror movies so very atmospheric today. 

While the art-horror filmmakers often have real skill with sound design, Rob Zombie's use of sound is different from most of theirs in how he integrates soundscapes and music, with the quality of the sound and sound effects used for musical purposes and music used for the purposes of sound effect. Additionally, Zombie uses sound as a kind of character, building rhythms that become sustained through the duration (an approach that reminds me of nothing so much as some of the comments on harmonics made by La Monte Young and John Cale in Todd Haynes's new documentary about the Velvet Underground).

If I had to nail down one basic criticism I have of prominent horror movies of the last ten years or so, it's that a lot of horror filmmakers seem to have given up on the idea of creating meaningful, interesting characters. Instead, they prefer figures that contribute to the atmospherics; human beings that are, in many ways, indistinguishable from a scary tree on the front lawn of a haunted house (and less interesting than the house). Sometimes, this is the result of basic incompetence, but in the technically more competent films, it seems to be an aesthetic choice, a desire to increase a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty by withholding as much information as possible about the characters, instead prefering them to be little more than image and action. This is not inherently a terrible choice, and I do not want to suggest that character is the only way into horror (far from it!), but it does set up some challenges that a lot of these films don't (for me) overcome. The character defined by image and sound more than action can be a powerful choice in a film by, say, Tarkovsky. But most filmmakers — never mind horror filmmakers! — are not at the level of Tarkovsky. The thing about really difficult, unconventional approaches to narrative is that when they fail, they fall flat in a way simpler, easier, more familiar narrative choices do not.

 

Rob Zombie's approach to character is not significantly more robust than that of the art-horror filmmakers, but it is more classical. His aesthetic is the bastard child of early Hollywood and 1970s cinema, and he wears these influences proudly, including in The Lords of Salem, where we see images and clips from A Trip to the Moon, The Phantom of the Opera, Captain Kidd, Commander Cody, Kansas City Confidential, and, I'm sure, others I haven't yet caught — all while evoking, much less overtly, The Omen, The Exorcist, The Shining, etc. Zombie melds a bit of the approach to character seen in some of the films of the New Hollywood with the approach of early genre films, which in many ways the New Hollywood was building off of, adding some complexity to long-established character types (e.g. Bonnie and Clyde). It's not entirely a stretch to say that The Lords of Salem is something like The Seventh Victim reimagined via A Woman Under the Influence.

We don't know a lot about Heidi's life before Lords of Salem begins, but we know she was an addict, first via oblique mentions, then we see her at a 12-step meeting, then she has a hard fall off the wagon (and into the arms of witches). We see her in her interactions with her co-workers, with her landlord, with her dog. Sheri Moon Zombie gives her best performance in this film, since here, for the first time, she is the main character from beginning to end. Her previous work in her husband's movies prepared her well for it, because in her other roles she was a standout supporting actor, finding ways to make characters vivid despite not being the primary focus of the film. Here, she moves from the bubbly, sardonic insolence of Baby Firefly to the deep sadness and damage of Deborah Myers, creating a new character all her own, a young woman who first puts on a good show of holding everything together and then starts melting into bits. In the Halloween movies, we know the source of everybody's trauma, but here it's not so clear, because we don't know what, if anything, in Heidi's past led her down the road she took, though we do know she was doomed by her forebears.

Here is where I think Rob Zombie's approach differs significantly from "elevated horror" movies, which want all the eerie/mysterious sheen of horror without the deep, grounded pain of the best horror stories. Witchcraft is not an exact allegory for addiction in Lords of Salem, but it is an emotional parallel. We feel our way through Heidi's addiction alongside her via the horror story elements. We also get a horror story — one does not rule out the other. It is synthesis and synergy. Depression and addiction are Heidi's curse as much as her ancestry is.

The last parts of the film have all (or more!) of the creepy, gory surrealism beloved by the art-horror gang, and an argument could be made that Zombie loses his sense of form in these scenes, puking up a montage of random weirdness because he's still got some minutes to fill, but I think the flow of weirdness is earned and purposeful. The imagery is easily understandable within the context of the story. It is an unleashing — Heidi's own anxieties, desires, traumas, and (perhaps) delusions become a murderous communal flow.

The final image, of Heidi with her dog, reminds us that there was happiness once, there were carefree moments. Happiness doesn't last. While we're alive, we can only be free of cares for fleeting moments. The news report over the stark images of empty Salem during the credits ties up loose ends of the story, but it is those shots of Heidi and her dog that are the emotional climax of the film, the reminder of the loss we have witnessed. That reminder is yet another way to separate this film from others that may seem like it, but which ultimately seek to comfort their audience with the consolations of ambivalence, leaving plenty of exits from the horror for those who want to take them. Rob Zombie is a good, old-fashioned existentialist offering us no exit. We chose to enter the house of horrors when we pressed the PLAY button, and now, at the end of the movie, we must face that decision. We might want to tell ourselves that our protagonist has become an angel or even a goddess, but all the angelic imagery screams out its own artificiality, its cheap dream of transcendence. Zombie's movies reach toward transcendence but they know it is a myth. The truth is there in the photographs and the news report, and it is bleak and it is not consoling. Believe in witches or don't believe in witches; it doesn't matter, because either way, human beings are still just sacks of meat and blood that hurt each other.

 

Though it is still difficult for me to pinpoint exactly where my love of Lords of Salem diverges from my dislike of so many art-horror movies, it is ultimately a matter of sensibility. In an interview with Matt Cardin, Thomas Ligotti said:

The work of writers such as Malamud, William Styron, Saul Bellow, et al. not only says nothing to me about my life, but it says nothing to me about what I’ve experienced or thought of life broadly speaking. By contrast, writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, H. P. Lovecraft, and Thomas Bernhard say plenty of things about both my life in particular and life in general as I have experienced and thought of it. I can take an interest in the writing of these authors because they seem to have felt and thought as I have. William Burroughs once said that the job of the writer is to reveal to readers what they know but don’t know that they know. But you have to be pretty close to knowing it or you won’t know it when you see it.

It's probably not something I want to admit in polite company, but for better or worse, Rob Zombie has felt and thought as I have — or so it seems, from the evidence of his films. Robert Eggers, Ari Aster, et al. have not. Sensibility resists explication via analysis of images, plot points, camera angles. Those contribute, but it is the totality that one is either in sympathy with or not, and that totality is hard to overcome. One person's atmosphere is another person's altitude sickness. For all its carefully-composed, macabre imagery, I leave a film like Midsommar thinking, "Well, that was silly." I leave the better films of Rob Zombie knowing that I have been through a complete experience, one that holds and haunts me, one that resonates — even as the person next to me may have found it all tedious and tasteless. Such is the mystery, and horror, of art.