April 21, 2013

Movie Review: The Lords of Salem

I needed some escapism this week, so I went this morning to see an early show of The Lords of Salem. Some people escape reality through comedies or eating ice cream - I like to watch horror movies. This one is based loosely on New England folklore, and was written and directed by Massachusetts native Rob Zombie - someone I went to high school with. How could I stay away?

Here's the basic plot. In 1696, Margaret Morgan and her coven of female witches lurk in the woods outside Salem Village, rolling around naked in the dirt and blaspheming while they try to breed the Anti-Christ. Interestingly, all the witches are marked with a glyph that looks very similar to John Dee's Monas Hieroglyphica.

This glyph is very similar to John Dee's.
Jonathan Hawthorne, a dour Salem Puritan, puts a stop to their Satanic shenanigans by capturing them and burning them at the stake. As Margaret and her co-religionists graphically sizzle she curses Hawthorne, screaming that one of his descendants will bear Satan's child.

Three centuries later, Hawthorne's descendant Heidi Hawthorne is a recovering drug addict and hipster DJ who works at a Salem radio station. After Heidi plays a mysterious record from a band called the Lords, she starts to hallucinate about cackling witches, goats, and inappropriate sexual conduct with clergymen. Her bohemian landlady and her creepy sisters feed Heidi tea and scones, but somehow she (and the audience) are not reassured. Can Heidi be saved by a local historian, who realizes the music on the Lords record is the same tune Margaret and her witches played at their revels? (It sounds like death-metal folk music.) Maybe Heidi's fellow DJ and possible love interest will actually do something and help her out? Will anything good come of the Daughters of Historic Salem attending the Lords free concert in town?

Overall I enjoyed The Lords of Salem. Most of the exterior shots were filmed in Salem, which looks wonderfully gloomy and Gothic on the big screen. Old houses, brick sidewalks, falling autumn leaves, cheerless vistas of the Atlantic Ocean - it's like a big visual love letter to New England in November. Zombie definitely gets good mileage out of the local scenery. It's also beautifully filmed, with great sets and costumes. It was reminiscent of European horror movies like Suspiria, The Church, and The Sect: moody, well-designed, and vaguely nutty.

I didn't go in expecting historic authenticity, so I wasn't upset that The Lords of Salem twists the witch trials to suit its own purposes. It's a horror movie, not a history lesson. For example the real Salem trials happened in 1692, not 1696, and the witches were executed by hanging, not burning. And most importantly, the people executed were innocent citizens, not malicious Devil worshipers. Always remember that.

However there really was a Puritan judge named John (not Jonathan) Hathorne, who was an ancestor of author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Although Judge Hathorne wasn't cursed during the Salem trials, the Reverend Nicholas Noyes was. According to legend, Sarah Good told him from the gallows that "God will give you blood to drink." The reverend reportedly died from choking on his own blood. Nathaniel Hawthorne built the plot of The House of Seven Gables around this legend and his own ancestral guilt. Rob Zombie merges it with Rosemary's Baby to make The Lords of Salem.

Witches' Sabbath by Francisco Goya

There are lots of naked ladies in this film, writhing around, licking blood off newborns, and denouncing Christianity. There are also lots of goats. I feel like Zombie was inspired by Goya paintings and records of the European witch trials in his portrayal of the witch sabbath. The descriptions of the Puritan witch meetings, even though often extracted through torture, are very tame compared to those from Europe. Instead of having orgies and eating babies, the New England witches stood around (with their clothes on) and listened to the Devil, a man dressed in black like the Puritan ministers, talk about their plans to ruin crops and kill livestock. Basically they were a corruption of the Puritan Sunday church services - talky and kind of dull.

If you like stylish horror films I'd recommend seeing this one. It's not overly violent, but it was probably the most blasphemous movie I've seen in a long time. The Mosaic Church of Boston was actually holding services in the theater next door and I'm glad they didn't see what I did. That's my one warning - graphic blasphemy!

One last thing - Satan shows up in one scene looking like Bigfoot, which is pretty cool.


Larry MacDougall said...

I enjoyed your review. :)

Peter Muise said...

Thanks Larry! Did you get a chance to see the movie? Very visually intense and beautiful, if perhaps a little depressing.

Unknown said...

Love it,very intense and creative..