Rob Zombie’s output has been hallmarked by a series of grungy, profane exploitation throwbacks with in your face violence and a loud, mean grind-house aesthetic. As much as I love *that* sensibility (I’m a hardcore fan of his films), what makes The Lords Of Salem so special is that he tries something different than he’s used to, ditches the comfort blanket of Manson-esque killers and brash, lewd dialogue in favour of mood, atmosphere and the kind of pacing you’d find in early 70’s fright flicks that valued aura over gore. This shows that although pretty much married to his trademark style (the third Firefly Family film is in production as we speak), he knows how to branch out successfully and has made a fantastic piece of slow burn horror with Salem. Set both during the infamous witch trials and in the present day, it focuses on quiet, introverted radio DJ Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie). Now, if you’ve seen Sheri in the Firefly films you’ll know that the words ‘quiet’ and ‘introverted’ are a far cry from what she’s used to, but she’s brilliant here as a damaged recovering addict haunted by devilish forces. Plagued by sinister neighbours (Patricia Quinn, Dee Wallace and a freaky Judy Geeson), hallucinatory visions of evil and a mysterious music album mailed right to her radio station, it soon becomes clear that the demons of the past have come back to haunt Salem and have chosen her as a dark avatar. Zombie lovingly casts his films with carefully chosen icons of 60’s and 70’s genre cinema, and as such we get the likes of Ken Foree, Richard Lynch, Richard Fancy, Udo Kier, Maria Conchita Alonso, Michael Berryman, Sid Haig and more. Stealing the show is electric blue eyed Meg Foster in a blood freezing turn as Margaret Morgan, leader of the original Salem coven generations before. Foster hails from stuff like John Carpenter’s They Live, The live action Masters Of The Universe and recently Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return, but she’s absolutely terrifying and almost unrecognizable here as a freaky old hell hag with a raspy voice and gruesome saggy tits, truly a memorable villain. This is a film that takes its time building up to outright horror, alternating between dimly lit, spooky scenes from the original trials and the mounting tension of present day, including a subplot where an investigative scholar (Bruce Davison) tries to unearth evil and warn Heidi before it’s too late. Jarringly surreal visuals abound here, from neon palettes to a grandiose nightmare sequence involving a demon baby and some seriously strange architecture. It all builds to a searing finale that some may find to over the top or garish, but fits the story and ends the tale on a feverish note of hellish commotion, colour saturation and horrific spectacle that plays like Ken Russell by way of Dario Argento with a dash of David Lynch at his craziest. This is my favourite film in Zombie’s career so far, for its mood, unique visual language and rhythmic pacing, but also for his willingness to blast through the cobwebs of uncharted stylistic territory and bring forth well wrought, fresh artistic style and a damn great horror film too.
Throwbacks to horror films of the 70’s and 80’s either work or they don’t. The filmmakers are either able to replicate that specific tonal aesthetic and look from back then, or they aren’t. It’s not easy to do, but writer director Ti West makes it seem like a walk in the park with his near flawless House Of The Devil, a gorgeous love note to the satanic works of yester-year that so adeptly recreates that time and place until we really believe we’re watching a film that was made then. From the nostalgic hand drawn poster that beckons with atmosphere of a bygone era, to the use of full on, lovingly lettered credits ahead of the film, it’s pure vintage bliss, like that one perfect vinyl you find in the second hand shop. It starts out like many of these horrors do, with a young teenage girl (Jocelin Donahue) innocently wandering into a situation that leads down an inevitable path of gruesome terror. In this case it’s a seemingly innocuous babysitting job posted on her college notice board, by a cheery enough landlady (horror veteran Dee Wallace). Arriving at a creepy, ornate old manor, she meets Mr. and Mrs. Ullman, two gaunt, old world looking weirdos played by soft spoken yet disconcerting Tom Noonan, and genre legend Mary Woronov. They seem kind yet just kind of…off, explaining to her that the kiddies are alseep already upstairs, assuring an easy night for her. They depart and she’s left alone in the vast empty halls, or so she thinks. She’s been chosen for a bizarre, bloody ritual and soon is plagued by nightly terrors, a ghastly witch, the Ullmans themselves and all sorts of devilish deeds. Noonan could stand there and order a large double double with a honey dip and still make you uncomfortable, the guy is just perfect for horror, and makes a purring gargoyle of a villain for our our young heroine to go up against, backed up by Woronov’s nasty Morticia vibe. Eventually it gets quite graphic and startling, but the slow, solemn lead up is the key in making the horror shock us all the more. Nothing happens for an agonizing first half, filled with silent apprehension, and when all hell finally breaks loose, our nerves are already taut strings waiting to snap, like the ones in the shrill, ragged violin score. That’s how you pace a horror film, and many artists today should take note of this one’s pace, soundscape, mood board and production design, because it’s all about as good as it gets for this type of thing. Essential horror viewing, and I’d love to see a grainy VHS edition complete with box art, if that’s something they even do these days.
Bone Dry is fantastic little piece of sun soaked, revenge fuelled melodrama that serves as a glowing showcase for its two leads, Luke Goss and a ferocious Lance Henriksen. Lean, mean, gritty and reminiscent of 1970’s revenge outings, it’s a bloody delight of a flick. Luke Goss, an actor who can give Henriksen a run for his money in the intensity department, plays Eddie, a well dressed dude with a suspiciously murky past, winding his way through the desolation of the Mojave Desert. After breezing through a lonely cafe run by a girl (always nice to see Dee Wallace) who clearly has eyes for him, he sets out through a particularly lonely stretch of the terrain, and that’s where he finds himself in serious trouble. He’s soon stalked by a menacing, mysterious man named Jimmy (Henriksen), who is intent on tormenting, taunting and fucking him up at every turn. Jimmy is an ex war monster a man whose taken it upon himself to put Eddie through every ring of hell that the Mojave has to offer, all in service of some deeply buried reasons that emerge from the sand late in the third act, shedding scorching light on the two men’s character arc, and giving the film quite the emotional boost. When I say hell, I mean it. Eddie suffers through some unspeakably horrific scenarios, including a scene involving a cactus that will induce mass cringing among audience members. Director Brett A. Hart has a heightened, almost Walter Hill-esque style to his film, with the intensity metre ratcheted up past the maximum, and editing trimmed down to whip smart strokes that put you right in the middle of Eddie’s clammy desperation and Jimmy’s enigmatic fury. Henriksen spends the first half of the film with his face shrouded, adding to the mystery of his character. He’s a master of the craft who slowly lets the breadcrumb trail fall with every portentous mannerism and glowering posture until we finally see what Jimmy is really about. One his best performances. Goss doesn’t let the energy sag for a single second, something he has always been great at. There’s further work from the legendary Tommy ‘Tiny Lister’ Jr. as well, filling in another subplot stranded out there in the sand. This one is genre bliss, brutal and blistering until it cools off for a conclusion that cuts the viewer some respiratory slack after the breathlessness of its juggernaut setup. Terrific stuff.