The Lords of Salem (2012): Subtle Zombie

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Heavy metal impresario Rob Zombie exploded on the movie scene with his first feature film House of a 1000 Corpses in 2003. Already a veteran behind the camera from directing his music videos, his first film (and his second) featured a lot of “heavy metal” montage shots and utilised an almost guerrilla style of film making.

Zombie then went on to re-imagine the Halloween verse in 1 and 2. He next film, he told interviewers, would be a sort of Ken Russell directs The Shining. Far be it from me to argue with Mr Zombie’s own definition of what his film is, but I would argue that it is more like Ken Russell meets Rosemary’s Baby.

I will not go any further down that particular road as I don’t want to give anything away.

Written and directed by Zombie, The Lords of Salem stars Sherri Moon Zombie as Heidi Hawthorne. She is a local radio personality who works as part of a three person team in Salem Massachusetts, home of the infamous Salem witch trials. A wooden box is left for Heidi at the radio station’s reception desk. It contains a record by a group called The Lords.

When the record is played on the air, it affects the female listeners of the audience, causing them to have visions of the olden days in Salem. Heidi is very affected by the music (which, for the record, would never have been featured on American Bandstand) and after she’s heard the music her landlady invites her to meet two old friends.

The film was obviously shot on location in Salem as the statue of television’s Bewitched character  Samantha Stevens (aka Elizabeth Montgomery) can be seen no less that three times. It’s as if Zombie wants to remind us that this is really about “fake” witches in Salem.

Zombie's cinematography made Samantha Stevens look a lot scarier in the film.
Zombie’s cinematography made Samantha Stevens look a lot scarier in the film.

Besides this reminder running through the film, a lot of black and white films play in the background in a few scenes. Heidi is watching an old “cop” film (featuring that loveable old heavy Jack Elam) and later when her boyfriend/radio partner Whitey  (Jeff Daniel Phillips) is watching a film, he is watching something with Charles Laughton (better known as Captain Bligh and Quasimodo).

There is, in fact, a lot of black and white themed sets in the film and Heidi’s apartment features a lot of black and white pictures and patterns. I’m not clever enough to know what the director is aiming for with this preoccupation with this particular colour scheme, but it’s obviously a clue of what is happening in the film. Perhaps it’s yet another allusion to the “olden days?”

The character of Heidi is a good one for Sherri Moon Zombie and she adds a depth to her acting that hasn’t been seen before. The film has a lot of Zombie’s “stable” in it. Sid Haig, Michael Berryman and Ken Foree are all Zombie “regulars.” The film also boasts the legendary Dee Wallace, Judy Geeson and Meg Foster. Most of his films feature a cadre of genre stars from old horror movies.

Quinn, Wallace and Geeson, Three scary ladies.
Quinn, Wallace and Geeson, Three scary ladies.

It was nice to see Andrew Prine  after he had to step in for the late Richard Lynch due to health issues.

Zombie has hit a level of subtlety that has, till now, been missing in his films. Where he has relied on over-the-top violence, blood and gore with villains that came close to being almost cartoonish; Salem strikes a sly and almost underrated  performance from all the key players.

A quick shout out to Bruce Davison as local Author Francis Matthias. He shines in his short performance and it was a pleasure to watch him in the film.

All the actors delivered exceedingly well and although the film had a bit of an ambiguous ending (to me at least) it kept me glued to the screen until the end credits had finished.

This may not appeal to the “normal” Rob Zombie fan. If you are expecting his usual fare of Heavy Metal Horror, you’ll be disappointed. But if you are ready to see a Rob Zombie who’s learned the art of insinuation and easing his audience gradually into the horror at hand, you’ll enjoy this latest effort.

I’d have to give The Lords of Salem a solid 4.5 out of 5 stars. I’ve taken the .5 off only because the ending left me a little baffled. Despite my shaving off a half point, I don’t doubt that this will become a cult favourite.

Bravo, Rob Zombie.

Rob Zombie.
Rob Zombie.

Final Gig by George Eells: A Sad Stormy Life

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On October 19th, 1978 police found the bodies of Gig Young and his newlywed wife of three weeks Kim, dead in their New York apartment. Theories of suicide pacts, Triad murderers, and other shady underworld assassinations abounded. Although the police that investigated the double shooting have speculated that Young first shot his new wife and then himself, some people have never bought this scenario.

Author George Eells sets out to tell Gig Young’s less than idyll life story. From his beginnings as the youngest of three children (a “mistake” but apparently not a happy one) called Byron, whose successful father was hard pressed to give him the time of day.To the days leading up to the double shooting. Eells tries to leave no stone unturned and no relationship untold.

Gig Young made a career out of being the second lead in films. He was always the guy who “lost” the girl. He had a beautiful speaking voice and was always impeccably turned out in his films. The only real exception was the 1969 film ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They?‘ in which he played the seedy and unpleasant owner/announcer of a dance hall who is overseeing a “Dance-a-thon.” This role landed him the only Oscar of his career.

Eells has been pretty thorough in his chronicling of Young’s life, paying special attention to his relationships with women. He reveals what each of Gig’s marriages were like and the reasons for their failures. It appears that he did not have a very good self-image and that he suffered from several types of mental “illnesses” that he was able to cover up for quite a long time with drink and pills. Later in his life he used both to excess and then tried to stop, most likely, too quickly.

Like most successful “stars” Young’s life reads more like a tragedy than a triumph. He was very adept at appearing to be the suave, sophisticated, amusing man about town, both on-screen and off. Reality was much different, here was a man haunted by demons and a feeling of not belonging or being wanted. These demons, in all likelihood, had been with Gig since childhood and his success as an actor could not save him from himself.

I only found out about this book while reading the meandering “tribute” to the late Elizabeth Montgomery. It is referenced at least twice. I decided to track the book down and read about this man who had fascinated me when he was alive and whose death confused me.

One of my favourite films when I was growing up was the Doris Day, Clark Gable film Teacher’s Pet. Gig Young played his usual second-lead role as Day’s boyfriend (or fiancé I don’t remember which) who loses her to Gable’s hard-nosed newspaper man. As much as I loved the film’s two “main” leads, it was Young who fired my imagination, especially after my mother explained that he, “Never gets the girl, even though he’s so handsome.”

I broke my usual iron-clad rule about Jane Fonda films (I never forgave her for being “Hanoi-Jane” during the Vietnam War) and watched They Shoot Horses Don’t They? just for Gig Young’s performance. It was easy to see why he won the Oscar. The last thing I saw him do was his small but important role in Sam Peckinpah‘s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. He play the mysterious Quill; one half of a “hit man” double act who hire Warren Oates‘ character to find Alfredo Garcia. After securing his (Oates’) services for a very large amount of money, Oates’ character asks for their names. His slurred, sad, and weary response is, “Dobbs. Fred C. Dobbs.”

He still had the ability to breathe life into whatever role he played. Sadly, he would do only one more film before the incident in 1978. Eells tries very hard to figure out what went wrong both in Young’s life and the week leading up to the double shooting. The end result is a tragic retelling of a star’s life. A story that will leave  you shaking your head and feeling, if truth be told, a little sad and depressed.

On the amount of detail that Eells has put into his book, I’d have to give it a 4.5 out of 5 stars. I’ve deducted a half a star for the overall sadness of the book and the conjecture raised about what happened the afternoon of the 19th of October, 1978. The only people who really know what transpired and lead up to the shooting are gone. They’ve taken their secrets with them and perhaps that is better for everyone involved.

"My Name? Dobbs. Fred C Dobbs."Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia - 1974
“My Name? Dobbs. Fred C Dobbs.”
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia – 1974

Twitch Upon a Star by Herbie J Pilato: Meandering Memories

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Like millions of people across the globe, I grew up watching Bewitched. Although, truth be told, it was not a favourite in our house, or at least if it was, it came on after my bedtime. I did watch it later on in its many resurgences on daytime telly as it was always (and still is, I believe) one of those shows that will be re-run fodder until the end of time.

I do remember the disappearance of actor Dick York who played Darren in the beginning episodes. His absence and subsequent replacement by Dick Sargent was never explained. If I remember correctly it was handled similarly to how they announce replacements in the American soap opera world; “the part of Darren will be played by Dick Sargent.”

It was almost like he’d died, York that is, and in those old halcyon days of pre-internet the information was not revealed to mere mortals like you or I. At least not to mortals who lived in the rural areas of Arkansas.

But regardless of who played the witch Samantha’s mortal husband, the show was entertaining and a wealth of young men grew up hoping that if they couldn’t find a witch like Samantha, they could at least find an Elizabeth Montgomery.

Later when Bewitched finally shuffled off into that realm of reruns and (hopefully) reunions or at the very least a TV movie, Ms Montgomery moved on to other more challenging roles both in her work as an actress and as a person. The work side of things were documented by her body of works. Some of which I only found out about by reading this book.

I had no idea that my “ideal” woman growing up portrayed one of my “real-life” role models and literary heroes, the Pulitzer Prize winning Edna Buchanan.

Twitch upon a Star or “The Bewitched Life and Career of Elizabeth Montgomery: TWITCH UPON A STAR” which is it’s too long title, is written by Herbie J Pilato. Mr Pilato has written several books about television shows and series. This 472 page book serves as a fan’s ultimate pledge of love and devotion. So much so that he uses a grand total of 25 pages to preface and introduce the actual recounting of Montgomery’s life.

I will not say that this book did not inform, because it did. Unfortunately it informed too much of the same information. Repeatedly. While I was eager to read of the “trials and tribulations” of a woman who I felt was a damned fine actress (I’d seen her Lizzie Borden and this childhood ‘crush’ scared the hell out of me) I did not want to read the same information time and again in different chapters.

Elizabeth Montgomery as ax murderess Lizzie Borden.
Elizabeth Montgomery as ax murderess Lizzie Borden.

The book suffers from following no real chronological time line. It moves forward and backward throughout Elizabeth’s life and career. The information dealing with her marriages leapfrogs back and forth and does not adhere to events as they happened. Rather they pop up randomly based, it seems, on the tiniest of threads that Pilato feels makes the re-revealing of this information crucial.

While the tone of the book is one of reverence. (It appears to be Mr Pilato’s opinion that not only could Ms Montgomery walk on water, she was incapable of getting her feet wet) Pilato does try to infer that the woman was not a saint, but the inclusion of so many repeated variants of the same anecdotal reveals plunges the reader into stretches of boredom and disinterest.

love “showbiz” biographies. Not the “kiss and tell” warts and all type of yellow journalism that would not look out-of-place on the cover of The National Enquirer (because enquiring minds want to know) but the ones that offer true insights to a great actors background or how they achieved their goals. The personal touches that make that face on the screen become a real person.

Or perhaps the “nuts and bolts” of what made them become a performer or a certain type of person. Something that tells me once about some incident or occurrence that shaped their lives or performances. Not repeatedly going over the same old ground again and again.

I was really excited to see this book on the Kindle list of Biographies. I always liked Elizabeth Montgomery and wanted to learn more about her as a person. Unfortunately the book relies far too heavily on old interviews done throughout her career; not only to “move” the book forward, but to repeatedly support some point that one of her friends may have made about her character.

Unfortunately this book was a hard slog to get through. I came close to giving up several times. The odd interesting tidbit of information was lost in the endless repeating of information and the stepping forward and then backward through the time line of her life.

This is a 3 out of 5 star book only because there were a few anecdotes that I’d not heard and there was the odd bit of information that almost made the sheer drudgery of reading the overlong and meandering tome worth it.

Recommended for only the most ardent Elizabeth Montgomery fans and then only those whose devotion can forgive such a wandering and unguided look at her life.

Two brilliant actors - Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha and Agnes Moorehead as Endora.
Two brilliant actors – Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha and Agnes Moorehead as Endora.