Cult Film Cult Crimes – Rob Zombie and THE LORDS OF SALEM

Somewhere on the fringe of mainstream film, there’s a frenzied community of artists who illustrate an elemental aspect of crime. They don’t bother with the ticky-tack trivia of the procedural. They don’t focus on the grand fables of revenge and wrongs righted.

They have one obsession that strikes closer to the heart of what crime is than those other, petty examples: They show that crime is weird.

Among this outlying cadre, Rob Zombie is a dark prince. If a director like David Lynch is the philosopher king of this set, Zombie is its Dracula – an isolated loon on a bloody frontier, composing a grand guignol from his subject.

He taps into the surrealistic nature of his subject and smears it all over the walls in technicolor. His most recent offering, The Lords of Salem, dedicates itself entirely to this spectacular effort.

Due out around Christmas, The Lords of Salem is already garnering nasty reviews. Some are apologist bows to Zombie’s visual genius, others flat out claim it sucks due to lack of story. All brand it as style over substance.

I’ve heard the same accusations before, leveled against this set of outlandish crime directors. And while I don’t think it redeems the entire body of their work, I don’t think it detracts from their art’s impact either.

That’s because a core part of their message is that bad things are strange and senseless.

You’ve heard this theme from me before: That crime stories, by and large, try to cage the chaos of ill deeds into a neat story structure. Penning life’s cruelties into formulaic plots and clear motivation takes some of the bite from them.

So I have a certain soft spot for the artists, like Zombie, that let the irrationality of crime run wild. They needn’t be as grotesque as him – he’s a rare breed, nurtured by the heavy metal music video scene as he was. Lynch ranks among my favorites, particularly his relatively little-heralded Wild at Heart.

It’s a thread through all his product, but Lynch really gives us a window to the weirdness of common criminals in Wild at Heart. They’re ritualistic, superstitious, random and prone to odd impulse. They bathe their faces in lipstick, hallucinate, get into car accidents and thoughtless shootouts.

When I first watched Wild at Heart, I was struck with the senselessness of it all. At the time, it seemed like an interesting diversion from the cops-and-robbers fare of crime art. Later, as I studied the behaviors and psyches of criminals more, it started to ring as far more true than most of its genre.

This is for two simple reasons:

One, crime is, by definition, strange. It is a break from the order of things. When we are victims of a crime, it is more often than not because we did not think it would happen to us. We are shocked by how casually and completely the course of our world can fracture like a rolled ankle.

Two, it takes strange people to do such strange things. Career criminals don’t share the same brains as you and I – they’ve been wired to think differently. They are the perpetually desperate, the social malcontent, the psychopath and the outright oddball. In order for them to cast off the contract with society, they need to, in some essential way, be apart from it.

That isn’t to say that all criminals create murder collages like Zombie’s Otis Firefly, or conduct elaborate, coin-flipping murder rites like Mr. Reindeer’s crew from Wild at Heart. But these portrayals are closer to the oddity of constant criminal behavior than the cookie-cutter villains you’ll find on Law & Order. They recognize that the weird mind is as key to the criminal as the process of the crime.

Jim Jarmusch digs this. So has Alex Cox. They angle for the comedic oddity. Lynch and Van Sant, they go for the dramatic.

In Rob Zombie’s work, the focus is on a spectacle of strangeness. He appreciates that film, a visual medium, operates on the human eye. His aim is to inflict images on it that leave lasting marks of strangeness.

It’s that sadistic practice that slots Zombie in the horror category, but I object to that classification. With the possible exception of the last minutes of House of 1,000 Corpses, Zombie doesn’t even stray into the supernatural. His works have been about the evil in mankind, not monsters.

The Devil’s Rejects really brought this home, shedding the hint at sorcery that the inclusion of a mythical figure, Doctor Satan, brought to its predecessor, House of 1,000 Corpses. The Devil’s Rejects was a psychopath road movie, dealing with the journey of twisted characters across a twisted landscape. Even Zombie’s Halloween and Halloween 2 were grounded in reality, albeit a surreal kind. They flirted with the paranormal by including hallucinatory sequences, but that only emphasized that mysticism has its roots in the human mind.

The Lords of Salem seems to be the same, but I can’t close the case on whether it’s truly crime or not. It’ll surely be classified as a horror film because its principal aim is to shock the senses. All the same, its plot draws on very real hysteria about satanic cults.

The premise is that a record station receives eerie and enticing albums from an anonymous musical group. Calling this group “the Lords of Salem,” the station employees and fans of the band are drawn into a murderous web when the group comes to town. Rituals are conducted, gruesome images abound and, I’m sure, lives are lost in the name of some dark lord. Have a look:

Bizarre as it sounds, The Lords of Salem‘s plot draws on a period of urban myth when rock music and homicidal devil worship were seen as close companions. In the ’70s and ’80s, news stories of hidden occult messages in heavy metal records were, if not rife, pretty regular, hitting bands like Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Meanwhile, fear of satanic conspiracies – most notably “The Process” – was sweeping the nation.

The furor died down, but the odd notion that it could happen remained. Now Rob Zombie is resurrecting it, with The Lords of Salem serving as a vehicle for that kind of paranoic fantasy.

Thing is, the fantasy isn’t too far from reality. I’m not claiming that satanic cults pull puppet-strings of politicians, like the Process supposedly did. I’m saying that if you type “vampire” into Crimelibrary’s database, you’ll pull up at least 15 nut balls who thought they were blood-drinking devil worshippers. Figure in the random killings by ad hoc cults, and the number soars.

Rob Zombie isn’t so outlandish after all. He’s just showing us what’s squirming under the surface of our ordered existence, just like Lynch depicts its quirks and Jarmusch its randomness.

Yes, they are odd. But if crime wasn’t odd, it wouldn’t be crime.