Saturday, 20 April 2013

The Lords of Salem

Dir. Rob Zombie

Former junky Heidi works as a rock DJ at the local radio station in Salem, Massachusetts. When she receives a wooden box containing a vinyl record, ‘A gift from the Lords’, she assumes it’s a PR stunt by a band and gives it a spin. Upon hearing the strange, haunting music, Satanic Panic ensues and she begins to experience vivid hallucinations and bizarre flashbacks to her towns violent, blood-soiled past. Is Heidi going mad, or are the “Lords of Salem” returning for revenge on modern-day Salem?

A daring filmmaker with a unique and singular vision, Rob Zombie has never been one to shy away from controversy or despairingly dark subject matter. The Devil’s Rejects focused on the murderous redneck antagonists of House of 1,000 Corpses, essentially rendering them the protagonists and even attempting to generate sympathy for them; daring the audience to side with them despite the atrocities they’d previously committed. His remake of John Carpenter’s classic slasher Halloween focused on the back-story and psychology of serial killer Michael Myers, stripping him of mystery and addressing the issues that made him the relentless killing machine he grew up to be.

A deceptively simple story driven along by searing images, dank atmospherics and an omniscient, suffocating sense of dread, The Lords of Salem is something of a departure for the director. Boasting slow-burning tension throughout, it emerges as a real throwback to old fashioned horror, filtered through Zombie’s typically nightmarish, festering aesthetics. While his previous films featured brutal, unflinching violence, Lords takes a much more psychological approach. It’s still far from subtle, but it does demonstrate some restraint, and while the story is arguably not that original, the striking manner in which it's told is disarmingly unique. The ominously pulsating, occasionally blaring score by guitarist John 5, enhances the eerie moodiness without ever distracting from the onscreen action, while the cinematography courtesy of Brandon Trost (Halloween II) and production design by Jennifer Spence, ensure that Salem’s bloody past is consistently evoked in its present day setting. Glowering throughout are shades of Roman Polanski’s The Tenant and Rosemary’s Baby, Ken Russell’s The Devils and the vivid styling of Dario Argento’s Suspiria and Inferno. Strange parallels with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining also abound in the long, slow tracking shots of shadowy hallways and darkened rooms, symmetrical framing, and the shocking murder of the supposed hero, who finally shows up to help in the third act.

With Halloween II, Zombie proved he was able to conjure surreal and morbidly beautiful imagery. These are the kinds of striking visuals that glare out from Lords. The way in which Heidi’s nightmares are woven throughout the narrative is effectively realised, creating a stifling, hallucinatory atmosphere choked with queasy foreboding. The flashbacks to the witch trials are amongst the most gruesome, disturbing and visceral images created by Zombie to date. Imagine, if you will, the opening scene of Mario Bava’s gothic classic Black Sunday/The Mask of Satan, stripped of its poetic lyricism, brutally intensified, suffused with feverish cruelty and you’re halfway there. Zombie also channels Goya’s Witch’s Sabbath paintings in his depiction of Satan as the paganistic Sabbatic Goat/Goat of Mendes, imbuing proceedings with a vintage, off-kilter feel, and echoing the likes of Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out and Michele Soavi’s The Church.

While the cast is comprised of myriad genre veterans, emotional engagement is somewhat minimal and some may yearn for a little more character development; but as an example of how it’s still possible to create something fresh and interesting in the horror genre, The Lords of Salem won’t disappoint. Much like his prior film, the focus here is also on a young woman and her slow descent into hellish despair. While the characters are never as fleshed out as they could be, it doesn’t detract from what is essentially a plot driven narrative. As the increasingly strung-out Heidi, Sherri Moon Zombie delivers a suitably nervous performance. When she isn’t wandering around in a confused daze, she’s mining the pits of despair and ably conveying how broken Heidi really is. The trio of witches who keep watch over her are portrayed by Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace and Patricia Quinn, who relish every moment they appear onscreen. Much like the Castevets in Rosemary’s Baby, they are as weirdly maternal as they are quietly menacing, hinting at their diabolical schemes through veiled dialogue and sly threats. The chemistry between the three is intoxicating and only bettered by an almost unrecognisable Meg Foster as the head crone of the ancient coven.

Phantasmagorical, psychedelic and uncompromising; The Lords of Salem blisters with provocative ideas and once again showcases Zombie’s penchant for spinning a compelling yarn through evocative images, sweltering atmospherics and grimy, pulsating tension.

The Lords of Salem is available on DVD and Download on 22nd April courtesy of Momentum Pictures.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Friar’s Bush Cemetery

Situated on Stranmillis Road, Friar’s Bush cemetery is Belfast’s oldest Christian burial site. Hidden from view behind a huge wall and the Ulster Museum, it is quite a small graveyard - roughly two acres - but is the final resting place of a deceptively large number of people. The city’s official famine site, part of it is a mass grave of over 2,000 victims of hunger and cholera. Dating back to the 13th century, it is also said to be the site of the medieval friary of St Patrick himself. Every grave tells a story; most of famine and plague, some of bloody murder and body-snatching.

The entrance to the cemetery - a beautiful old arched gothic gate lodge, was built by the Marquis of Donegal in 1828. One of the first things you see as you pass through the gate is a sizable mound looming up from the earth before you. Dubbed ‘the Plaguey Pit’, this mound marks the final resting place of thousands of unfortunates who died during a major outbreak of cholera in the early 1830s. Too poor to afford to be buried, they were lain together in this mass grave, which was used again to bury countless victims of the Great Famine.

During the Penal persecution of the 18th century, when the practice of Mass was strictly forbidden, many of Belfast’s Roman Catholic citizens would secretly attend Mass in Friar’s Bush - which at the time was one of many secret ‘Mass Stations’ throughout the land - under the very thorn tree that gives the cemetery its name. Many tales tell of various priests who were hanged from the thorn tree as punishment for practising their religion. According to journalist James Bartlett, the Ulster Observer printed the following in 1867: “The poor priest had no other shelter than was afforded by the venerable old thorn, which on one occasion did the double duty of shadowing the Mass and afterwards serving as a gallows for the poor friar.” The cemetery is also home to the mysterious ‘Friar’s Stone’ - said to stand where the body of the friar fell from the tree. It is marked AD 485, though local historians doubt its authenticity.

Bartlett also suggests there are countless anonymous dead buried in Friar’s Bush, including the unwanted and still-born young of servant girls and local maids, who reputedly threw their babies over the wall for gravediggers to bury.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Edinburgh had begun to make a name for itself as an important centre for the study of anatomy. Students were occasionally assigned cadavers – usually an executed criminal – on which to practice their studies. However there was never a sufficient amount due to a decrease in the number of executions at this time. Students and surgeons had to seek other ways - morbid, darker ways - with which to obtain corpses, and many turned increasingly to body-snatchers - resurrectionists - for a fresh supply of ‘specimens.’ These grave robbers often came across the sea to Ireland in their grisly work, and Friar’s Bush cemetery was one of many targeted by them. In 1823 the exhumed corpses of a woman and a young child were discovered inside a barrel on a ship bound for Scotland. According to the Belfast News Letter (15th July, 1823), the culprits responsible for stealing the bodies (later revealed to be those of the wife and child of a shoe-maker from Forest Lane, Belfast) were Burke and Hare wannabes George Stewart and his sidekick Feeny. Found drunk at their lodgings in Belfast, after having travelled here from Scotland to obtain corpses for clients and ship them back under the cover of night, they allegedly had in their possession a large brass syringe, a surgeons knife, forceps and five sovereigns.

In 1869, when it became clear the earth at Friar’s Bush could hold no more bodies, Milltown Cemetery was established as the city’s main Catholic cemetery. Nowadays the gates at Friar’s Bush remain firmly locked, though tours of the site are permissible by request. It’s a curious little boneyard; situated in the shadow of the Ulster Museum on a bust street, most people pass it by without realising it is even there. Wonderfully atmospheric, it is one of Belfast’s best kept secrets.

Accompanying me on my exploration of Friar’s Bush cemetery was Marie Robinson - author, folklore enthusiast and contributor to Fascination With Fear and Destroy the Brain - and her friend, who, along with another friend, were visiting Ireland from Missouri last week. It’s great to meet up with online buddies from the horror community - and even better when you can explore spooky old cemeteries together.

Here be more photos of our wanderings amongst the dead at Friar's Bush...

Short Story Showcase: What Was It? by Fitz-James O’Brien

Illustration from Famous Fantastic Mysteries
They could feel and hear the Nameless Horror, but they could not see it… They could have no doubt that it was present among them, but… what was it?

I first came across this curious and highly effective little tale in Christopher Frayling’s tome, Vampyres: Lord Byron to Count Dracula. While one of the earliest examples of the 'Invisible Force' tale, Frayling included O’Brien’s twisted little yarn in his study of vampire literature, as he viewed it as a variation on traditional vampire motifs. What Was It? was first published in Harper’s Magazine, in March 1859, and tells of the residents of a particular lodging house who encounter an invisible, seemingly blood-thirsty creature in one of the rooms. Once they manage to apprehend it, they attempt to study it.

Frayling refers to Irish-born American O’Brien (1828 – 1862) - generally regarded as a forerunner of science fiction - as a ‘domestic’ Edgar Allan Poe. Despite his rational approach to bizarre, seemingly supernatural subject matter, in one of the last letters he wrote before his death, apparently the author exclaimed “Great Jupiter! I believe in spooks.” His style throughout What Was It? is particularly matter of fact, and it lends the story an air of authenticity, grounding it in the rational, and ensuring that when things get weird, the impact is greatly enhanced. Indeed, the reaction of the characters to their uninvited guest is, after that of initial horror, one of scientific curiosity, and they set out to study it. As mentioned, the tale is significant because it was one of the first to feature the concept of an invisible being - and is even more unique - and significant in horror - because the invisible entity is a malevolent supernatural creature which Frayling perceives to be a variation of the traditional vampire. It inspired the likes of The Horla by Guy de Maupassant and perhaps even HG Wells’ The Invisible Man. Interestingly, according to Frayling, it also represents a literary version of Fuseli’s painting, The Nightmare.

Fuseli's The Nightmare
O’Brien wastes no time in setting the scene (a roomy, comfortable, though reputedly haunted boarding house, situated in New York City), establishing the characters (intellectual bohemians who enjoy smoking opium and analysing everything) and getting to the nitty-gritty - a horrid encounter with an invisible, bloodthirsty creature (“While I was lying, still as a corpse… a ‘something’ dropped, as it seemed, from the ceiling, plump upon my chest…”) in the middle of the night. After the initial panic the creature causes, the story soon focuses on the attempts of the characters to discover just what exactly their intruder is. They strap it to a bed and take a plaster mold of it to try and get an idea of what it looks like, before it eventually starves to death.

One of the most striking aspects of the story is the amount of sympathy O’Brien generates for the pitiful creature. Initially menacing and highly creepy, all ‘sharp teeth’ and ‘bony, sinewy, agile hands’ the creature is soon overpowered and tied up ‘shivering with agony’; at one stage O’Brien even compares it to a small child. When it comes to describing the physical appearance of the little beast, O’Brien is quite restrained, only really saying that it resembles a face in French illustrator Tony Johannot’s Un Voyage ou il vous plaira (1843) which ‘somewhat approaches’ the ‘hideous’ countenance of this creature which ‘looked as if it was capable of feeding on human flesh.’

Sketches from Un Voyage ou il vous plaira

Another sketch from Un Voyage ou il vous plaira
The implication that this is not the only creature of its kind is chilling to the core. If you’re not familiar with this tale, you can read it here. It is recommended that you do.