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Face-Off: Suspiria vs. The Lords of Salem

02.17.2016by: Cody Hamman
This weekend, audiences will get to experience the terror of THE WITCH, a film which has gotten favorable marks from both JoBlo's own Eric Walkuski and literary master of horror Stephen King, among many others. With that disturbing viewing experience looming ahead of us, the theme of the week could be nothing other than witches. Going head-to-head in today's Face-Off is a witch movie from one of the horror genre's most celebrated filmmakers, Dario Argento's 1977 offering SUSPIRIA, and one from one of the genre's most divisive but extremely popular modern filmmakers, Rob Zombie's 2012 directorial effort THE LORDS OF SALEM.
In 1895, suspected witch Helena Markos, a.k.a. The Black Queen, founded a school of dance and the occult in Germany. After her death in 1905, the occult aspect was phased out and the Tam Academy became simply about dance. Or so it seemed. When people connected to the school begin disappearing and dying in mysterious ways, a new student comes to suspect that the faculty members may still be practicing witchcraft.
In 1696, evil witch Margaret Morgan put a curse on the bloodline of Reverend Hawthorne as she and her devil-worshipping coven were burned at the stake. 300+ years later, followers of Morgan's teachings use a musical composition that lulls any female who hears it into a trance as part of their mission to succeed where Morgan failed: they mean to bring a child of Satan into the world, born through one of Hawthorne's descendants.
Jessica Harper plays Suzy Bannion, a young American girl who has come to the Tam Academy to perfect her ballet skills. Suzy is a rather soft-spoken and bland character, nothing ever really seems to get that much of a rise out of her and we learn very little about her as a person. She connects the dots of the mystery without ever becoming that interesting or endearing.
Sheri Moon Zombie stars as "Heidi LaRoc", a radio DJ who seems to have had a troubled life up to this point but recently managed to kick a heroin habit. She's not the most involving character, but she's nice, loves her dog, digs Rush, and has a somewhat sweet relationship going on with a fellow DJ. After hearing the devil's music, she goes into a steep decline.
The witches at the Tam Academy do well at concealing their true evil, for the most part just coming off as your typical instructors and directresses, even if they are quite strict and intense at times. The reveal doesn't come until the final moments, when even the most grotesque of them turns out to be surprisingly weak.
The witches in this film are some nasty women, both in appearance - the filthy Margaret Morgan can be disgusting and disturbing to look at - and in their vocabulary. Zombie never has been hesitant about having his characters drop some foul words. The modern coven keeps themselves cleaner and is led by a trio of fantastic actresses.
Combined with an awesome but overbearing score by the rock band Goblin, the cinematography is SUSPIRIA's greatest asset. Horrible things occur in locations that tend to be soaked in colorful lighting, things like eyeballs appearing in the dark, bloody murders, animal attacks, maggot infestations, and the iconic image of a character falling into a room that's filled with razor wire. The visuals here are stunning.
Zombie packed SALEM with oddball, unnerving, potentially offensive visuals, from the sight of a witch spitting in the face of a newborn infant to masked men walking goats, vivisection, masturbating demonic priests, furry beasts, and deformed little creatures. At times these things can almost become laughable when they edge too close to feeling like a music video, but they retain a chilling edge overall.
SUSPIRIA may not be the Argento film that I enjoy the most, but I would still call it his masterpiece. The collaboration between him, Goblin, and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli yielded amazing results. The characters may not be anything special, but what is special is the nightmarish audio/visual ride the film takes you on as its mystery unfolds. Watching it, the fact that it's highly regarded among the horror community is quite understandable.
Zombie's films are known for featuring down-to-earth brutality, but while his previous work wasn't completely absent of psychological horror, he really dove into supernatural/surreal territory with this one, which is perhaps his most polished, visually impressive, and mature. His detractors call him out for doing the same thing over and over, but THE LORDS OF SALEM was an admirable, experimental attempt at doing something very different.
THE LORDS OF SALEM is a fine film and it put up a strong fight, but it's a tough to beat a classic. When the bell tolls on this battle of the witches, it's SUSPIRIA that conjures up the victory.

Do you agree with the results of this Face-Off, or do you think THE LORDS OF SALEM has the more powerful magic? Let us know your thoughts by spitting bullets and casting spells in the comments section below. Are there any pairs of movies you'd like to see duke it out? You can send Face-Off suggestions to me at [email protected].



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