In the minds of most horror critics Rob Zombie can do no wrong. Just check out the reviews for THE LORDS OF SALEM, Mr. Zombie’s latest effort as writer-director, which proclaim it a “visual masterpiece” and other such superlatives. I on the other hand found the film, showcasing a more subdued and atmospheric brand of horror than Zombie’s previous films, to be a self-indulgent mess. The truth hurts, I guess, though not as much as sitting through this movie.
For THE LORDS OF SALEM Rob Zombie had to make due with a budget of $2.5 million, considerably less than what he’s become accustomed to (a fact Zombie bitched about at some length in interviews). This of course didn’t stop the horror sphere from covering the film like it was an IRON MAN sequel, with casting rumors, on-set reports, trailer reviews and so forth. Zombie even co-authored a hardcover novelization purporting to show what he might have achieved if only he’d had a more substantial budget.
The film was theatrically distributed by Anchor Bay in April 2013, and (unsurprisingly) wasn’t exactly a box office spectacular. Several horror bloggers have invoked anti-Rob Zombie conspiracies on the part of theater owners and advertisers, proposing that audiences would have flocked to the film in droves if only it had been better promoted. Somehow I doubt that.
Heidi is a blond DJ living in Salem, Massachusetts. One day she receives a package containing an LP from a local band called the Lords of Salem. The LP consists of a repetitive drone which Heidi unwisely plays over the radio. This causes the women of Salem to go into some kind of trance, and Heidi has weird hallucinations involving a perverted priest and somebody speaking to her from the empty apartment down the hall from her own.
Over the following days Heidi experiences further (seeming) hallucinations involving a maggot birth and mutant dwarf. So traumatic are the visions that Heidi restarts the crack habit she thought she’d quit.
One of Heidi’s radio guests, the writer Francis Matthias, is inspired to do some research. He discovers that Heidi is descended from a coven of witches executed 300 years earlier, but before Francis can properly disseminate this information he’s killed by Heidi’s creepy landlady, who it seems is spearheading a witchy revival.
This film isn’t all bad. There are some effectively atmospheric visuals (even if the proceedings look cheap and underlit for the most part) and decent performances from a supporting cast that, in what has become a Rob Zombie trademark, is packed with horror movie stars from the seventies and eighties: Bruce Davison, Ken Foree, Maria Conchita Alonso, Andrew Prine, Dee Wallace, Judy Geeson, Patricia Quinn and Michael Berryman. Meg Foster (of STRANGE INVADERS and THEY LIVE) fares best, with her hypnotic eyes put to excellent use as the undead head of the witch coven haunting Salem.
Unfortunately the presence of so many skilled supporting players only points up the film’s most misconceived element: the lead performance by Zombie’s non-actress wife Sheri Moon, who in keeping with her model background seems more concerned with posing than emoting (with quite a few gratuitous close-ups of her bare ass).
The other big problem is Zombie’s script, which is meandering and derivative. ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE SENTINEL and SUSPIRIA are all echoed in the messy and inconclusive narrative, which has a tendency to abruptly drop characters and is resolved in a largely incoherent jumble of music video-esque hallucinations that evoke the work of David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky, though without the artfulness of either—and to which the best summation I’ve heard were the words of an anonymous theatergoer in the screening I attended: “That’s it?”
THE LORDS OF SALEM
Director: Rob Zombie
Producers: Rob Zombie, Jason Blum, Andy Gould, Oren Peli
Screenplay: Rob Zombie
Cinematography: Brandon Trost
Editing: Glenn Garland
Cast: Sheri Moon Zombie, Bruce Davison, Jeffrey Daniel Phillips, Meg Foster, Judy Geeson, Patricia Quinn, Dee Wallace, Ken Foree, Maria Conchita Alonso, Richard Fancy, Andrew Prine, Michael Berryman, Sid Haig