Studio: Alliance Films
Director: Rob Zombie
Writer: Rob Zombie
Producer: Rob Zombie, Jason Blum, Andy Gould, Oren Peli
Stars: Sherri Moon Zombie, Bruce Davison, Jeffrey Daniel Phillips, Ken Foree, Patricia Quinn, Dee Wallace, Maria Conchita Alonso, Judy Geeson, Meg Foster
Salem’s dark history of witchcraft haunts the town once again when a radio DJ plays a mysterious record from “The Lords of Salem.”
Unburdened of any preexisting mythology and unrestricted by studio notes concerned with an investment, Rob Zombie is free to be as unbridled as he wants with his fifth feature film. Zombie’s signature is written liberally throughout the movie as “Lords of Salem” showcases every cinematic flourish that can be uniquely attributed to the director. Those characteristics include throwback songs from the seventies, familiar faces from his favorite films, and smashmouth images of disturbing horror both visceral and cerebral. Rob Zombie’s mark on the genre echoes the same pattern Quentin Tarantino used in his breakout nineties crime films.
While “Lords of Salem” may be as close to his vision as any Rob Zombie film to date, that full on submersion pays a price for swimming so deeply in those waters. The film is anchored by so much self-indulgence that it never feels completely unchained. It is as if the style becomes so caught up in being “a Rob Zombie film” that it sacrifices some of its tone and a lot of its story to create a hypnotic mood that does not always translate effectively onto the screen.
Sherri Moon Zombie is Heidi, a radio personality in Salem, Massachusetts who receives a strange record identified only as having come from “The Lords.” Playing the mysterious music on the air puts the women of Salem into a trance, with Heidi suffering maddening dreams and waking nightmares. Being a town noted for its association with witchcraft, Salem’s dark history is connected not only to the music, but also to Heidi. And the sinister visions that come out of Heidi’s break from sanity soon begin blurring the lines between reality and fantasy.
As is now a tradition in his films, Zombie stacks the deck by casting generous handfuls of consistently reliable actors who also happen to be accomplished genre veterans. Even though the film is knee-deep in recognizable talent before shooting even begins, the coincidence of everyone turning in top-notch portrayals has to be credited to Zombie’s ability for pulling the best performances out of each player.
This is clear from the opening scene of the master witch leading her coven in the worship of Satan. On paper, the sermon to her followers reads like a hammy excerpt from a 1950’s horror comic. But when Meg Foster says something like, “open wide the gates of Hell and come forth from your blessed abyss,” she does it with inflections that vary between straight delivery and choking hiss. Her eyes well up with nearly imperceptible tears, making her passion for Lucifer legitimately frightening. This is no accident. It is guaranteed that Zombie and Foster worked out subtle moments like these in conversation together.
These nuances accent characterizations in ways that add a completely new layer to the performances. When Richard Fancy leans back in his chair and shakes his fists in a rasp while recounting the curse of Margaret Morgan, this is an actor fleshing a complete person out of dialogue that is otherwise meant purely for exposition. It is a credit to the cast and to Rob Zombie as a director that everyone is able to bring something of themselves to the script.
Finally, Sherri Moon Zombie plays a part that is neither a trailer trash psychopath nor the mother of one. Critics of Rob Zombie, read: “bashers,” often bemoan the inclusion of his wife as a central player in his films. Yet what fun is making your own movie if you cannot cast your friends and family? The truth is that Sherri Moon Zombie fits her roles perfectly, and “Lords of Salem” is no exception. The problem is that even with the central role, she still has limited opportunities to expand her character’s wings. This is because Heidi spends most of the film in a zombified trance.
The movie itself exists in a trance state, too. “Lords of Salem” crawls forward like a cat stalking prey with creeping camera movements and leisurely staged scenes. At times, the slow paced technique achieves the desired effect of creating a hypnotic atmosphere primed for the shock of unusual imagery. Other times, it halts the movie from having real momentum, slowly moving or not.
The three-person radio show that Heidi is a part of is stunted. “The Big H Show” lacks that crisp snap of banter that listeners find in something similar, such as “The Howard Stern Show.” Dialogue for the on air personalities is edited with miniscule gaps between each line. It could almost be overlooked except examples like these show that even the “normal” scenes in “Lords of Salem” follow the same slow beat pattern. The result is that fear-laden scenes where the atmosphere should feel oppressive just feel the same as everything else. The dreamlike sequences could have had more punch if the timing was counterbalanced against other portions of the narrative.
“Lords of Salem” lives and dies by its distinctly Rob Zombie imagery. Whether or not “Lords of Salem” is successful in its goals depends on how the viewer responds to those visuals. Few will argue that the images here are less than unsettling and visually striking. There are memorable moments of immersive mood as well as still frames of stark horror. Up for debate is whether that imagery exists in service to the story or simply to be deliberately shocking.
True, Rob Zombie is not making a movie for the mainstream. And maybe a hallucinatory vision induced by 300-year-old demonic music would actually include melting cartoons and religious figures stroking themselves. But when Sherri Moon Zombie starts riding a goat like a drunk girl on a mechanical bull, the lack of context begins distracting from the movie as a whole. At points like these, it is hard not to feel as though “Lords of Salem” is overindulgence in artistic expression.
Review Score: 60