Written and Directed by: Rob Zombie
Starring: Sheri Moon Zombie, Jeff Daniel Phillips, and Bruce Davison
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“Satan! Come to us! We are ready!"
The Lords of Salem might feature a contemporary setting, but the 70s are alive and well in Rob Zombie’s latest effort. Throughout his career, he’s obviously been enamored with the exploitation stylings of that decade (which made him a poor fit for one Halloween movie, much less two), but The Lords of Salem conjures up its demons for a witches brew that draws from various corners of the globe. Zombie invokes almost every 70s devil imaginable, from Italian-flavored witchcraft to Anglo-styled pagan terrors, and it results in his most ambitious and refined film so far. For the first time in his career, Zombie attempts to genuinely unsettle instead of merely assault. While he’s not entirely successful due to some relapses along the way, Zombie’s approach is an stylistic exercise that confirms his discernable voice within the genre.
As its title suggests, the film unfolds in the centuries-long shadow of the Salem witch trials. In this fictionalized account, the Reverend Jonathan Hawthorne (Andrew Pine) persecuted and burned a coven of supposed witches. 300 years later, their legendary curse still hangs over the town and begins to haunt Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), a local disc jockey who receives a mysterious vinyl record that carries a repetitive, ominous tune that must be the demonic counterpart to the tune in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Shortly after playing the record, Heidi begins to experience bizarre phenomena and lurid nightmares that are rooted in the town’s sordid history.
The Lords of Salem is arguably Zombie’s most original film thus far, but it somewhat ironically borrows from the most sources. Some even stretch beyond the 70s, as there are certainly hints of Bava’s earlier work here (especially Black Sunday and Kill Baby Kill), while Heidi’s sinister apartment setting recalls the claustrophobic horrors of Polanski. In many ways, the film is a messy mix of many worlds; basically, if Argento, Ken Russell, and Roger Corman had ever collaborated for a later-era Hammer flick, it would probably look a lot like The Lords of Salem. Zombie heavily borrows the candy-colored, fever dream aesthetic of Euro-horror to great effect: The Lords of Salem is a trippy, hallucinatory effort that doesn’t shy away from nightmare logic that allows Zombie to indulge in his signature weirdness, such as an opening sequence that features the coven’s strange ritual (it involves a goat and some very naked women, the latter of which actually recalls another Polanski effort in Macbeth).
There’s plenty more where that came from, and some interludes are more effective than others. On a few occasions, Zombie can’t help himself and lapses into outrageous and predictable schlock (he especially doesn’t hesitate to highlight the perversity associated with this genre), but some scenes are genuinely effective. Surprisingly, most of them are low-key moments that Zombie hasn’t shown a capacity for thus far, with many scares operating subtly in the background (coincidentally, both Jason Blum and Oren Peli are attached as producers). Some of them are so understated that they don’t immediately register, which is a far cry from Zombie’s typical blunt force trauma approach. Again, there’s a lot of that still here, particularly as the film starts to careen towards its conclusion; however, for the most part, Zombie exhibits a good feel for the escalating structure that’s needed for a movie like this. He pulls off his best Argento impersonation by channeling an ominous atmosphere to compensate for a threadbare, aimless plot that takes a while to build to something.
Thankfully, Zombie also understands that these types of work best if the characters are relatively likeable. By his own standards, this set is a bunch of saints: Heidi looks like one of Zombie’s trailer trash clichés, but she’s actually seems like a decent woman trying to overcome a previous drug addiction. It’s arguable that a better actress would have served the film better (Zombie really needed to find his Jessica Harper or Edwige Fenech), but he’s committed to keeping his wife employed. Sherri Moon isn’t bad in the role, though, as she has a nice rapport with her fellow DJ’s (Ken Foree and Jeff Daniel Phillips) and draws a generally sympathetic portrayal. Co-star Phillips is a nice find; while he resembles a young Sid Haig (who actually shows up rather briefly), Phillips underplays a role that gives the film an unexpected dimension when it hints at his character’s past relationship with Heidi.
Zombie sprinkles in some more familiar faces to round out the cast: Bruce Davison is a local witchcraft expert that serves as a better Loomis character than Malcolm McDowall’s actual Dr. Loomis. His investigation into the mysterious record unravels most of the film’s plot, which results in some overly expository patches in the proceedings. One of the more inspired casting choices finds Patricia Quinn, Dee Wallace, and Judy Geeson as a trio of weird sisters that serve as Heidi’s landlords. These three (especially Wallace) throw themselves into Zombie’s weirdness with reckless abandon, and often threaten to steal the show. Other familiar faces are more fleeting: Michael Berryman joins Haig for a violent, flesh-melting flashback to the witch trials, while Barbara Crampton appears for one random scene (I suspect her part was pared down along with several others’, including Clint Howard, Camille Keaton, Udo Kier, and Richard Lynch, all of whom were slated to appear in Frankenstein and the Witchhunter, a film within the film that wound up on the cutting room floor).
If The Lords of Salem is Zombie’s moodiest, most atmospheric film since House of 1,000 Corpses (and I think it is), then it also succeeds where that film did not. Whereas its ending literalized its terrors with an absurd, deflating climax, this one goes abstract and Avant-garde in a big way. Not content to simply pilfer from the usual horror suspects, Zombie channels his inner Kubrick during some grandiose, elegant sequences whose gliding camerawork and lascivious imagery recall The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. Shorn of the restraint Zombie brings to much of the film, the finale is some sort of operatic nightmare, full of gilded staircases, neon crosses, shameless blasphemy, tentacled fetuses, and charred corpses; it’s a dazzling descent into insanity or hell (Zombie eventually doesn’t leave much of a choice, especially during a credits sequence that leaves little doubt).
Regardless of missteps like that and other moments that are too gonzo for their own good, The Lords of Salem is a searing experience that eventually burrows itself into the eyes and ears. If nothing else, Zombie has well-heeded the lessons of the European masters that preceded him: summoning the devil should be a nightmarish endeavor. There’s a certain primacy to this effort that captures the impressionistic approach of Rollin, Franco, and Fulci, all of whom understood the power of inexplicably horrific moments that fire across the synapses. Argento seems to be the central sphere of influence, though, and The Lords of Salem makes a good case that we should ignore the disappointing Mother of Tears and consider itself as the proper finale to the Three Mothers series. Between its garish cinematography and its eerie score, the film is undeniably stylish and bold like vintage Argento; perhaps it is a case of style over inexplicable substance, but what are nightmares if not the unfathomable exercise of the psyche? Few film-makers have understood that better than the purveyors of Euro-horror, and Zombie assumes the mantle with conviction. Buy it!
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