I generally loathe trashing a film made with an ambition that exceeds the film’s outcome. There is a vision in Rob Zombie’s THE LORDS OF SALEM that doesn’t quite seem to have made the successful transition from idea to screen, but there’s a genuine fascination in the journey that makes giving the movie a closer look worthwhile.
I’ve often found this to be the case with Zombie’s films, especially House of 1,000 Corpses and the one I consider to be his most successful (generally in the minority here), his remake of John Carpenter’s Halloween (theatrical version). There are a few common threads in all of his movies, and though The Lords of Salem has a much different aesthetic in both execution and setup, despite what many critics have written about Lords being a departure for Zombie, it (depressingly) doesn’t sway too far from what has seemingly become his underlying cinematic agenda: exploring the perceived nihilistic aspect of the human condition.
I find it depressing because outright cinematic nihilism can really only end one way: with nihilism. Seems simple, but the real shame is in the predictability of the inevitable and the lack of any true revelation. There is perhaps another way to view the ending of this movie, depending on your point of view…but more on that later.
On a more positive note, even though the inevitability of his previous films is still strongly on display, the agenda is more well hidden here. He has managed to hit a few different notes than he’s managed before, which is refreshing. For starters, there is a mood achieved and mostly kept throughout the movie that is undeniably creepy, if only mildly so. There is also a presence of subtlety that I have long hoped he would attempt to explore, though the movie never strays too far from the beaten path…while not a lot really happens during the 96 minute run-time, the events are made more unpleasantly memorable by the few intentionally raw, unblinking violent moments contained therein.
First, the good. There are some brilliantly shot scenery segues, with a slightly moving camera and a beautiful score accompaniment that quietly echoes some of the more spooky setups from The Exorcist. Though Zombie’s writing has constantly been called into question (often with good reason), his skill in achieving imagery shouldn’t be. He is, after all, a very successful music video director and a huge fan of classic horror, both of which come into play during The Lords. Almost equally, in fact. And though the urge to toss the words “striking imagery” around exists, in this instance I’d merely call it…successful images.
There are a few standout performances, as well, mostly with the group of witches that terrorize radio DJ Heidi (Rob’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, who is probably once again in way over her head in the huge role). Meg Foster is particularly eerie in a very gutsy part for her. She seems to throw herself headfirst into the character, and winds up having probably the most memorable moments of the film as a result. Veteran Ken Foree is likable as one of the other DJs at the station…but he provides the only truly fun scenes in the film (there aren’t many).
There is an intriguing thread weaving its way through the movie, with a group called “The Lords” having sent a record into the radio station that somehow casts a spell on Heidi and most other females around the mythically tainted town of Salem. For some inexplicable reason, the song, featuring basically three dreary notes played over and over, achieves more than one spin on the radio show. Of course, to this end: it sends quite a few people into an instant tailspin upon hearing it.
Now, though there is a lot to like about The Lords of Salem, there are also plenty of strange decisions made throughout the film that can’t be swept aside. For one, the climax of the movie…yes, that’s a fairly big complaint, I know. Though many reviews have complained that the ending is nothing more than slow paced, bizarrely placed imagery that doesn’t lead to anything, I didn’t have any problem following what was happening. The problem is bigger than that, unfortunately.
Because the film has kind of a hypnotic oddness to it, I stayed with it, but there is pretty much zero tension, and that’s largely because (SPOILERS) one of the movie’s three protagonists (arguably the most important, the one used as a storytelling tool to help the audience understand WTF is going on) is killed without much fanfare at the beginning of the third act, and even more inexplicably, the other two have absolutely zero to do with the climax of the film. Even worse, a small, awkward attempt at having any emotional ground to stand on with a love affair between Heidi and the third DJ is basically a MacGuffin; it has no emotional bearing or significance on the outcome and isn’t fleshed out well at all.
There is nothing to root for, there is nothing to root against…simply put, there is no reason to care about the end of the movie, aside from maybe aimlessly wondering what the inevitable imagery will look like when the plot, heartily and unabashedly borrowed from Rosemary’s Baby, reaches its potential. Thinking about it a little more, maybe the movie actually has a happy ending for a few of the participants, but overall the film can really only go in one direction. And yes, it goes there.
The dialogue throughout isn’t terrible, but sometimes feels uninspired and unrealistic, partially due to the fact that, quite often, it isn’t delivered particularly well. In the case of Sheri Moon’s Heidi, I don’t know how she could have made some of that stuff successful even if she were a better natural actress. The sad truth is, she’s best here at staring off and looking overwhelmed. And I’m not nitpicking her; I’ve defended her heartbreaking part in Halloween as far more layered than many figured she could ever pull off, with a deep sadness present behind her eyes in that film, but there isn’t really a whole lot of places she could have went with this part that would have cast her in a good light, to be honest. To be fair, she does have a bit of chemistry with the other DJs in the early scenes and quips along with them on their morning radio show believably. The best I can say overall is, as the main focus of the movie, and given some of the most eye rolling dialogue…she isn’t awful.
The reveal of the “creature” near the end of the film (too integral to the plot to say much about here) is even more bizarre…this thing seriously looks like the little monsters in William Castle’s The Tingler or something that might have been rejected by the producers of the TV show Fallen Skies. Some of that scene is saved a bit by the witches themselves, who seem to be having a good old time cackling and generally acting evil. Too bad the movie wasn’t more about them.
Still, I can’t wholly dismiss The Lords of Salem. Maybe I have a general fascination with Zombie’s films, but there’s plenty here to feed that intrigue, whether it be true cinematic prowess or just an obsession. I wouldn’t call myself a big fan (as mentioned before, only two of his films hold any true appeal for me), so I lean more toward the focus of his dark visions. He seems to know what he wants to get out of his movies, even if a large number of the population isn’t exactly going along for the ride. I respect that. I like it.
But, as stated before, I really wish he’d examine something different. Though this movie carries some of the more ridiculous aspects of the Halloween sequel (H2) image wise, it’s still a HUGE step up from that film. I feel like he has a masterful horror film somewhere in that deep, dark, horror fan mind of his that will eventually explode all over the screen, and I’m rooting for him to do it. The Lords of Salem is not that movie, but it is a strange combination of something new and something very familiar…like Coffin Joe having a fever dream about the silent film Haxan if it were directed by Dario Argento. Yeah, that’s weird.
But it carries with it an unshakable, intriguing future promise of more. Just…more.
- Monster Kid