The Lords of Salem: Rob Zombie’s Lost Student Film

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As a musician, Rob Zombie has carved out a genre all his own, and every new album he releases is, for lack of a better word, an incredibly “safe” buy for me.  His back catalog doesn’t really have any low spots as far as I’m concerned, and when he made the transition into filmmaking part of me was hoping for more of the same.  And really, things got off to a pretty good start.  House of 1000 Corpses certainly had its issues but at the end of the day it feels like it’s just for me.  It’s a long-form music video with some pretty great performances out of Bill Moseley and Sid Haig, tons of memorable dialogue, and a few truly impressive scenes (the backyard execution, for one).  And it spawned the vastly improved sequel The Devil’s Rejects, which so far is one of my favorite horror movies of the 21st century.  Then he started remaking Halloween films and I stopped caring.  The original Halloween was a perfect one-and-done horror story; it didn’t need its sequels, much less a remake.  Much less a sequel to the remake.  So when Zombie started leaking casting info and images from his newest film, The Lords of Salem, I really wanted to be on board.  I didn’t get the same strong sense of concept that I did with his first two efforts, but it wasn’t Halloween 3 and it wasn’t aping any of the well-worn trends that have caused me to take a step back from the horror genre as of late, so despite any minor reservations it really felt like something to get excited about.

To be fair, the first half hour or so of The Lords of Salem feels promising enough.  Sheri Moon Zombie stars as Heidi, one of three DJs for a popular radio show in Salem, Massachusetts.  Her co-hosts (both named Herman, for whatever reason) are portrayed by Jeff Daniel Phillips and horror mainstay Ken Foree, and the three of them have some entertaining onscreen chemistry.  Zombie’s first two films were carried largely on the backs of unique characters that felt both fresh and iconic, and The Lords of Salem carries a hint of that for a few scenes before it all just falls apart.  Heidi receives a delivery from “The Lords”, a wooden box containing a mysterious record that, when played, triggers ancestral memories and hallucinations from Salem’s infamous witch hunt laden past.  So naturally they play the album on air and it triggers a similar effect with many more of Salem’s female residents, all apparently descendants of the town’s first settlers.  Things get worse for Heidi and she begins to withdraw into her apartment, while one of the Hermans is concerned that she’s back on drugs and the other Herman is concerned that Zombie didn’t really write any lines for him past the first fifteen minutes.

The Hermans’ screentime quickly flatlines to make room for three eccentric older ladies that hang out in the parlor of Heidi’s apartment building.  These ladies are, unsurprisingly, witches, and they take it upon themselves to keep Heidi isolated and disoriented in the fashion of Rosemary’s Baby.  Fine source material, and like a lot of other things about The Lords of Salem it could have been promising if correctly applied.  Genre icons Dee Wallace and Patricia Quinn bring some weight to their roles, but everything feels far too rushed to establish that weirdly friendly yet off-putting Satanist vibe that Ruth Gordon’s character brought to Rosemary’s Baby.  Heidi’s okay, and then she isn’t.  The ladies downstairs are friendly and harmless, and then they’re evil witches.  The only other character with anything to do is a local author (Bruce Davison), who wrote a book on the Salem witch trials.  Davison’s a good actor and his performance is solid for what he’s been given, but the character could be entirely lifted out of the film without even slightly altering the story.  He’s ostensibly there to do the research that aids Heidi in her predicament, but is instead reduced entirely to delivering redundant exposition to the audience.  It’s a movie about witches, which could have been great!  There is a surprising dearth of entertaining witch movies out there these days, perhaps second only to good Sasquatch movies.  But just being about something cool isn’t enough, and the overwhelming sense I get here is that Zombie assumed it was.  It feels very much like he wrote four or five pages of cool things about witches before just kicking his feet up on the desk and hoping the rest of the story would fill itself in.

The Lords of Salem

Wayne Toth’s CGI-free effects are the one saving grace of the film.

As someone who probably watches a lot of the same movies as Rob Zombie, I appreciated the various references and homages littered throughout this film to the work of  directors like Polanski, Jodorowsky, Bava, and Méliès.  That’s some great fodder to work off of, and the combined result could have been interesting.  The problem is you need someone who can connect those dots, not someone who is just interested in hoarding dots in the hopes of impressing others with his dot collection.  Even House of 1000 Corpses with its endless nightmare of production difficulties felt like a more cohesive final product, and this one isn’t even in the same league as The Devil’s Rejects.  At best, The Lords of Salem plays like two thirds of a decent but derivative student film, the ending of which went missing and got hastily replaced with a music video.  American horror desperately needs a director who can pull the genre up out of the endless sea of remakes, torture porn, and tedious found footage exercises, and I really wanted Rob Zombie to be that guy.  Looks like the wait continues, but maybe if he ever gets Broad Street Bullies off the ground it’ll turn out that hockey movies were his calling all along.

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About Ryan Searles

I like watching movies, and then talking about those movies. Sometimes I write things about them, which you should read. Other interests include boxed wine, video games, the works of Harlan Ellison and HG Wells, and being a general curmudgeon.

Posted on April 23, 2013, in Movies, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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