The Lords of Salem is Rob Zombie’s newest experiment in the horror genre. It’s a surreal and bleak Rosemary’s Baby scenario that will no doubt polarize opinion. While I didn’t like the film for a number of reasons, it no doubt shows a general improvement over Zombie’s past work and does effectively establish a number of creepy and bizarre cinematic horror elements.
Zombie himself introduced his film at its premiere during the SXSW film festival by saying that half the audience would love it and half the audience would hate it. I’m not sure he was completely accurate as far as the percentages, but there is no doubt that this is a love-it or hate-it movie.
The story surrounds a midnight DJ named Heidi who lives in modern day Salem. After receiving a mysterious box from “The Lords” containing an old record, Heidi’s life is spun into a living nightmare. An old curse from the original witches coven of Salem, aka “the Lords of Salem,” comes back to haunt the modern-day ancestors of the key players in the 17th century witch trials.
The surreal, nightmarish quality of the movie means that most of the time audiences won’t know what is real and what isn’t. Some horror movie fans like this feeling of unbalance, and will exalt in the impressionistic style Zombie uses in The Lords of Salem. For me personally, the slow pace and undefined reality (aka surreal nightmare sequences and a general blending of reality with horror fantasy) left me wishing for a more traditional narrative and some definitive plot elements.
There is also that typical plodding Zombie directional style, in which audiences follow the main character through seemingly mundane activities interspersed with bizarre or darkly eerie moments.
Now while I personally didn’t dig The Lords of Salem’s style, some might enjoy the dark atmospheric haze that pervades the film. Some might also enjoy the ample sequences of chanting old crone witches and fiery torture. Then there are those like me, who will look at The Lords of Salem and see a disjointed and pointless montage of horrific nightmare scenes dominated by flashbacks to Salem’s original witches having demonic orgies and chanting praise and devotion to Satan.
As usual, the color palette was mostly shades of black and white and the overall look of the film (despite a few scenes of garish gold in the “cathedral”) is bleak and claustrophobic. This is one of the more appreciable aspects of the film, as the horror elements are compounded and increased by this visual suffocating bleakness.
The music should also be mentioned, as it plays a big part in creating atmosphere in the film. It practically hefts the weight of character as it galvanizes dreams, fantasies and holds the power of the ancient witches’ coven. The tune that plays on the record is a dark and somber tune, simple and moody, but compelling at the same time.
Zombie’s real-life wife Sheri Moon Zombie played the lead role of Heidi Hawthorne. She has a subtle charisma and quirky style/looks, and though the role doesn’t require much in the way of acting talent, she is still interesting to watch. The always-entertaining Bruce Davison played an author/historian on witches, while Dee Wallace, Patricia Quinn and Judy Geeson gave audiences three delightfully sinister modern-day witches.
Zombie, directorially and artistically, is all over the place here. For the most part audiences are treated to Suspiria-esque nighmare sequences a la Dario Argento. Then, occasionally, it will change to bizarre body horror and fleshy flippered creatures reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s stuff.
There is also an over-use of disturbing footage featuring the original witch coven of Salem dancing naked, chanting Satanic prayers, and being tortured or killing others. This footage felt like it took up the bulk of the film, leaving the impression that I took away (extremely important as Zombie made this a highly impressionistic film) that of old naked women with bad teeth scowling and howling to very little purpose. Throw in an ending that is as pointless, dissatisfying and disturbingly bizarre as the rest of the film, and it makes the whole experience more than a bit dissatisfying.
Again, this is definitely a film that will find itself with two camps of critics, those who hate it and those who love it. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t get behind what Zombie has done here in The Lords of Salem and for me personally, I left the theatre feeling a bit disappointed. As I said above, many elements of the film do show improvement over his previous work, but as a whole, it feels like Zombie chose impressionistic hyper horror over good horror storytelling, which translates into a disjointed and unsatisfying film.