There’s no horror director with the individualistic style and personality of hard rocking musician turned cult-worshiped filmmaker Rob Zombie. That’s a statement I can make and absolutely stand behind. You look at his visual prowess and unique ability to deliver shocking scenes of hyper-psychotic gore and scares and it’s impossible to compare such ideas and styles to any other directors currently attempting to take over the horror genre. With that said, I still don’t absolutely love all his work, no matter how gorgeous some parts may be, and his latest film The Lords Of Salem provides a perfect example of why.
The title to Zombie’s film is referencing Salem, Massachusetts and the illustrious history of witch culture dating back to the violent Salem Witch Trials which saw innocent women killed on the basis of being black-magic practicing, Satan-worshipping demons.
We open The Lords Of Salem with a group of “witches” practicing their dark arts, establishing some type of curse put on the city, and then fast forward to modern times where we meet a Salem radio DJ named Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie). Upon receiving a strange record one day from a band called The Lords, she plays the music to see if she’d just discovered the next big artist, but awakens something much more sinister. From the moment she hears the first musical bars, flashbacks to witching and evil visions start to populate her dreams, driving her crazy. We watch Heidi slowly descend into insanity, but could it all just be in her head?
Now I’ll attempt to track why The Lords Of Salem starts off so irresistibly brilliant, yet spins wildly out of control come the finale, because Zombie had me genuinely hooked for a time. Then the most drastic art house swing of Zombie’s career kicks in, and, well, we’ll get to that.
In a decision that should shock no one, Zombie’s wife Sheri Moon Zombie plays our female protagonist Heidi with the grace and poise of a true Scream Queen. Sure, she’s not fleeing from a slasher or anything similar, but her slow journey into total insanity has her facing many horrors on both an emotional and physical scale, and she reacts to each blow with an increasingly deteriorating psyche. Her acting is genuine and gripping, the atmosphere she creates is undeniably creepy, and her performance makes it easy to proclaim Sheri one of the top Scream Queens found in the current days of Horrorwood. Plus you have to respect the relationship Rob and Sheri have, because she’ll do anything Rob asks, diving head first into these absurd scenes of terrifying imagery and more unpleasant actions with no fear. None of the negative aspects I found in The Lords Of Salem have to do with Sheri.
Zombie also holds on for a while, not unraveling until deep into The Lords Of Salem when the witchcraft and obscurity are full force. A majority of the film is wonderfully crafted around the previously mentioned testing of Heidi’s sanity, as Zombie treats us to some truly disturbing slow-burn horror with his own expected flair. Every set piece is just oozing extremely detailed eye-candy that brings a very vibrant life to Salem, from Heidi’s A Trip To The Moon artwork to the lavish mansion Heidi ends up in after waltzing into Room #5. All the background work for the witching scenes are beautifully dark and equally interesting, even if he’s just showing some type of ritual found in the woods, and again I can’t praise Zombie’s style enough, turning his horror into a visceral spectacle.
While Zombie pulls all the same tricks as usual, this time all the music video styled visual gems couldn’t save The Lords Of Salem, because Rob’s story goes off the deep end mightily, turning into nothing but a rapid succession of random pictures that abandon any resemblance of a plot. Sorry, I’d actually call this the crux of Zombie’s artsy indulgence, as I was actually lost some time before said mindf*ck, during an extremely out-there scene that I believe was supposed to represent impregnation, but instead looked like the beginnings of some pretty weird tentacle porn. From here on out it turns into Zombie showing us his family vacation pictures from when he visited the underworld with Sheri like we’re some classroom full of students and he’s the crazy professor who thinks you care. “And here’s a picture of Sheri riding a goat seductively, here’s some pictures of crosses I used the Smudge tool on in MS Paint, oh and here’s Sheri being felt up by the singer of a death metal band!”
The Lords Of Salem is overall an ambitious, art-driven horror film with a phenomenal performance from Sheri Moon Zombie, but crashes and burns despite unique crafting – even if it looks stunning going up in flames. Zombie can’t help but let his wildly vivid imagination stray entirely too far into unfavorable waters, abandoning all shreds of cohesive storytelling the farther in he gets. Drowning in his own material, Rob Zombie has created his most distinctively signature film yet – one that will be praised by Zombie fanatics, and detested by Zombie haters alike. Trust me, The Lords aren’t winning over any new fans to join the cult of Zombie.