The Lords of Salem (2012)
Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some drug use
Score: 3 out of 5
The Lords of Salem is probably the most unique, and bitterly polarizing, film that Rob Zombie has ever made. While it still has his retro '70s horror throwback aesthetic, it runs on a very different kind of horror than the grindhouse affectations that permeate most of his work. Instead, this is his homage to '70s witchcraft films and Satanic horror, driven more by mood, atmosphere, and unsettling imagery than overt frights. It's a movie that practically seems made to be played on a loop at a Halloween party in order to set a dark and foreboding mood, serving up a story driven heavily by metaphor that's more straightforward than its layers of artifice make it seem, but which still boasts some standout performances and memorable moments. It's a frustrating, but still worthwhile little oddball in Rob Zombie's filmography, even if I can't really say that it works the entire way through.
Our protagonist is Heidi (played by Zombie's wife and frequent collaborator Sheri Moon Zombie), a DJ at a rock radio station in Salem, Massachusetts. A recovering drug addict who lives alone in an apartment managed by her landlord Lacy while striking up a relationship with her co-host Herman "Whitey" Salvador, one day Heidi she receives a record at work addressed to her from a band called "The Lords". A strange record that sounds less like heavy metal than it does a Satanic chant, it soon attracts the attention of Francis Matthias, a historian promoting a book he wrote about the Salem witch trials. thinking it may be connected to such. Meanwhile, after hearing the record, Heidi falls into a downward spiral of nightmares and hallucinations that slowly drive her insane, causing her to show up late for work (if at all) while her life falls apart around her. It all comes to a head when The Lords come to stage a concert in Salem this coming Saturday...
While it's set in the present day, the imagery in this film heavily taps into the religious horror of Rob Zombie's favorite decade, creating a world where a Satanic witch cult from the colonial era wreaks havoc on the descendants of those who had them tortured and executed. We are frequently treated to bizarro sequences in which Heidi envisions horrifying devilish imagery, the naked old crones (most notably Meg Foster as the coven's leader) being just the most immediately memorable and disturbing of such, all of it ultimately coming to a climax with an acid-trip ending sequence that I don't think I even can properly spoil. Thematically, this film is more specifically rooted in all of the evangelical Christian fears of rock music in the '70s and '80s, a time when televangelists and radio preachers would warn parents to get that "Satanic cyanide" (to use a term that John Hagee threw out as recently as 2013) out of their teenagers' record players lest it corrupt their minds and lead them to an eternity of service to the Dark Lord. The song from The Lords' record, an atonal and evil-sounding thing, sounds like something that wouldn't be out of place on an album from an avant-garde metal group that played old-fashioned, '70s Black Sabbath-style doom metal, and the first time it's played over the radio, it seemingly entrances a select number of Salem women, for purposes that become apparent as the film goes on. It's the cultural fears of that point in history recycled and repurposed by somebody who has, for over thirty years, written and performed music in the genre that caused so much of that hand-wringing, the sort of film about evil, demonic rock music that only a rock-star-turned-filmmaker could create; the protagonist being a rock DJ isn't merely incidental to the plot. Sheri Moon Zombie may have a pretty narrow range as an actor, but she is perfectly cast here as the woman whose life is corrupted by The Lords. Her performance is, in my opinion, one of the best uses of Rob Zombie's "white trash" aesthetic, feeling less like an F-bomb-slinging trailer park caricature and more like somebody whose life is slowly, then quickly, spinning out of her control as evil closes in. The rest of the cast, too, is impressive, much of it filled out by a who's who of horror icons and cult character actors who do some impressive work, especially the actresses playing the witches.
It's atmosphere alone that propels this film, though, as the story is its chief Achilles' heel. The scenes with the historian Francis researching "The Lords" don't do much but tell the audience things that they can already figure out from what the film implied, treating various plot elements like big twists just so Francis can discover them and the audience can presumably be shocked, and despite Bruce Davison's solid performance, his character and subplot ultimately felt extraneous. His motive in saving Heidi from the witches was fuzzy at best, especially given that his interest in the Salem witch trials was initially implied to be a strictly academic one rather than that of somebody who genuinely believed in witchcraft. In fact, by having Francis spell things out to the audience rather than keep them ambiguous, it felt as though some of the black magic powering the film's more unsettling moments was weakened somewhat. I would've kept the focus squarely on Heidi as she struggled with the increasingly supernatural madness gripping her life, building up her relationships with her co-hosts at the station (particularly her love interest Whitey) and with the landlord Lacy and her friends. Some later plot points also felt off to me, particularly the station's giveaway of tickets to The Lords' concert that creates some unresolved questions. The writing here was not the film's strong suit, and often instead felt like the thing holding it back from the sort of greatness that a lot of recent, similarly mood-focused "post-horror" films have achieved.
The Bottom Line
By the end of The Lords of Salem, I was mostly ignoring the story and instead watching for the visuals and the atmosphere, which I feel is the way in which this film is best enjoyed. My conclusion upon watching this film is that Rob Zombie is the Zack Snyder of horror movies: a deeply flawed storyteller, but a very talented cinematic stylist whose movies are always worth watching for that alone.