2013 - 101 minutes
Directed by: Rob Zombie
Written by: Rob Zombie
Starring: Sheri Moon Zombie, Bruce Davison, Judy Geeson, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Ken Foree, Meg Foster, Dee Wallace
If The Lords of Salem represents Rob Zombie’s maturation as a filmmaker, he’s rocketed right past his prime into the sad twilight of a once-promising career. The director has thankfully moved on from his beloved hillbilly horror (done best in the above-average The Devil’s Rejects), where characters scream the f-word every five seconds as classic rock plays on the soundtrack. However, what he’s moved on to is a tired film with one-note characters spouting meaningless dialogue…while classic rock plays on the soundtrack.
The story begins in 1600s Salem, Massachusetts, where a coven of witches led by Margaret Morgan (Meg Foster) gnash their blackened teeth and chant nonsense in praise of Satan. Everything about these flashback sequences is uniformly terrible. It looks to be on par with an “edgy” high school stage production where everything is cheaply exaggerated, from the set to the stringy hair, soiled faces and line readings that are way too over-dramatic.
In present day Sheri Moon Zombie – who wouldn’t have an acting career if her husband wasn’t a director – plays Heidi, a recovering drug addict and local rock DJ. You’d think that’d be enough for her, but of course, there is a connection to her town’s witch history that is slowly revealed. One day in her forcibly old and creepy apartment building she sees a new tenant down the hall in notoriously empty apartment #5. But in a comically wooden conversation with her landlord Lacy (Judy Geeson) it is revealed there isn’t a new tenant at all. Uh-oh.
Then at the radio station a wooden box containing a record from “The Lords” appears as a gift for Heidi, which she and her two co-hosts (Jeff Daniel Phillips, Ken Foree) play on the show. The rhythmic (and admittedly pretty cool-sounding) music seems to have an immediate hypnotic effect on Heidi and all of the women listening to the broadcast, but none of the men.
What follows for Heidi is a cycle of strange dream-like sequences leading to startling wake-ups, a few of them coming with her ass exposed. It’s great when a director brings personal emotion to their films, but fetishizing your spouse to fulfill some private desire is a little much.
One day (the film helps us out by inserting title cards for the days of the week) Heidi is invited for wine with Lacy and a couple of her fellow slightly haggard friends. Guess who/what these three women turn out to be? Together they assist in leading Heidi down a path for their own nefarious use.
Meanwhile, expert on the Salem Witch Trials Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) is investigating the connection between the music of “The Lords” with his town’s past. His scenes feel like they are from a different movie and are never really integrated into the main plotline, except to dish out pieces of exposition when needed. When it is no longer needed, neither is Francis.
Heidi also has a dog, Troy, that is a major cog and omnipresent in the early going. As in “I have to go feed Troy” and “I have to walk Troy.” In a film like this, you’re just waiting for the poor golden retriever’s demise. But instead of becoming a ritualistic sacrifice for the witches, the guy gets locked in a bathroom at one point and is never heard from again. All that was sacrificed in this instance, and throughout the film for that matter, is competent screenwriting.
Zombie is blatantly trying to conjure something in the vein of Roman Polanski, but falls way short by attempting to push everything too far. Rosemary’s Baby is a slow burn that sets a creepy tone where less is more, whereas The Lords of Salem is a slow, boring burn with over-the-top imagery in a case where more is less.
During the final dream-like sequence the audience is barraged with weird stacked upon weird only for the sake of weirdness. It’s like the crazy drawings on a 1980s high school outcast’s Trapper Keeper come to life. It’s all about witches conjuring a devil-baby (isn’t it always), but the how and why are never clear.
The resolution to the bizarre showcase, if there is one, is as ineffective as it could be. We’re left with the question of what the heck? But not in the enthusiastic sense Zombie wants; more like what the heck did I waste these last 100 minutes doing?