Directed by Rob Zombie
Distributed by Entertainment One
Musician turned super-polarising filmmaker Rob Zombie steps up to the batting plate once more with his Euro-styled Satanic Panic entry The Lords of Salem, and while he once again takes a damned good swing, the man’s display of skill behind the camera continues to fail to take him home.
The story of The Lords of Salem, for as long as it exists, follows Salem radio DJ Heidi Hawthorne (Zombie’s wife and regular cast member, Sheri Moon Zombie) on a personal descent down the satanic rabbit hole after her station receives a strange wooden box containing a record from “The Lords”. Upon playing the ominous music on air, Heidi becomes stricken with thunderous headaches and lapses of consciousness that see her experiencing bizarre visions involving religious iconography, demonic entities and a coven of witches that once plagued the town of Salem.
Also taking interest in the strange package is local Salem historian Francis Matthias (Davison), who through his own investigation discovers a link between the package, the old coven of witches (dubbed “The Lords of Salem” by the resident witch hunter of the day), and the Hawthorne bloodline. It seems the time has come for the Lords’ return, and Heidi is to bear the fruit of a very special curse laid down upon their initial demise. When the next package arrives including posters and free tickets to a special “One Night Only” live performance of The Lords in town, events count down to a mind-bogglingly surreal, overly self-indulgent and increasingly unintentionally hilarious third act culminating in an explosion of art house nonsense.
While attempting to put all of this together into a coherent narrative, writer/director Zombie introduces subplots including Heidi’s co-workers Herman and Herman (Phillips and Foree), and the former’s attempts to keep her from her previous life of drug addiction — fearing that the reclusive, debilitating withdrawal from society that she is experiencing is due to a relapse. That’s not to mention the sudden appearance of her landlord’s sisters, who insist on keeping her locked away in her apartment until her special day with the Lords and the big man downstairs. At the core, it’s a solid horror tale and most certainly open for many a creepy possibility — and kudos to Zombie for pulling off a few startling moments during the first half, and an adherence to the brooding slow burn pace that works so well during these initial scenes. As it progresses, however, The Lords of Salem continues to burn, slowly, long after the fuel has run out — and once it’s through throwing lingering sequences of everyday events or a supposedly creepy character doing almost nothing (but listen out for the score, and be afraid! Be afraid, dammit!), the wheels just fly off entirely.
The most revelatory plot points are delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face via fumbling exposition and, yes, Google, as Zombie decides to spurt everything out at once so that he can get to the artistic imagery that he so desperately wants to place at centre stage. As a series of stills, Zombie and director of photography Brandon Trost create some staggeringly beautiful and macabre images throughout The Lords of Salem.
In fact, it’s home to some of the most stunning cinematography and set design to grace screens this year — but shoe-horning them in at random moments leads to a narrative so fractured it begins to make little sense. On top of that, while some of the imagery may be downright disturbing and unsettling in still form, in motion it becomes absurd. See, for example, a nightmarish scene involving Heidi’s metaphorical impregnation by Satan rendered impossibly hilarious by hokey editing and plain baffling direction.
Protracted sequences of chattering, naked witches, hairy roaring demons that do nothing at all and unfeasibly awkward dialogue are only the tip of an inane iceberg. By the time a finale that paints the destruction of innocence and descent towards hell and armageddon as a music video montage featuring rock chicks dancing on goats, sitting amongst masturbating demon-priests and booty grinding against tongue-waggling corpse-painted Black Metal musicians is even half way done, The Lords of Salem has already been catapulted so savagely beyond the line of unintentional amusement that any previous graces it may have stacked up are almost rendered irrelevant.
Yet not quite. For those interested in the art house flavour and Zombie’s interpretation of European style, there’s enough here to maintain interest — and, as mentioned, the film looks absolutely gorgeous. Similarly impressive is John 5’s brooding score, which nicely underpins the devilish undercurrent of bad things to come — even if it is over-eager in its attempts to generate fear where the imagery only manages chuckles or a confused shake of the head.
It would seem that there was simply too much artistic ambition packed into the The Lords of Salem, and no way to make it work without disjointing the entire affair. It should be noted that scenes involving some lauded actors such as Udo Kier are nowhere to be found, or relegated to “blink and you’ll miss it” moments of screen time, and the press pack includes a long synopsis/treatment of the film’s storyline that bears little resemblance to the actual unfolding of events on-screen. Was it shot to the format of this treatment and subsequently edited to incoherence? Who knows. Promise regularly abounds during The Lords of Salem, but it’s far too willing to stop at random and watch itself masturbating in the mirror than to focus on delivering the chills.
Entertainment One’s UK DVD release of The Lords of Salemis well presented in terms of video and audio, with a 5.1 mix that showcases the uneasy drones of John 5’s score very well indeed. On the extras front, it’s almost bare bones with only a trailer to offer. That’s a shame, as this is one bad movie that would most certainly earn itself a repeat viewing had an audio commentary been available.
1 1/2 out of 5
1/2 out of 5