Directed by Rob Zombie
Distributed by Anchor Bay Entertainment
I’m a fan of Rob Zombie’s filmmaking.
There. I said it. And that’s a fairly dangerous thing to do in horror fandom, where hate can run high for the man while vitriolic comments on his work generally prevail on genre site message boards. This writer genuinely enjoyed Zombie’s writing/directing debut, the garishly hued Texas Chainsaw pastiche House of 1000 Corpses, a fun film which paled greatly in comparison to its follow-up – the brilliant, grindhousey 70s throwback The Devil’s Rejects (a film I still consider to be one of the best the aughts had to offer).
Then there were his Halloween films. Remaking Carpenter’s classic would’ve been a thankless task for any filmmaker but was especially so for Zombie, whose outside-the-box approach to the material infuriated fanboy purists and casual fans alike. And while I’ll agree that his initial installment was undoubtedly flawed, I found his 2009 sequel to be a minor triumph – a stylistic take on the Boogeyman that eschewed the franchise’s conventions and boasted as much heart as it did horror. And, while we’re talking, I pretty much dug his batshit animated film The Haunted World of El Superbeasto, too.
And all that brings us up-to-date with The Lords of Salem, the shock rocker’s newest film concerning witchcraft, Satanism, and a centuries-old curse being revisited on modern-day Massachusetts. But while the movie possesses some truly distressing moments and often striking images, it sadly ranks as the filmmaker’s weakest offering to date.
Opening with an incredibly fucked-up introduction to a coven of Satan-worshiping witches in 1697 Salem, the film leaps ahead to the present day, where we are introduced to radio DJ Heidi Laroc (Moon Zombie), a recovering drug addict who shares a show with fellow hosts Herman Salvador and Herman Jackson (Phillips and Foree, respectively). When a vinyl record featuring a single from a band known only as “The Lords” arrives at the station, Heidi gives it a spin – triggering bizarre behavior in herself and various women throughout the town. Heidi herself begins having nightmares of both the dreaming and waking variety, as she retreats back to drug use to help her cope with her crumbling sanity.
A secondary plot finds author and witch trial enthusiast Francis Matthias (Davison, great here) discovering a link between The Lords’ tune and the coven of witches featured at the film’s start. As the two tales eventually converge, blood is shed as the story gives way to nightmarish imagery, leading to a conclusion that…
…hell, I don’t really know.
Y’see, while the plot of the film is somewhat threadbare to begin with, it might have sustained this reviewer’s interest had it focused more on Matthias’ investigation rather than Heidi’s disintegrating grip on reality (which really only seems to be an excuse to ladle on hallucination after hallucination – imagine if American Werewolf had been mostly comprised of the Nazi mutant dream sequence). Still, the film did have a story, such as it was, and it did beg for a conclusion. What the film ultimately gives us is a montage of stylistic masturbation – a Rob Zombie music video, sans Zombie’s music.
That’s right. In lieu of an actual wrap-up, the film merely presents us with all manner of crazy vignettes, as if to say:
”Here’s a gaggle of nude, animal mask-wearing witches stalking towards the camera slowly!”
“Here’s a group of desiccated priests jerking off!”
“Here’s Sheri Moon Zombie riding a goat in a bathroom!”
“Here’s a writhing tentacle beast baby torn from its screaming mother’s womb!”
“All of this is better than a proper climax to the narrative, right?! Hell yeah!!!”
What a shame, because the movie had so much potential. The basic story (again, while thin) is interesting enough. As always, Zombie has a great eye and is pretty fantastic at crafting the film’s doom-laden atmosphere, while the score by John 5 and Griffin Boice is genuinely haunting and terrifying in equal measure.
Likewise, the acting is all fairly solid here as well. Davison makes for a likable, should-have-been lead; Phillips is an endearingly goofy presence; and Meg Foster is utterly nightmare-inducing as the evil coven’s head witch, Margaret Morgan. Strong supporting turns are turned in by Maria Conchita Alonso, Dee Wallace, Patricia Quinn, and Judy Geeson as well. And Sheri Moon Zombie acquits herself well here as the film’s lead. Her performance as a recovering addict descending into madness is commendable and marks a leap forward for the actress’ onscreen talent. If it feels as though she cannot shoulder the weight of carrying the film at times, I’d argue that it’s due less to Moon Zombie’s abilities than the underwritten character she’s saddled with.
And therein lies the biggest problem with the film – the writing. The screenplays are generally the weakest aspects of each of Zombie’s outings, and that’s certainly the case with Lords. But that weakness has never before been as crippling to the filmmaker as it is here. The script seems to exist solely to act as a clothesline on which to hang any number of shocking setpieces. And while Zombie’s assured direction keeps the film tense and stylish, the meandering story often forces one to lose interest in the unfolding events more often than not. Pity.
Anchor Bay’s Blu-ray boasts a sharp image with solid blacks, with loads of noticeable grain at times (intentional, no doubt, as the film looked much the same in theatres this past April). The audio track is strong and clear and will likely jolt you from your seat on more than one occasion. The disc’s sole bonus feature is an audio commentary with Zombie. It’s a worthwhile listen, with the filmmaker recounting numerous anecdotes regarding the film’s production. He discusses the passing of actor and Lords cast member Richard Lynch and how it affected the film’s story, tension between some of the film’s actresses, and the chaotic shooting conditions he and the cast/crew had to endure (freezing locations, lost hours, sets being built at the last possible minute). It’s just a shame that all of the deleted material Zombie mentions couldn’t be thrown in as supplements on the Blu. Ah, well.
While The Lords of Salem is ultimately an unsatisfying watch, the style, scares, score, and acting are all of a high enough quality to make it essential viewing for Zombie fans, regardless of its faults. If you count yourself as one of the man’s detractors, give this flick a wide berth. But for those who enjoy Zombie’s unique brand of horror, go ahead and give Lords a shot. Just be sure to keep your expectations firmly in check.
2 out of 5
1 out of 5
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