A much-anticipated new shocker from cult writer-director Rob Zombie, The Lords of Salem is a psychedelic story of witchcraft, drugs and Satanism. Sheri Moon Zombie, Rob’s wife, takes the starring role as dreadlocked radio DJ Heidi Hawthorne, who is already battling some demons before the actual demons even get involved. Little does she know that she’s actually descended from witchhunter-in-chief John Hawthorne, and that the witches are out for revenge. It also stars Bruce Davison (X-Men) and Ken Foree (Dawn of the Dead).
I found The Lords of Salem pretty disappointing, to be honest. Rob Zombie’s run of cult films has included shockers like House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects – both terrifyingly grizzly affairs – and he’s also known for his 2007 remake of horror classic Halloween; clearly, this is a horror writer-director who has understood his genre, but also made a name for himself with his original contribution. In fairness, The Lords of Salem does have a nightmarish, surreal charm – but as a horror film, it pales in comparison to Zombie’s previous work.
The basic problem is that the whole thing is either too surreal to be shocking, or too banal to be frightening. What initially seems like a run-of-the-mill exploitation horror based on the Salem witch trials – a fairly well-covered subject, I might add – becomes a bit more experimental as it descends into a quick-fire series of surreal scenes inspired by the protagonist’s drug-addled psychosis. Rob is known for emulating (and often boldly referencing) classic exploitation horror flicks – but this film seems to be trying to retain and depart from that tendency at the same time.
Ultimately, I didn’t feel there was a lot here to involve me. Distanced first by the apparent self-consciousness of the script, and then by the series of disconnected film sequences, I found it hard to be horrified. Sequences relating to the demonic birth in which the film culminates sometimes approached an enjoyable shock value, but not often enough to make this a real squeamish hit – and I definitely wasn’t struck by any particular psychological realism either. I enjoy Rob Zombie’s style here, in the colorful and creative sets, costumes and arrangements – but it’s an unfulfilling film experience all the same.
The passable acting on offer is somewhat undermined by an often directionless plot, which leaves a lot of the characters high and dry. Several subplots go unresolved, or are completed in an abortive fashion, leaving you wondering why certain characters were included in the film at all. Other characters, such as Landlady Doyle and her two sisters, seem to have been conceived for convenience’s sake and are abandoned just as quickly.
To sum up
When you add it all up, what do you get? A strong musical score, a comparatively short core of non-sequitur images featuring satanic iconography, and a lot of Sheri Moon Zombie. My suspicion is that this project somehow began life as a music video; at its base, it does all the things that a satanic heavy metal music video does, and everything apart from that – secondary characters, storylines and horror – it falls short on or ignores.
That’s just my little theory, but I can tell you for sure that The Lords of Salem will not horrify you in the way that Zombie’s previous films might have. Perhaps this is the first stage of a departure to something new – but if it is, what we’re seeing here is the awkward first step. Although it’s a film full of character and interesting things to look at I can’t recommend The Lords of Salem; it lacks drive, focus and – most importantly – fear factor. Maybe Rob Zombie could spend a while looking for those, instead of braaains.
The Lords of Salem will be released on DVD 22 April 2013.