When we posted the trailer and poster for The Lords of Salem a few weeks back, I mentioned how the only Rob Zombie movie I’ve liked was The Devil’s Rejects. Yet The Lords of Salem looked promising. It gave off a vibe of Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion filtered through the lens of European horror maestros and surreal art movies.
Before the SXSW screening began, Zombie said up front that half the audience would love the movie while the other half would hate it. This wasn’t because Zombie lacked confidence in the finished product, but more because he realized that The Lords of Salem would be polarizing even for his fans.
Half the audience loving it may be optimistic, though.
[This review was originally posted as part of our South by Southwest 2013 coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of The Lords of Salem.]
The Lords of Salem
Director: Rob Zombie
Release Date: April 19, 2013
At the heart of the film is Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie), a recovering addict who works as a radio show co-host. It’s like a morning zoo crew complete with sound effects, but it’s done late at night. They have eclectic guests between the fart noises and springy erection sounds: one night a black metal singer with an inverted crucifix scar on his head, the next night a local man who’s written a book on witches. She lives in a large apartment with extravagantly cool decor: the walls featuring images from Méliès and Commando Cody. Her life seems sitcom happy, but there’s a sense of impending dread in the dark corridors of her apartment building. The shadows seem much darker than they ought to be, and for some reason an empty apartment has a new tenant.
A mysterious recording by The Lords comes into Heidi’s life in a wooden box bearing runes. On the thick vinyl disc is a repetitive droning sound that reminded me a little of Goblin on ludes. The song starts sending Heidi into a fit where she sees flashes of the city’s violent past of witchcraft and mayhem. Her radio co-hosts (played by Jeff Daniel Philips and Ken Foree) decide to play the recording on the air. That’s just the beginning of Heidi’s decline into madness and centuries-old evil involving a coven led by an absolutely demented, scene-stealing Meg Foster.
When The Lords of Salem builds its mood of dread, it’s a surprisingly fun watch. Sheri Zombie believably slips into relapse and breakdown, and her character serves as a kind of anchor to the story as it becomes stranger and stranger. Running parallel to Heidi’s breakdown is a writer/historian played by Bruce Davison who’s trying to uncover the secrets of that recording by The Lords. He’s like a cross between Udo Kier in Suspiria and Richard Farnsworth in Misery — fearless Captain Exposition.
As the dread goes full berserk, Zombie starts to fill his film with short, spiky moments of surreal madness. Some are like night terrors from Dario Argento and other maestros of Italian horror, while others are like Ken Russell, Alejandro Jodorowsky, and Stanely Kubrick at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. When Heidi goes to a church, she meets up with a lecherous priest who goes into full freakout mode. One delirious segment features a bizarre creature that’s both absurd and terrifying-because-it’s-so-absurd, which makes for the best stuff of fever dreams.
But it seems like The Lords of Salem loses its way as it tries to wind down the story through a series of visual freakouts. I can’t pinpoint just where the movie goes off the rails, though. Maybe the creature I mentioned above, which caused different kinds of laughter from the audience: some nervous, some confused, some mocking. The cards are on the table and it’s a pair of twos.
I suppose it makes sense that The Lords of Salem would go this direction since it’s Heidi’s film and it’s about her madness and the extent of this descent. As witchy delirium sets in, the colors in her life go into stark Argento monochrome, and the apartment devolves to an awful kind of squalor. And yet the promise of the plot and those moments of sheer dread give way to a kind of goofiness, like the radio show promo seen early in the film on bath salts. It’s a fatal goofiness, however, and while some bits of the finale are memorable, I think they’re memorable for being misfires.
There’s always been a strange connection between material that’s funny and material that’s terrifying; ditto sublime moments of surrealism and silly moments of surrealism. While the film’s real world plot goes from lighthearted and silly to absolutely severe, the surreal psychological segments seem to do the opposite: the chilling strangeness of Foster’s performance and the Bava/Russell visions give way to images of masturbating corpse priests and Sheri Zombie treating a stuffed goat like a mechanical bull. We go from horror storytelling to the in-between shots in a music video.
While The Lords of Salem goes way off the rails, it at least does it in a fascinating way — a nuclear train with an ensuing mushroom cloud; I can’t look away, and I think my face is melting off, partly from the radiation, partly from all the confused expressions on my face. Thankfully it seems like Zombie is in on his own joke rather than taking it all too seriously, which makes the more pretentious moments of The Lords of Salem somewhat bearable. He knows a lot of the stuff is ridiculous but he does it anyway.
Even though Zombie’s next film is Broad Street Bullies — a hockey movie based on the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1970s (think Slap Shot but real) — The Lords of Salem kind of makes me want to see Zombie do a full-on Jodorowsky-style film that exists entirely in its own surreal universe. Maybe there, in that odd world, a finale like The Lords of Salem‘s would seem less ridiculous and more sublime.