Dir: Rob Zombie
Starring: Sheri Moon- Zombie, Ken Foree, Meg Foster, Dee Wallace, Bruce Davison, Jeff Daniel Philips, Patricia Quinn, Judy Geeson.
The Lords of Salem is Rob Zombie’s fifth film, and just like his previous four has sparked rather extreme reactions from audiences. How you feel about Lords will greatly depend on how forgiving you are of Zombie’s creative indulgencies and his refusal to give in to what people expect of him, as here he is at his most stubborn.
When local Salem DJ, Heidi, receives a record as a gift from ‘The Lords’ her life collides with Salem’s past in an hallucinogenic nightmare. The music goes out over the airwaves and seemingly has strange effects on the women of Salem leading to a crescendo of craziness that brings the past and the present crashing together.
Plot wise, that’s about all there is to it as this isn’t really a story driven film. Zombie instead opts to step outside of his comfort zone and offers a more visual, surrealist approach. In doing so he has created a lot of debate and alienated a lot of his hardcore fans. This is a shame because there is a lot here to like, and a lot to suggest that Mr. Zombie isn’t far away from a bona fide masterpiece.
Zombie’s insistence on testing himself creatively is apparent from the start. House of 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Reject’s, and the Halloween movies are all brutally immediate; beginning with unflinching sequences of violence. Here he opts for a slow burn, introducing us to his characters through their interactions rather than their aggressions. His Salem is populated with kooky but likeable folk that mark a departure from the bloodthirsty killing machines of what came before. In fact there is hardly any on screen violence here at all, which seems to be what has irked most fans.
Once Salem is exposed to the music of ‘The Lords’ the film shifts gear. The quiet slow burn of the early scenes gives way to a psychedelic assault of images and it becomes a strange, esoteric affair. It ditches conventional narrative almost entirely and happily leads the viewer into a world of cackling hags, mutant dwarves, and masturbating priests. As I said earlier how you feel about all this will depend on how forgiving you are of Zombies creative indulgencies as he shows no concern for the conventional, and sometimes seems to be out to deliberately alienate his audience. Visually he seems to have taken his inspiration from the surrealist nightmares of Dario Argento and David Lynch, and like their more demented offerings there is a refusal to offer all the answers.
He hasn’t quite got the panache of those directors at their best, but he is not far off the mark. The imagery sometimes barrels into camp territory as it becomes so deranged its almost funny. But when he exhibits a little self control there are some really haunting moments, particularly the scenes of witchcraft in old Salem. Moon- Zombie holds the screen pretty well too. Mrs Zombie has come in for a lot of criticism in the past, but here she proves a strength, giving the movie a dreamlike haunted presence at its centre. She is surrounded by Zombie’s usual collection of genre faves like Ken Foree, Meg Foster, and Dee Wallace to name just a few and they all put in a decent shift. But ultimately they are second fiddle to the movies wild hallucinations.
Ultimately Lords of Salem sums Rob Zombie’s film career up pretty well. You either love it or hate it. But Zombie is evolving as a film maker and is developing a style very much of his own, and when he can shake the clinging shadows of his inspirations, be they the seventies grind house heroes, or the operatic art house auteur, there is a great film waiting to happen.