While House of 1,000 Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects had interesting things to say about killer maniacs and their hapless victims, Rob Zombie’s latest effort, The Lords of Salem, fails on nearly all fronts to do justice to its subject: the eruption of old-school Salem witchcraft into the contemporary world. Salem features Sheri Moon Zombie as Heidi Hawthorne, a talk-radio DJ whose work, with the help of her colleagues, consists mainly of deriding and ridiculing guests on her show. When she starts listening to a mysterious record left at the radio station — a scene that echoes the emergence of Black Sabbath and other “music of the devil” bands — Heidi drops into a trance and becomes vulnerable to satanic forces.
Heidi’s co-host, Whitey, portrayed by Jeffrey Daniel Phillips, seems like a geekier, more awkward version of Rob Zombie himself, replete with unkempt beard and piercing, haunted eyes. Much like Bradley Cooper in Midnight Meat Train resembled a young Clive Barker (the author of the short story on which that film is based), so does Zombie, intentionally or otherwise, insert a weirdly fictionalized version of himself into the action (what little of that there is.)
The Lords of Salem just isn’t scary, although it tries hard to be. Zombie stuffs many a shot with eerie tableaux: a revolting, grisly witch hovers in the background, another figure hovers in the corner of the room, etc. Unfortunately, these gruesome intruders feel like set pieces or wax figures because they never do anything or harm the protagonist. Plot is equally under-served. While minimal plot can be fine (there are certainly decent, nearly plot-free horror films out there), here it’s a hindrance – the conclusion comes off as obvious and inevitable. Even several cameos by famous (or infamous) horror film actors, such as scream queen Barbara Crampton, do little to offset this.
After a scare-less depiction of the leafy Salem environs and its somewhat self-absorbed characters, the ending arrives in all its incoherently edited glory. This slap-dash, which contrasts religious iconography with disarming masturbation and body horror, is presumably meant to shock viewers. While the visual aspect of the ending is unexpected, the montage and imagery are not particularly frightening. Moreover, the march toward a conclusion is painfully predictable. The character of Heidi acts like a mere stick figure, carrying out the prescribed duties of a doomed heroine.
Perhaps Zombie, knowing scares were scarce, was trying to go for the gross-out, as advised by Stephen King when writers aren’t quite able to tap into more refined terror. Alas, instead of getting frights, the viewer gets to meditate on masturbating religious figures, physically contorted witches, and bodily violation. Art school meets Polanski meets …horror? For this reviewer, the scariest part of The Lords of Salem was the closing credit sequence. Spooky mood music accompanies black-and-white shots of eerie Salem neighbourhoods which, ironically, are probably not far from Salem’s actual witchy tourist industry. There are shots of panelled houses, glowing streets, lamp posts and leaf-littered avenues, all cast in dusky light under a foreboding, bleak sky. So the win goes to Zombie for accomplishing an eerie close. If only he could have tapped into that unease for the rest of the production, and offered audiences some sympathetic characters to fear with and for, he might have pulled off something much more.
James K. Moran is Contributing Editor for PstD.