The Lords of Salem
dir. Rob Zombie
Release Date: Apr 19, 13
Since Rob Zombie started directing horror films a decade ago, with House of 1,000 Corpses, he’s become low-budget horror’s Tarantino, not necessarily with respect to his skillset so much as his willingness to crib liberally from the movies he grew up obsessing over. With The Lords of Salem, his first feature without major studio backing (genre distributor Anchor Bay’s theatrical arm is handling the release), Zombie has fully committed to his throwback aesthetic, for both better and worse. Sometimes, that contradiction makes itself apparent in the same scene.
Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie) lives in Salem, Oregon and works as a shock-jock DJ on what comes off as the single worst late-night radio program in American history. She’s also a recovered drug addict (though she’s regularly seen drinking, which would seem to violate the 12 steps, but I digress) and a vulnerable waif. This goes predictably wrong when a wooden box is sent to the show, specifically to Heidi. Inside is a vinyl record by a local band called The Lords, an atonal mess of grinding, off-key instruments that almost immediately sends her into unusual spasms. While it’s played live on the show, scholar Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) is inexplicably disturbed by it, to say nothing of the female population of Salem, who start having similar reactions to Heidi’s. Genuinely gross things ensue, things which can’t be categorized as violence so much as moments that induce a kind of genuine discomfort that the late-aughts’ penchant for torture porn could never quite achieve.
Zombie’s influences are wide, flying from the color palette of Argento to the meticulous, carefully framed situational tension of Kubrick. The latter is hardly surprising; a quick revisit of his earlier (and best) film The Devil’s Rejects will draw to mind a Southern-fried version of A Clockwork Orange. Here, though, these flourishes feel out of sync with the rest of the film; depending on the scene, Lords is either a coiled thriller, a freak show based on obscure religious detritus or a gauntlet of the grotesque. When it’s the latter, it becomes the least interesting version of itself. There are so many scenes of revolting bodily mutilation and psychedelic madness that, after a while, you’ll simply thank your lucky stars that Zombie had the restraint to not brutalize Heidi’s loving canine companion. Some of the scenes are memorable, but less for their quality than for their gleeful disregard for audience comfort.
The biggest downfall of Lords, unfortunately, is Sheri Moon Zombie as the lead. When asked to simply appear in nightmarish tableaux (as in Halloween 2), or even to simply serve as a perverted villain, Moon Zombie is an able scream queen. However, when asked to convey a range of emotions as she is here, she’s unable to rise to the occasion. Instead of communicating an addict in recovery who worries for her own sanity, as Jane Levy recently knocked out of the park in the Evil Dead remake, Moon Zombie mostly just clutches the sides of her head and squints tightly, as though beset by spontaneous migraines. The film doesn’t do her any favors, relying on her presence heavily and only offsetting it with side stories that end up amounting to precious little. Not all the creature effects and Satanic gross-outs in the world can stop The Lords of Salem from coming off as what it ultimately is: a half-cooked, low-budget scare fest that’ll freak you out in the theater and disappear from memory shortly thereafter.