THE LORDS OF SALEM is the best movie Rob Zombie has made, by far. That’s not quite the rave review it may anticipate. His movies include 2003’s HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, its sequel THE DEVIL’S REJECTS in 2005, and a pair of ill-conceived HALLOWEEN remakes, in 2007 and 2009. Of all those movies, the one I’d be most willing to watch again is 2009’s direct-to-DVD animated feature, THE HAUNTED WORLD OF EL SUPERBEASTO. Most of Rob’s defenders argue for THE DEVIL’S REJECTS as his best movie, but I don’t tend to feel so motivated.
Don’t get me wrong: Rob Zombie is a guy I root for, every time out. We have common interests. Rob Zombie is an acolyte of classic horror films the same way Quentin Tarantino is of “spaghetti” Westerns and the RZA is of ’70s kung-fu flicks. You’ll find few more dedicated fans. I respect that. I also like how he does his best to keep the spotlight on cool actors like Ken Foree, Michael Berryman, and Sid Haig. I’d do the same thing if I could. And I like the fact that he very obviously loves his wife, frequent star of his films Sheri Moon Zombie. That’s rad. I’m not interested in being unkind or dismissive in any way. I’ve seen all Rob Zombie’s movies, and I will continue to see all of his movies. I only wish I didn’t find most of them so underwhelming. And in a couple cases, “underwhelming” is the nicest word I could use.
As modern horror directors go, I could argue that Rob Zombie is better than most in the technical sense, but that’s probably very mild praise. You can generally tell what’s happening onscreen in his movies. This ought to go without saying for a professional film director, but in the current era of hand-held found-footage visual muddle, it doesn’t. Unlike many modern horror filmmakers, Rob is able to put together a striking composition, has a solid knack for creating a believable space and a tactile environment, and has a terrific eye for casting.
Where he runs into trouble is in the areas of pacing and tone — and more than that, his movies are unpleasant. Some are more unpleasant than others, but none really impel me to revisit them. I don’t mean I find them unpleasant the same way I find, say, THE EXORCIST or THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE unpleasant. The unpleasantness in those earlier films is finely controlled in a way that matches their thematic ambition. A work of horror doesn’t always need to have meaning — sometimes it’s scarier (or more fun) when it doesn’t — but it does need to have a firm directorial hand steering the tonal wheel if it is to have maximum impact. This is what all the great horror directors and all the great horror movies have in common.
Rob Zombie’s movies are more free-wheeling, more chaotic — sometimes as a function of the story they’re telling, sometimes not. The reason why THE LORDS OF SALEM is his best movie so far is because it’s his most sure-handed, methodical, focused, and determined. Unfortunately, I still found it lacking. But we’re on our way.
THE LORDS OF SALEM stars Sheri Moon Zombie as Heidi, a small-town Massachusetts DJ who has a nighttime morning-zoo type show with her on-off boyfriend “Whitey” (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and their drinking buddy “Munster” (Ken Foree). Both guys are Christian-named Herman — that’s exclusively because Rob Zombie is such a fan of The Munsters. Their radio show is full of corny banter and cornier sound effects but it looks like a fun job. It’s practically the only fun in the movie, an otherwise solemn affair. A mysterious record appears at the station and the radio team cues it up. The song is a lyrics-free dirge, a cross between doom-metal and navel-gaze. I’m not sure if this is an in-joke from the director, a rock star in his other job, because the song is not catchy at all, but still it has an immediate physiological effect on Heidi and on every other female listener across town. Heidi, who is sober and attends support group meetings, is profoundly unsettled and eventually has a relapse. She stops coming to work. She barricades herself in her apartment. She has horrific visions.
The slow-creeping consumption of Heidi’s life by supernatural forces is the main occupation of the movie. It begins with repeated appearances of a haggard, frequently-nude witch (Meg Foster from THEY LIVE in a committed performance) who was first seen in a pre-credits sequence getting burned at the stake in 1600s Salem. Sometimes Heidi sees this ghastly creature, sometimes only the audience does. There is a monstrous Yeti-type beast (billed in the credits as “Frankenmonster”) lurking off frame, heavy-breathing and presumably horny. It’s not always entirely clear if we’re meant to see these scenes as literal occurrences or as part of Heidi’s rapidly-deteriorating mental state, but it is clear that something devilish is at work, and it’s the work of “The Lords”, the anonymous drone-rock band whose demo has such unusual feminine appeal.
There is a local scholar in all things witchcraft, played by Bruce Davison of MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED fame. Francis Matthias first appears as a guest on Heidi’s radio show. Something about the record bothers him. He’s the star of a parallel storyline, at first mildly unsettled and then full-on disturbed and racing to investigate this Satanic outbreak. The best part of the movie in my opinion is the relationship between Francis and his wife Alice (María Conchita Alonso from PREDATOR 2). It’s a warm, loving marriage of the type you rarely see in any horror movie, let alone one directed by Rob Zombie. I’m not sure that this storyline pays off considering the extended set-up, though. It’s one of the movie’s flaws.
Francis’ investigation leads him to Heidi’s downstairs neighbors, a vivacious trio of women played by Judy Geeson, Patricia Quinn, and Dee Wallace. When Heidi barricades herself in her apartment, refusing to see her boyfriend, these three heretofore-friendly women circle the wagons with the nominal goal of protecting Heidi. If you figure the three of them are somehow connected to the creeping horror elsewhere in the movie, you may have seen a movie like this one before.
That’s the main problem with THE LORDS OF SALEM. Even the parts that are effectively mounted are predictable and familiar. There’s not much here you haven’t seen already. It’s a gloomy mash-up of movies like SUSPIRIA, THE WICKER MAN and ROSEMARY’S BABY. It’s really hard to say much of resonance when you’re working in pastiche. THE LORDS OF SALEM has a number of creepy images but even as you’re watching them, you may be wondering why they’re in there. Imagine if that horrifying dog/bear thing from THE SHINING appeared earlier in the movie, and kept popping up. The reason that incongruous image works so well in Kubrick’s movie is that it appears at a moment where the film has built up an increasingly maniacal pitch and then crested. It’s the worst possible thing Shelley Duvall’s character could see at that moment, precisely because it’s so nonsensical. She’s frantically searching for refuge and then THAT fucking thing shows up.
By contrast, the horrific images Heidi encounters throughout THE LORDS OF SALEM ultimately drive her towards catatonia. She’s a passive character, a victim. By the end, she almost seems like a willing participant in her fate. We’re not invested in our protagonist. Francis Matthias is a far more engaging presence, but he is, in the final estimation, a peripheral character. Heidi never really gets to fight against what’s happening to her. That isn’t satisfying, not to me anyway. I’ve seen some critics of this film bagging on Sheri Moon Zombie’s performance, but that isn’t fair. She does what she’s asked to do as well as anyone would. It’s more of a problem with the character and with the movie. We’re watching the life force of this woman being sapped away for the length of the movie, and for what purpose?
There is some of what seems like parenting panic to THE LORDS OF SALEM. Without getting too spoiler-y, let me leave that ROSEMARY’S BABY comparison where I dropped it a couple paragraphs back. Not for nothing, but the boyfriend character, Whitey, is lanky and bearded like the film’s director. I really don’t spend much time keeping up on the personal lives of filmmakers, but an armchair psychologist might watch this movie and wonder if Mr. and Mrs. Zombie had recently had the big baby conversation around the time they made this movie. I did hear Rob on Howard Stern, where he said he has no interest in being a dad. The movie he made may speak to those sentiments. Or maybe that’s presumptuous bullshit on my part. I just favor that reading of the film because it would make the film seem more personal and more coherent.
Because otherwise, there’s some stuff in here that’s hard to justify. Towards the end, the film fractures and becomes more splintered, firing off bizarre visual tableaus left and right. By the time you encounter the faceless popes seated on golden thrones while jerking off plastic dildos in their laps, you may rightly ask what the fuck you’re watching and why. Is this film a paganist screed against organized religion? Probably not that at all. But the religious undercurrent is interesting, if only because it’s so commonplace in horror cinema at this point and it’s part of a larger conversation I’d like to see explored.
Why does religion crop up so often in horror films? With all due respect to Christianity and Catholicism (seriously, I do not mean any disrespect at all when I raise the question and please don’t misunderstand me), there are maybe more horror movies enlisting Christian and Catholic iconography than those about werewolves, mermen, or mummies. What is it about that particular creed that has led it to co-starring in so many scary movies? Christianity is the predominant religion found in horror films. I couldn’t name a horror movie concerned with Islam or Buddhism, and Scientology is strictly a sci-fi thing. Occasionally there is a movie that brings up Judaism specifically, but that’s usually in the context of folk tales like golems or dybbuks. Many horror directors of Jewish backgrounds — David Cronenberg, John Landis, Eli Roth — tend to gravitate instead towards “body horror,” the disturbing capabilities and mutations of the human body. Then there are those Jewish horror directors (such as William Friedkin and Sam Raimi) who cannily enlist Christian iconography in their films, probably because the predominance of Christianity lends itself to a kind of visual and thematic shorthand. Jesus Christ is the Mickey Mouse of religious figures. Everyone knows His story, regardless of their own background. Now, I have several theories why horror films continue to return t0 the well of religion, but that’s a debate for another time. I don’t want to get too far afield of the task at hand.
My point is that the usage of religious symbols and notions in THE LORDS OF SALEM, specifically, is integral to the decision of whether or not it is as good as its fans may claim or as bad as its detractors may think. It all comes down to sincerity, I think. I don’t know where Rob Zombie stands, theologically speaking. I didn’t before seeing the film, and afterwards, I still don’t. If the heavy religious symbolism in this film come from a genuine place of searching or even of cynicism, then the film’s meaning is worth pondering. If the religious stuff is just intended as shock value, if it’s only in there to disturb and provoke, then the film is juvenile and callow. The fact that I am parsing the question at all seems to indicate that the film isn’t successful. But you may feel otherwise. I’d love to hear an opposing viewpoint.
NOTE: Be advised that many of the horror luminaries listed in the film’s credits and on various sources online as appearing in THE LORDS OF SALEM either had their scenes cut, or are totally unrecognizable. Fans of Barbara Crampton, Michael Berryman, Sid Haig, Lisa Marie, Clint Howard, and Udo Kier will not need to rush out to this one. Also, there is not remotely enough of Ken Foree. But that is true of every movie.
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