Editor’s note: My review originally ran during SXSW earlier this year, but we’re posting it again as the film hits theaters this weekend.
Some filmmakers, no matter how hard they may try to appeal to the masses, can never escape the label of acquired taste. Others don’t even try though instead preferring to speak to a smaller and more receptive core audience.
Kevin Smith is a good example of the former. Rob Zombie is a better example of the latter.
Zombie makes movies for himself, and he’ll be the first to tell you that not only will the majority of viewers hate his films but that he simply doesn’t care. That’s more than evident in his four previous features as they presented worlds filled with ugly and foul violence while being devoid of humor and joy. His new film, The Lords of Salem, continues that trend of not giving a damn, but something is visibly and unexpectedly amiss.
Rob Zombie has discovered how to have fun…even if some of it is unintentional.
We first meet Heidi Hawthorne (Sheri Moon Zombie) and her ass lying naked on her bed in a dimly lit apartment. She’s part of a radio DJ trio in Salem, MA that also includes Herman (Ken Foree) and Herman Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips). The two Hermans are easy to distinguish because Whitey looks like the runner-up in a Rob Zombie lookalike contest. Heidi receives a strange LP by a band calling themselves The Lords, but the opening track affects her in odd ways. She starts having weirdly violent dreams and visions regarding the city’s past dabbling in witch-burning and the like, and a supposedly empty apartment down the hall gets a mysterious new tenant who beckons her with neon lights and bestial sex. Looks like she picked a bad day to quit mainlining heroin.
Further plot synopsis is unnecessary as most viewers will have a pretty solid idea where things are heading early on, but what the film lacks in narrative surprise it almost makes up for in gleeful, batshit craziness. Old ladies strip down to their nekkid bits, a baby is licked and spat upon by Meg Foster (recognizable only by her eyes), a possessed priest takes some forceful oral pleasuring, old-school torture devices are put to nightmarish use and the dancing, cooked turkey demon thing… well, you will be entertained.
But there are other elements that work, too. Bruce Davison shows enthusiasm as a writer investigating The Lords and their connection to Heidi, the score by Griffin Boice and John 5 maintains a strong and deep base feel that sets an unsettling tone early on, the radio station scenes show a loose and fun chemistry and most welcome of all, the Whitey character (and Phillips’ performance) represent the first truly enjoyable and kind character in a Zombie film.
As much progress as Zombie has made though as both a writer and director, he continues to make the increasingly bad call of casting his wife in speaking roles. She simply doesn’t have the acting chops to make Heidi an interesting or sympathetic lead, so when bad things start happening we’re left feeling far more interested in Davison’s investigation than in Heidi’s fate.
The script is equally at fault there as the influence of European horror films creeps in to the point where Zombie feels no obligation to explain things in any real way. Other issues pop up throughout, though, that seem to do more with laziness and budgetary concerns. Heidi’s building exterior shows windows every 5 feet, but there’s not a single one visible in her apartment. (Or in the bigfoot impregnation one either.) The first appearance of Heidi’s last name on a computer screen is misspelled in big bold letters. Logic and relevance gaps appear and grow regarding a concert, an AA meeting, a pregnancy and the ending itself.
It’s also ridiculously dull at times, as the camera rests on Moon Zombie’s face for extended periods of time with no purpose or tries to make the limited streets of Salem feel ominous without success. The supporting cast members, while eclectic and often entertaining, don’t seem to be on the same page as to what tone to take with their performances. Some go big while others play it dead straight.
The Lords of Salem is a surprise in that it’s somewhat entertaining and goofy instead of off-putting and cold. It’s not clear how much of the humor was intentional, but that’s not really important to your enjoyment. To be clear, this isn’t a case of “so bad it’s good.” This is so offbeat and unexpected it’s almost good.
The Upside: The de-feathered and dancing turkey/midget; some visually stylish cinematography; effective score; the dog lives.
The Downside: Predictable story; too many dull stretches; Sheri Moon Zombie still hasn’t learned how to show expressions or emotions.
On the Side: Richard Lynch died during filming so an entire subplot involving additional flashbacks was left unfinished.