– Summary –
Director : Rob Zombie
Year Of Release : 2012
Principal Cast : Sheri Moon Zombie, Bruce Davison, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Ken Foree, Patricia Quinn, Dee Wallace, Maria Conchita Alonso, Judy Geeson, Meg Foster, Lisa Marie, Sid Haig, Julian Acosta
Approx Running Time : 101 Minutes
What we think : Moody, atmospheric Rob Zombie flick has all the trademark grunge, grime and darkness we’ve come to expect from the auteur film-maker, only the lack of story and substance to the squeamish visuals leaves the film hollow and derivative. I’d go out on a limb and say much of this film harkens back to the great Stanley Kubrick’s work on films like The Shining (only less well lit), and if we were awarding points solely on setting the mood through weird, freakish style, The Lords Of Salem would snag every point we could spare; it’s a heartless, soulless entity in the end, though, with even Zombie’s trademark penchant for shock and awe feeling almost half-hearted and rote. Considering his oeuvre thus far, this is something of a comedown for a man with a very definite way of expressing himself.
Beauty is most definitely skin deep.
Horror film-makers don’t come more divisive than musician-come-director Rob Zombie. His blistering opening salvo, House of 1000 Corpses, set the tone for his style going forward, and he’s been nothing if not consistent in his approach to striving to bring something darker, creepier, to the horror genre. Hardly “mainstream”, Zombie’s films have become cult favorites, largely through the use of his unique sense of scary style, and it’s a testament to the power of his vision that his work has been released to the public with (from what I can tell) minimal interference from any studio. The Devil’s Rejects, as well as his remakes of Halloween and Halloween II, were met with mixed reviews – negative from those who weren’t sure what he was trying to say, and positive from the genre hounds who lapped up the gore and genuine frights; The Lords of Salem isn’t a remake, it’s a stand-alone story, written by Zombie himself, so I went into this expecting something more… I don’t know, frightening than what I eventually received. Does this make it a good film, on a Rob Zombie scale of tits-out scary to blood-ridden disgust?
Heidi Hawthorn (Sheri Moon Zombie) is a recovering drug addict working at a local Salem, Massachusetts radio station, when the station receives a mysterious album from a band calling themselves “The Lords”. Playing the album results in Heidi having devastating visions of demons and witches, leaving her frightened. The record is played on the radio one evening, resulting in women all over Salem also experiencing a trance-like state, and also having visions. Sensing something evil is afoot, Heidi learns that she has links to Salem’s notorious witch-trial past, and her life is being played out by those who seek to bring back the lord of darkness to the Earth – Satan. Cue dramatic demon music and plenty of burning crosses.
The Lords Of Salem is one hell of an atmospheric film, if you’ll pardon the pun. Oppressive in darkness, layered in iconography and genre-straddling cliches, the film is an interesting experiment in somebody trying to ape another director’s style and hone it into a film for mass consumption. This film isn’t one which will appeal to most people – come to think of it, I don’t know many people in my film watching world who would appreciate it, so chalk this one down to being an “acquired taste” and leave well enough alone. Reviewing this film for the mainstream will almost certainly result in a low score. Looking at the film from the perspective of a horror fan, however, and there’s a lot here to appreciate, even if the end result tends to be a little lackluster. One can definitely see where Zombie was aiming with this film, with its Salem-based witchcraft cultural touchstone central plot, and the now overused demonic/Satanic undercurrent made famous by the likes of Roman Polanski and William Friedkin. However, where this film strikes out compared to Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist in terms of revolutionizing the horrific nature of dark supernaturals, is that none of the people in this film are given any kind of subtext, development or even real dialogue to content with. As much as I didn’t enjoy Rosemary’s Baby, Polanski at least made the characters feel real, even if the events surrounding them were not. Save for Sheri Moon Zombie’s Heidi (as obtuse a horror-film name as I’ve heard in a while – really, she’s a Swiss heroine?), who is central to the weird goings-on in Salem this time, nobody else in the film is really worth the time we spend with them.
So you have a visually compelling, emotionally empty film that goes for the jugular, and ends up landing somewhere around the ankles. It’s a mixture of style and style, with limited substance. The first half of the film feels like some bizarre music video without music (don’t get me started on John 5’s “score”, which is nothing more than grinding, concrete-dragging white noise more than it is a musical accompaniment), and the latter half is a nightmarish cacophony of imagery that, while designed to shock, becomes numbing in its ferocity, to the point of tedium. Considering this is the same guy who made House of 1000 Corpses, that’s saying a lot. 1000 Corpses terrified the shit out of me, and I expected the same from this film; it doesn’t deliver.
Zombie’s directorial flair cannot be overstated. The man is a visionary – of that I am certain. His films may not be my normal viewing habit, but as far as being unique in the gradually homogenized world of Horror, he’s a shrill klaxon sounding the alarm at full volume. It would not surprise me if, at some point in the future, he directed a film which becomes renowned in the same whispered tones as The Exorcist or (dare I say it) The Sixth Sense; a pop-culture monolith destined to be studied and examined endlessly by film students. The Lords Of Salem feels like a step backwards for Zombie, almost playing things too safe where he could have really pushed the envelope. Don’t get me wrong: there’s plenty in this film which will shock many (a fair amount of full frontal elderly female nudity, for one) and I would say most of those watching, of a religious persuasion, might be horrified by what Zombie does with iconography here, yet for all the attempts to scare and creep-out, The Lords Of Salem feels half-cooked, underdone. It’s annoying that from a technical and visual perspective, the film is gob-smacking in what it puts on the screen, both confronting and stagnantly real, and yet the story never generates any energy, nor emotional connection with the audience (perhaps that’s just me?).
I was set to be scared out of my brain with this film – it’s what I expect from a Rob Zombie film – and I wasn’t. Whether you appreciate Zombie’s unique style or not, there’s no denying the man’s ability to create a sense of palpable dread through simply a visual, often wordless, narrative. He can make horror seem truly horrific if he tries. The Lords Of Salem feels like a parody of Kubrickian proportions, lacking cohesion or depth, spewing out cliches and genre stumbling points that confused me, as well as disappointed me. Go watch House of 1000 Corpses or The Devil’s Rejects, and then watch The Lords Of Salem, and tell me there’s not something amiss here. No doubt the ravenous Zombie fanboys will lap this muck up like it’s cinematic gold, but for the casual observer into Zombie’s creepy, esoteric genre-building world, this film is one of his lesser efforts.