Rob Zombie’s film making aspirations have long-eluded the mainstream, instead settling for near-cult status with his wild and weird grindhouse horror flicks like House Of A Thousand Corpses and The Devil’s Rejects. His more mainstream efforts — basically his remakes of the first two Halloween films — have met with limited success and never quite found a toehold in the American horror audience.
Zombie’s newest effort, The Lords Of Salem, is unlikely to change that trend. The film is a puzzling, garish mishmash of arthouse pretension and grindhouse throwback, with casual nods to classics like Rosemary’s Baby as well as a little taste of rock and roll for good measure. Yet despite that chaotic combination of genres and ideas, Zombie’s film never finds its balance. Instead it’s languid pacing, uninspired plotting, and nonsensical dialogue end up making for a punishing experience, an overly long, obtuse effort that felt less like a horror movie and more like dying a slow death.
The Lords Of Salem stars Zombie’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie, as Heidi, a radio DJ working in Salem, MA. The town is, of course, notorious for its history with witch trials and wicca, and the film plays heavily into that history, jumping back and forth between the present day and 400 years ago, when a coven of witches stirred up trouble by attempting to bring the Devil into our world, only for them to be captured and eventually executed. Somehow, Heidi becomes the centerpiece in the plot of a new coven to rejuvenate the efforts of the original. It concerns a record containing trance-like music that possesses the women of Salem, a sinister landlady and her equally sinister friends, an ominous vacant apartment and… oh, man. It doesn’t matter.
Here’s the thing. The Lords Of Salem is a bad movie. No, that’s not fair. It’s a terrible movie. It’s incoherent, pretentious, teen-Satanist gobbledygook, bent and hammered into the vague shape of a horror film that is meant to prey on our fears of dark pacts and evil lurking in the hearts of men — or women, as it were. The problem is that it’s all so very guileless, so lacking in subtlety or nuance. It’s obvious, a false start of a film that feels like someone wrote out the mental exercises of a goth-obsessed teenager who doesn’t have any actual filmmaking knowledge. Zombie shoots often for momentous, portentous scenes filled with brooding notes that build into clanging tones, flashes of color and blood and vivid imagery, except that little of it contributes to the story. In fact, one of his greatest crimes is evoking imagery simply because he wants you to see it, not because it makes a valid contribution to the film itself. Images of lurking undead looming behind the protagonist, or pictures on walls that cry blood, are only of value if someone in the story is affected as a result. Zombie never does that, instead giving us these images in an effort to creep us out, except that by not having it actually affect the role players, it feels forced and fake. If they don’t notice it, it’s almost as if it doesn’t matter.
And it doesn’t matter. Little of it matters, really. The entire film is a mess of goofy, ridiculous Satanic tropes, dependent on cringe-inducing dialogue and laughable effects to carry it. I mean that about the laughable effects — there is one of the adorementioned ominous buildups that led to the image of a demon that made me literally burst into laughter, it was so poor and ridiculous in its execution that it couldn’t be helped, so tacky and clumsily rendered that it rendered the entire moment moot. Yet despite all of that, the film’s greatest sin is its most unexpected one. Of all the sensations I would have expected to have walking into a horror film directed by Rob Zombie, the one I absolutely wouldn’t have guessed is this: it’s fucking boring. The entire film is an exercise in drudgery, a blood-splashed, gloomily lit yet garishly colored film that somehow manages to be simultaneously intrusive and noisy while also being brutally dull. In truth, I likely would have fallen asleep except that every 10 minutes or so someone on screen would screech out what felt like regurgitated Slayer lyrics.
The Lords Of Salem has little to redeem itself. It has roughly five minutes of genuine scariness, but little else that stirs. The trio of modern-day witches are fun, in a strange, demon-possessed Angela Lansbury kind of way, but the rest of the film is a mess. Sheri Moon Zombie fumbles and mumbles her way through the film, offered next to no help by her sad sack supporting cast which includes a brief and misplaced Bruce Davison as a local professor and the guy who played the Geico caveman (truth) as a listlessly lovelorn hipster who moons after her. There’s almost no mystery to the film, except for a lone “a ha!” moment that was telegraphed by a light year. It feels like Zombie had a series of scenes played out in his mind, and haphazardly cobbled together a story around those scenes in an effort to create some sort of narrative. Yet after the umpteenth mumbling conversation followed by blaring music followed by weird dream sequence followed by flashback to dirty nude witches shrieking botched lyrics to Behemoth songs (the entire film is basically those four things, repeated several times in a row), it all just starts to blend together into a flavorless, uninspired soup.
The film culminates in a hilariously overwrought, self-indulgent and totally unsatisfying finale which features the Heidi being dry-humped by a black metal singer, dildo-masturbating devil-priests, and six withered crones bathing in menstrual blood. I tell you this not as a spoiler, but as a warning. That’s but a taste of what you’re in for with The Lords Of Salem, and what’s even more stunning isn’t that those elements are in there, but that they can’t save the film from being anything more than a dreary, boring mess that is best ignored and then forgotten.