Before watching The Lords of Salem, I had seen 5 Rob Zombie movies. One was good, one was ok, and 3 were dopey messes filled with goofy plots and terrible dialogue- you would think Zombie could craft a great horror movie, since he seems to know so much about the genre and be into so many awesome movies, but instead it made him churn out a bunch of soulless big budget movies in which he steals elements (and even whole scenes) from other, better movies and haphazardly patches them together in his, whether they fit or not. You can always tell what classic movie made him say “That’s cool- I’m going to put that in my movie, but make it more like a rock video!” about. His characters were mostly over the top cartoon caricatures (but not really fun or entertaining ones like in movies such as Tales From the Crypt- Demon Knight or The Toxic Avenger or Street Trash– Zombie’s over the top cartoon caricatures were goofy and tedious and eye rollingly one dimensional. Until he tried to install a little pathos, which made it even more ridiculous (with the exception of Annie from the Halloween movies, maybe)).
So how does The Lords of Salem stack up? I had high hopes after hearing that this is a more reserved Zombie, that he was trying to be more atmospheric, more like Ken Russell or Alejandro Jodorowsky, which could have turned out disastrous, but actually is not bad at all. It’s true that this is a bit more of a reserved Rob Zombie in a lot of ways (he still can’t help but indulge in some goofy shit, but I guess that’s just him, and at least it’s kept to a minimum here). When it started off with a bunch of witches terribly overacting and quoting MERCYFUL FATE lyrics, I was convinced that this was going to be another ridiculously silly and terrible Zombie goofathon. But then something happened: some actually realistic and likeable characters were introduced, and partook in some realistic scenes that didn’t look like something a hyperactive teenager on pixie sticks would throw together after watching a bunch of ’70s horror movies (tho he does still definitely wear his influences on his sleeve- the whole thing has a strong feel of Kubrick’s The Shining throughout (tho since he ripped off an entire scene from it in The Devil’s Rejects almost shot-for-shot, this is still an improvement), as well as Rosemary’s Baby, the above mentioned Russell and Jodorowsky, and of course the cunting The Exorcist).
The story: a coven of witches in 1600s Salem are up to no good, meeting in the woods, chanting and getting naked and overacting and doing evil witchy type stuff, when Nathaniel Hawthorn decides to put a stop to it (perhaps after he saw them all naked- the youngest one is probably 500 years old, and yes, they all get naked). Cue the Salem Witch Burnings.
In modern times, we are introduced to Heidi La Rock (Sheri Moon Zombie, who was a fairly limited actress who Zombie tried to shoehorn into every movie he’s done, with crappy results; however she does very well here- I don’t know if her acting has improved or the role just suits her better), a DJ on a Howard Stern-esque radio show (along with fellow DJ’s Herman (Ken Foree) and Herman (Rob Zombie lookalike Jeff Daniel Phillips)). She lives in an old apartment building in Salem run by a sweet, motherly older woman (I’m sure most any horror fan can tell you where this is headed). The radio show has guests on (including the vocalist of a black metal band called Leviathan, played by actor Torsten Voges in another over the top/ overacting scene, however since a good many of the real black metal band members I’ve seen actually act similarly, we’ll give Rob a pass on this one. It’s unclear if he knows there’s a pretty well established black metal band called Leviathan out already), and one night author Francis Matthias, who has written a book about witches and black magic and Salem’s history, appears on the show. It just so happens that on that same night, they decide to play a record on the air that Heidi received in the mail from a mysterious band named The Lords, which causes a bunch of the women in Salem who hear it to go into a trance, and Heidi to begin having visions and nightmares and eventually wig out. This leads to her meeting her landlady’s two sisters (played by Dee Wallace and Rocky Horror‘s Patricia Quinn, who both seem to have a lot of fun with their rolls) and a confrontation with the ultimate evil. Or something.
Now don’t get me wrong- just because I said it was better than most of Zombie’s other output, don’t think that means it’s not a rip-roaring bunch of goofy nonsense, mumbo jumbo and silly claptrap (it may actually have MORE of that than some of his other movies), however the likable and believable characters, great acting (minus a few above mentioned overacting bits), and in particular the overall atmosphere and feeling of darkness and dread save it. I am a sucker for a good atmosphere- even if a movie isn’t that great, if the director can build and sustain a nice atmosphere of whatever feel they are trying to convey, it goes a long way with me. The music is really ominous in this too (done by Zombie guitarist John 5), but not in a cheesy way. I like it.. So, even with the nattering witches, mutant bear from Prophecy looking devil, fairly predictable story, surprising lack of gore, jump-cut nonsense, and at least one laughable scene where I’m not sure exactly what’s going on (but it looks like Heidi might be playing a video game with a really bad looking (see above pic) overcooked Ginger Bread Man devil’s tentacles or something), the goofiness doesn’t cave in on itself halfway through it all and bring the whole thing crashing down like most of his other movies. Bravo.
A bunch of scenes (including ones with a lot of Zombie’s signature horror movie personality cameos, such as Sid Haig, Camille Keaton, Barbara Cramptom, Udo Kier, Michael Berryman, and Richard Lynch (who died during the filming, which is one reason Zombie had to cut out several unfinished scenes he was in)) were cut out, which probably improved the movie. I do think I recognized DR. KNOW singer Brandon Cruz in a small role, tho.
In order to prepare for this movie, you should get in the mood by watching one (or more) of these:
Mark of the Devil (1970):
Rosemary’s Baby (1968):
The Devils (1971):
The Holy Mountain (1973):
Plus maybe The Shining, The Exorcist, The Conqueror Worm, and The Omen (not the remake).
Have a devil film festival! You’ll be glad you did…