Pertinent anecdote: the sparse crowd at the screening for The Lords of Salem I attended included a gaggle of sorority girls – perhaps six – who came ready to rock. They painted their faces like Sheri Moon Zombie’s on the poster. They bounced in their seats. They uttered the sort of tittering giggle one associates with the top of the roller coaster right before the plunge. These weren’t casual fans. They were disciples of director Rob Zombie, here to worship at the altar of his vision. Fifteen minutes in, they calmed down a bit. Thirty minutes in, they were getting squirrelly. Trips to the lobby began – quietly and respectfully, but borne of obvious boredom at what was happening on screen. Finally, with a full twenty minutes to go, they rose as one and trudged out dejectedly, the disappointment obvious on their white skeleton faces.
Rob Zombie, you owe these chicks a refund.
The Lords of Salem definitely reflects his grindhouse sensibilities, with a sheen of 70s slasher exploitation mixed in with nods to The Shining and Satan-heavy Hammer flicks like The Devil Rides Out. It’s never been quite my vibe, but it carries its share of joys, and clearly it has fans. He knows the genre very well and he’s smart enough to mine the core of his influences instead of focusing on surface details. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean he can tell a coherent story. The Lords of Salem delivers a few moments of queasy scares, delivered with in a haze of WTF hallucinations and all the more frightening for their inexplicable oddness. The rest of the movie is a flat-out bore.
The narrative itself couldn’t fill up a Twilight Zone episode. Back in the 1690s, the good people of Salem, Mass, put the torch to a coven of witches who really, really seemed to mean it. 300 years later, a dreadlocked DJ (Moon Zombie) receives a mysterious LP from a group calling itself the Lords. She plays it on the air, and it sounds like mating possums, but has a strange effect on the women who hear it, as well as the DJ herself. Those witches, it seems, aren’t finished with Salem just yet.
Would that they could just get down to business. Sadly, we have a full running time to cover, which means we get the tedious repetition of the old “it was just a dream” gag, as Moon Zombie experiences one freaky incident after another only to wake up shrieking in her bed. Presumably, it’s supposed to lend us a growing sense of dread. It wears out its welcome by the third go ‘round. When we hit the sixth, the film has basically surrendered any chance of us caring about the scenario. Sure the images are freaky, with lots of surreal imagery that doesn’t make a lick of sense but should still be able to generate some serious nightmare material. Unfortunately, their connection to the greater story is shaky at best, and eventually we just want these unseen forces to stop toying with the woman and actually do something. Anything.
Then there’s Moon Zombie, who spends a good 90% of the running time on camera, often doing little more than wandering the streets or puttering in her apartment while unseen figures gaze ominously at her. Her director husband clearly adores her, and that’s nothing to scoff at. But he also sees her as a figure of endless fascination, an attribute which she just can’t convey to more objective audience members. She lacks the charisma to hold our attention, and the de facto love letter turns into an endless dirge once it’s clear that Mr. Zombie won’t be wandering far from his beloved spouse.
The most irritating thing about The Lords of Salem isn’t its gossamer thin content, its failure to build on its creepy mood, or its undue emphasis on a star who needs more help getting us to the finish line. It holds itself in incredibly high regard, pounding its emotional beats with thunderous solemnity while daring us to snicker behind our hands. You can almost hear Spinal Tap crooning “Stonehenge” in the background as Zombie thrusts another shocking image forward in a vain effort to impress us. It ain’t happening, not with material this haphazardly assembled. Not a single conversation here feels authentic, and none of the characters deliver anything resembling plausibility. That doesn’t even touch on the film’s disturbing misogyny, its mélange of unanswered plot threads, or the tragic misuse of such horror icons as Sid Haig, Dee Wallace and Meg Foster. These are basic issues of cinematic competence, issues that Zombie’s undeniably unique sensibilities have yet to conquer. The Lords of Salem suffers far too much for its shortcomings; sadly, the audience suffers even more.