I know virtually nothing about Rob Zombie's music, beyond the fact that it exists -- for some reason, I feel this is something I need to put on the table before talking about how much I dislike most of his movies. But I don't know his music, so if that somehow feeds into his work as a writer and director of horror films in ways of which I'm completely ignorant, you must pardon me. On the other hand, for a guy who has in the past gone out of his way to talk shit about Zombie's film work, I've seen it all (with the exception of his little-loved animated movie THE HAUNTED WORLD OF EL SUPERBEASTO). So if I've failed to enjoy that particular experience, a case could be made that I shoulder more of the blame than Zombie. But I'm a horror fan, and it's in my nature to watch a lot of horror movies, so I reject this argument. In any case, that's the only explanation for what led me to actually watch his debut feature, HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, a film I thought terrible enough to kill Zombie's film career right off the bat. Since then, I've had to suffer with something of a critical...not reappraisal, because that would have to come some time after the fact, but the construction of a wall of defense by those who would claim that the idiotic and morally broken THE DEVIL'S REJECTS was a sharp 9/11 allegory, or that his remake of John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN was brilliant because it functioned as a biopic of Michael Myers, no pause having been taken to consider that this is a ridiculous idea. So all that's been going on, but it's never been loud enough to bother me too awfully much. My main takeaway from Zombie's two HALLOWEEN films was that, however much "original" material he dumped into that old story, he was spinning his wheels just three films in -- so he survived HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES, but perhaps no longer.
Well, no. Because now, or earlier this year, we have THE LORDS OF SALEM, an original horror film that takes as the source of its horror witches, as in "Salem Witch Trials" witches, and this is not a thing that's really done much these days. Curious despite myself, I checked it out tonight, and it's...well. It stars Sheri Moon Zombie, Rob Zombie's wife who has appeared in all of his films, here as the lead for the first time in their working relationship. She plays Heidi, one of three hosts, along with Ken Foree and Jeff Daniel Phillips (whose character, Herman, is Heidi's boyfriend) of a strange, but super popular everybody, radio show based out of Salem, Mass., the premise of which seems to be a morning zoo (but at night) kind of show that regards occult matters with some amount of snark. And I guess they play music too? They at least play music by independent black metal bands who send their EPs to the show for on-air criticism. One album they received comes from a band called The Lords, a name that Ken Foree promptly deems incomplete and therefore expands to "The Lords of Salem," which is the title of this movie you guys. Why Zombie didn't simply call the band The Lords of Salem is beyond me, and the choice is dumb enough that I can't claim he overthought anything. Pretty much all of the radio show stuff is similarly inane -- these guys have every conceivable sound effect drop ready to heighten their extemporaneous conversations with split-second timing -- but the music of The Lords is the point of it all, and is rather effectively industrial and sinister. The music has an apparently nasty physical, and possibly psychological, effect on Heidi, and, we see in a montage, on various other women throughout Salem, who hear the music droning through their radios and immediately become hypnotized.
There's a plot to all this, as you might imagine. The stage is set by flashbacks of 18th century Salem witches, who in this film were actually witches -- that coven was led by Meg Foster, who, based on her performance, and how she agreed to appear, in THE LORDS OF SALEM indicates to me that she's down with pretty much whatever -- and a diary from the time, kept by a reverend (Andrew Pine) that provides all of the exposition that modern day Salem Witch Trial expert, and radio show guest, Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison) doesn't. I'm convinced, however, that none of this matters. Bruce Davison's good, I always like him -- he's the kind of actor who can breathe life and personality into even the most thankless role, among which number you'd probably have to count this one, but it's just that in THE LORDS OF SALEM, the centuries-old curse Matthias uncovers doesn't matter at all. Or almost not at all -- you need some sort of context, I suppose, to build everything else on top of. But the strength of THE LORDS OF SALEM -- and I'll go ahead and say that I think this is Zombie's best film, however little that might mean, considering how I began -- is how Zombie's visual inventiveness is able to shed the trappings of its rote ancient-curse plot and just go absolutely berserk. The film's great weakness is that Zombie still seems to think he's much of a writer, and so it's all equal to him. But in a very nearly good way, it's not equal at all.
One of the great frustrations of this, and so many contemporary horror films, and I do apologize for banging on this drum again, is that the makers consider it a sly talent to be able to evoke for viewers all the horror movies they've all, as one fandom, seen and enjoyed. It does nothing for me to hear Meg Foster say "cunting daughter," a jolt of a line from THE EXORCIST, but not a jolt of a line here, because it's not meant to jolt -- it's meant to remind. Similar winks toward ROSEMARY'S BABY just get in the way of a film that, maybe about halfway through, I started to realize had much to recommend it. In terms of imagery, THE LORDS OF SALEM eventually becomes genuinely wild and unsettling, in ways both new and gratifyingly old (a couple of times, there are actual monsters on the screen). There's a section that begins with Heidi in the grasp of the contemporary witch coven, played by Dee Wallace, Judy Geeson, and Patricia Quinn, who operate out of Heidi's apartment building, which is almost relentless in its colorfully operatic nightmare. And speaking of opera, or anyway of music, and the score by Griffin Boice and John 5 is quite good, if occasional references are being made they are to Popol Vuh. And since none of it is as tiresomely blatant as "cunting daughter," it could be that the effect is merely similar. Not bad as compliments go, if I do say so myself.
Even so, there's an element to all this craziness that feels somewhat unnatural, or inorganic. It often doesn't feel like the strangeness of a filmmaker whose warped subconscious just comes spilling out of his eyes. It's more like "Okay now, what's a weird thing we can do?" Which, hey, the creative process takes many forms, and one shouldn't have to be genuinely insane in order to create strange things. But again, it's that need to announce your influences that trips Zombie up, because Ken Russell is all over this thing. Yet the ghost of Ken Russell, and I'm not a fan, counts in this day and age, and maybe most days and ages depending on your tolerance, as a honest to goodness shot in the arm, so that I was left, as Heidi and THE LORDS OF SALEM as a whole flailed away into Hell, unable to separate my understanding of where Zombie's imagination came from, and actually kind of thrilled to be seeing that imagination on screen in a horror film that, given the paucity of this sort of thing elsewhere in the genre, genuinely new. At its best, THE LORDS OF SALEM does a better than average job of depicting Satanic evil let loose.
Of course, Zombie doesn't know his strengths, so after a pretty terrific ending, visually speaking, and in terms of the song chosen to play over it, we have a little bit of, not plot exactly, but even worse, exposition weaving in and out of the closing credits. It's not ruinous, but it is typical. At the top of his game, Rob Zombie is incapable of leaving well enough alone. So the apex of his filmmaker talents ends up being terribly frustrating. But I suppose I'd have to admit that things are looking up.
But please, don't take any of this as a recommendation. I won't have that on my conscience.