Like newly festering gangrenous tissue, Rob Zombie has reemerged in movie houses around the country with this weekend’s newest grindhouse horror, The Lords of Salem. Zombie, who has labored as of late under the shackles of Hollywood remakes, is finally free to unleash his most bizarre vision to date with his third original screenplay. Following in the tradition of House of 1000 Corpses and the promising The Devil’s Rejects, Lords of Salem is the kind of retro-looking B-horror that filled drive-ins during the 1970s. But while Rejects gave us an intense thriller and a surprisingly strong character study on a family of serial killers, The Lords of Salem is just a gory mess of horror tropes that leaves only the long scream of dying entertainment.
There are certain things that let you know you are watching a Rob Zombie movie. First, there cannot be a single character who uses the English language without a few “fucks” and “shits” tossed in. Even Massachusetts’ leading scholar on the Salem witch trials cannot discuss his lifelong passion for historical research without throwing up his arms in regards to a contemporary account and saying, “What the fuck is that about?” It is a fair point, considering the script is no help.
But the most noticeable highway marker that warns we have entered the Zombie Zone is the lead character of Heidi Hawthorne being played by (who else?) Sheri Moon Zombie. While directors casting their wives or girlfriends has been a time-honored tradition that spans further than Hollywood, there is just something so blatant about Sheri Moon in a Zombie picture. Perhaps, I am only chagrined that Rob squeezed her into his Halloween II remake with all the precision of a brain dead hillbilly cannibal.
After killing her character off via suicide in Halloween, she appears as a ghostly vision in Halloween II, whose spectral haunts earn audience laughter at the screening I attended. Zombie achieves slightly better results in The Lords of Salem, even if he curiously has to show off her nude badonk-a-donk again in only the character’s third shot (thus making his wife undress for his camera for four out of five features). Yet, this time is different. She has dreadlocks and more tattoos. He also shows her front side as well. That’s really stretching the creative muscle.
The Lords of Salem is a ghostly, campfire story very loosely based on the Salem witch trials. In the world of Zombie, John Hathorne, named Hawthorne in the movie, is re-envisioned as something of a historical hero. According to the filmmaker, “Hawthorne” is not the well-documented lead magistrate who ordered a slew of women be hanged by the neck for witchcraft, an activity for which he was the sole unrepentant practitioner.
No, he battled and (uncharacteristically) burned at the stake real covenants who worshipped Satan. The most horrid of these hags was a singular covenant he named “the Lords of Salem.” These nasty conjurers would meet in the woods and disrobe to their birthday suits as they pledged fealty to fire and Lucifer. This is, by the way, the first five minutes. A lengthy scene of naked old women dancing around fire is about the height of the movie’s horror.
Cut to present day and Heidi Hawthorne is a lonely rock ‘n’ roll DJ who spends her nights (well, at least three of them a week) on the airwaves plugging the underground metal and occultist scene with buddies Whitey (Jeff Daniel Phillips) and Herman “Munster” (Ken Foree). By day, she idyllically plays fetch with her dog in the park and at night she is learning about the strange, evil allure of goats (seriously, why goats?).
That allure becomes all too real when she is left a mysterious record in a wooden casket by a band called “The Lords.” She and Whitey put it on the radio for a gag without realizing the demonic evil hidden within the five-note melody. Soon, all the women of Salem, including Heidi, are entranced by its evil spell and the Book of Revelations may be upon us.
Despite some disturbing imagery, The Lords of Salem has all the terror of a Mastodon album cover. Publicly open about his Kubrickian influences, Zombie proudly borrows The Shining’s ominous title cards that thunderously count down the days of the week as if we are building to a massive revelation. Unfortunately, that revelation amounts to little more than the horrific knowledge that this movie is plotless. Characters’ action and motivation, possessed witch and scholarly professor alike, can come and go as frequently as those damnable title cards. The only thing consistently understandable is that Sheri Moon needs to find a new landlady who doesn’t wear a neon sign shouting, “Hey, I’m a witch.”
The real horror auteur being mined here is Roman Polanski. The way the camera lingers on doors that should not be opened or on monsters that our hero should see all brings to mind the Polish-French filmmaker. The plot also being a fifteenth-rate knockoff of Rosemary’s Baby, right down to our heroine being served up on a platter to a hallucinatory demonic force, could also be drawing the similarities. Unfortunately, what causes that 1968 film to still chill and terrify is lost on a movie more interested in the curves of Sheri Moon’s body than the twists in the story.
The only actual character proactively doing anything before the final 15 minutes is Bruce Davison as Francis Matthias. The horror legend and original Willard popping up as this movie’s Samuel Loomis ticks off Zombie’s genre casting box and brings some levity as the only man in the story without hair to his shoulders. Having been on Heidi’s radio show to sell his academic book on witchcraft, Matthias recognizes “The Lords’” tune as the Hellacious curse played by the ancient coven, as recorded in Jonathan Hawthorne’s journal.
The intrepid researcher eventually figures out that Heidi is in danger because she is a descendant of Hawthorne. Does this mean that Nathaniel Hawthorne, great-great-grandson of John and author of The Scarlet Letter, was also driven by demonic forces? This may explain why generations of students have been placed in long dazes from his work.
Of course, Davison is as sidelined as the other horror legends appearing in this film. With Ken Foree as a horror shock jock and ET’s mom, Dee Wallace, as one of the modern witches, Zombie stuffs his cast with genre favorites who have little more to do than sit by and watch Sheri Moon tremble with fear at the horrific visions she keeps having while we shuffle like a one-legged zombie to the movie’s finale.
Zombie is a talented filmmaker. He usually knows how to build tension and dread while consciously giving audiences a trashy, lived-in 16mm aesthetic in an age of big budget gloss. However, he continues to pilfer from better movies 30 years on without creating anything new to say other than admiration for the figure of his wife. After five films, that also is no longer new.