Eye For Film >> Movies >> Lords Of Salem (2012) Film Review
Lords Of Salem
Reviewed by: David Graham
One of the most divisive figures in horror today, Rob Zombie has coasted for a decade now on goodwill partially fostered by his affable persona and popular musical output. For many horror fans, he is Satan himself, representing the absolute nadir of their beloved genre, even more despicable than the self-aggrandising Eli Roth due to his sheer incompetency and sacrilegious pilfering; for his admirers, his undoubted sense of style and off-kilter approach distinguish his work from the increasingly generic crowd.
It should be noted that this reviewer considers himself an avowed detractor, having despised everything from House Of 1000 Corpses to the woeful Halloween reboots, including supposed career highlight The Devil's Rejects. His latest effort is another car-crash of second-hand imagery and incoherent plotting, but it does at least boast a pervasive atmosphere of dread, and Zombie missus/muse Sheri Moon actually puts in a semi-decent performance for the first time.
Ex-addict Heidi shares a radio show with her friends Herman and Big Herman in the sleepy town of Salem, where brutal witch-trials notoriously took place hundreds of years ago. When a strange box turns up at the station containing the debut record by 'The Lords', the trio unwittingly unleash evil forces that have lain dormant since a 17th-century coven was burnt at the stake. Having cursed the ancestors of their executioners, the ghosts of the witches start to exert an unholy influence upon Heidi, driving her back to drugs and into a downward spiral fuelled by occult visions and inexplicable occurrences. Concerned friends and a sympathetic scholar try to intervene, but a horror close to home is intent on sucking Heidi into the void in order to finish what was begun during a black mass all those years ago.
Beginning with some unhinged period devil worship, Zombie's style is immediately recognisable but reassuringly restrained, allowing the creepiness of a disturbingly androgynous Meg Foster and her coven of bonfire-circling crones to shine through. After that, Zombie spends an inordinate amount of time settling into his modern day setting, following Heidi and her cohorts through their daily routine of late-night boozing sessions, brutal hangovers and the radio show that offers a middle-ground sanctuary and respite from their reality's problems. Unfortunately, their dragged-out dialogue is dire, with the on-air banter so cringe-worthy it's impossible to imagine anyone in their right mind tuning in - let alone enough people to make these guys local celebrities - and no amount of fancy lens flare can make the endless mood shots of Heidi traipsing through empty streets anything other than coma-inducing.
The doom-laden atmosphere in her apartment block offers a tantalising promise of things to come however, with an intangible menace established through Polanski-riffing shots of spooky hallways. As Heidi is drawn almost hypnotically to investigate the empty flat on her floor, an aura of unknown evil is expertly communicated, with long, lingering takes wringing genuine tension out of her being sucked towards the darkness. There are also some cliched near-subliminal jump glimpses of a ghostly presence stalking Heidi, but these seem like a concessionary afterthought to co-producer Oren Peli's in-vogue sensibilities.
Plenty of individually arresting scenes follow, showcasing crowd-pleasing turns from genre stalwarts such as Judy Geeson, Dee Wallace Stone and Bruce Davison, who all manage via their relaxed charm, to bring out the best in Sheri's acting. She actually holds her own against these more experienced thesps, and works some real chemistry with lovelorn co-host Jeff Daniel Phillips, perhaps the most sympathetic presence in the whole film. Sadly, these lengthy scenes of unhurried dialogue add little to the overall fabric of the piece, highlighting how weak Zombie's writing remains and how badly he needs a good editor (we've all seen enough of his wife's derriere by now).
Another glaring issue impacting the audience's involvement is Heidi's passive role in all the madness: she's pretty much just a pawn to be pushed around these twisted vignettes, rarely reacting to or even seeing the evil surrounding her. When she does respond with something resembling a rational reaction, it tends to be during cop-out dream sequences that exist only for Zombie to push the envelope with his pretensions to grandeur and, God forbid, social relevance. One of the most uncomfortable and pointless sequences features a randomly subservient Heidi orally pleasuring a priest in public for no good reason other than the scene's inherent shock value - but hey, kids, all this misogynistic sleaze is OK since she's the director's own wife, and it's all only a dream after all. Yeah, right.
Any flirtations with substance - through Heidi's addiction and her platonic relationships - grow increasingly fleeting as she sinks deeper into a mire of drug-addled hallucination, trapped in the sort of Meliere-homaging black-walled apartment that could only exist in a Rob Zombie movie. As the brilliantly grinding, droning John 5 soundtrack grows ever more insistent (Velvet Underground songs are also put to effective if excessive use), Heidi's visions become increasingly diabolical, bearing witness to all kinds of horrors past from the baby-sacrificing masses to the protracted witch-burning. All of this distracts from her present condition but it's actually quite well-handled, with a beautiful sepia burnish bestowed upon the largely flame-lit flashbacks, and a level of intensity maintained through Foster's unsettling withered hag-leader, belching out curses and incantations to the last.
Therafter the imagery gets increasingly scattershot, and even elicits unintentional mirth at some points due to its pretentious nature. Can anyone explain the significance of blind zombie priests jacking off dildos to the sight of Sheri riding a bucking bronco? Answers on a postcard, please. Well, at the very least it looks kinda cool.
And there's the rub - for the remainder of the duration, Lords Of Salem becomes merely a sluggish show-reel for Zombie's quasi-religious tableaux, everything framed immaculately but devoid of discernible meaning, the booming classical music merely another special effect with which he tries to mask the dearth of actual substance and convince us he's grown up. It's all so long-winded, unoriginal and incoherent that by the end you'll just be thankful it's all over, but it does linger in the mind afterwards - whether you're trying to figure out what any of it means or just whether it's any good - and it'll probably make nice background viewing on DVD, like a cinematic drinks coaster.
Visually, Zombie pretty much makes good on his 'Ken Russell directing The Shining' intentions - though an even more hellish than usual Terrence Malick might be a better reference point - and his commitment to such an esoteric narrative is admirable if perhaps foolish given the mass-market push he's giving the film, with the trailer (which has also been disrupting his concerts) emphasising the Paranormal Activity and Insidious production connection. It never coalesces into much more than an intriguing mess, but Lords Of Salem is probably the director's most (ahem) 'mature' work yet - that being said, maybe next time he should give someone else's script a chance.Reviewed on: 05 Mar 2013