‘The Lords of Salem’
Director: Rob Zombie
Stars: Sheri Moon Zombie, Bruce Davison
3 (out of 5) globes
Odd as it may sound that the frontman of a ‘90s alt-metal bound can be taken seriously (by some) as a film auteur, in five films Rob Zombie has eked out a niche all his own. His is a cinema of grimily underlit visions and trash-mouthed redneck banter swapped by a cast of half-forgotten cult movie stars. Plenty of filmmakers play this Tarantino game, but only the former White Zombie frontman has nabbed Ken Foree (“Dawn of the Dead”) and Judy Geeson (“To Sir, With Love”). More importantly, his passion for horror goes beyond mere affectation. He understands the tortured feelings roiling underneath the genre’s gory facades. In “The Devil’s Rejects” and his two “Halloween” films, evil wins, survives or is even, in some ways, if only briefly, sympathetic.
In “The Lords of Salem,” he does his own perverse version of “Rosemary’s Baby.” Sheri Moon Zombie, his not untalented wife, once again appears as Heidi, a tattooed recovering junkie who’s now a DJ on a hit metal show with wacky sound effects. (As ever, Zombie’s sense of humor manifests itself in odd places.) Much like in the ‘80s metal horror curio “Trick or Treat,” a mysterious record unleashes hell. In this case it makes her susceptible to a coven of witches who wish her to sire Satan’s baby.
Largely missing from “Salem” are the brutally unpleasant murders and complicated audience identification structures that made Zombie’s previous films so effective. It’s a slow burn — a very slow burn, with aimless investigating (much of it casually performed by Bruce Davison) punctuated by noisy shock cuts to horned goats and shrieking naked witches (including Meg Foster, she of the distressing light blue eyes). Each day is punctuated by a shocking title crash, much like — in fact, exactly like — in “The Shining.”
It becomes evident that this isn’t leading to a showdown climax, but the one it gives us instead is even better. Zombie’s conclusion is a mad fever dream montage with the self-aware boldness of the capper to “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Irma Vep,” had they fed viewers Satanic imagery against the Velvet Underground. It’s not simply the brazenness, especially after a long, not always rewarding journey, that makes it original. It’s the way it clamps down suddenly on a narrative that seemed to be building to standard, comforting redemption. Instead it goes the other way.