Rob Zombie’s The Lords of Salem, a satanic thriller, is, and you’ll have to forgive the pun, an unholy mess – a film so ugly, so badly characterized, so poorly structured, and so atmospherically inconsistent that it’s difficult to tell whether Zombie was being serious or aiming for a parody. It’s hard to know what to make of a scene where old crones strip naked and cackle manically as they dance in circles around a bonfire, while at the same time screaming out blasphemous incantations with hilarious hambone theatricality. It’s even harder to make sense of a scene where one of the crones uses a knife to remove a baby from a woman’s womb, licks the placenta off the crying newborn, and then spits on it repeatedly in sheer hatred. When your horror movie is unintentionally funny one minute and unwatchably depraved the next, something went wrong somewhere along the way.
Between these confused moments is a movie in a desperate struggle to be about something. Much of the entire first half doesn’t seem like a movie at all, but rather like a collection of scenes, none of which go anywhere or tell us much of anything. Star Sherri Moon Zombie, sporting blonde dreadlocks, spends much of the film either in a hypnotic trance, a drug-induced daze, or an early-morning, post-hangover fog, so at no point does she come off as an engaging or even a living presence – no, not even in the shot that introduces her, where she’s lying naked on her bed facedown. She plays a recovering drug addict named Heidi Hawthorne, who’s one third of a radio DJ team in Salem, Massachusetts that plays gothic rock. There isn’t even any energy or focus during the radio scenes, in which the DJs rattle off random, inane things while constantly pressing the sound effects button.
One day, she receives a mysterious wooden box containing a vinyl record. It’s said to be a gift from The Lords, which is initially assumed to be a local rock group. When played, we hear a musical leitmotif comprised of deep strings, one that puts all the female listeners into a bizarre reverie. For Heidi specifically, they cause her to have visions of a specific chapter of the Salem Witch Trials, namely when a coven of evil witches led by the haggard, rotten-toothed Margaret Morgan (Meg Foster) put a curse on all the women of Salem and the female descendants of these women. There was also a prophecy, which stated that a direct descendant of the reverend that burned each member of the coven at the stake (Andrew Prine) would be chosen to bear the offspring of Satan himself. It sounds pretty straightforward, which begs the question of why Zombie worked so hard to make his film so shiftless.
Part of the problem, I believe, is that he couldn’t decide if he wanted a psychological thriller or a supernatural horror story. At times, it seems like we’re supposed to question whether any of what happens actually does happen, to consider the idea that Heidi is merely going mad or becoming delusional following her inevitable relapse into drugs. At other times, there’s absolutely no doubt that all supernatural occurrences are actually occurring. Zombie should have made a choice before shooting a single frame of film. The psychological approach probably would have been more interesting, although not even that can account for surreal scenes that seem intentionally designed to make no sense. Consider the second of two moments when Heidi enters a supposedly vacant apartment unit in her building; on the other side of the door is an impossibly large palace foyer as opulent as Versailles, and at the top of a grand staircase is a naked dwarf in demonic makeup extending tentacles for Heidi to grab hold of.
Keeping close watch on Heidi are three women, who may or may not be sisters – I honestly don’t remember. One is the building supervisor, Lacy (Judy Geeson). The other two are a palm reader named Megan (Patricia Quinn) and a self-proclaimed self-help guru named Sonny (Dee Wallace). It’s obvious what their intentions are, although I’ll refrain from saying what they are in the off-chance you’ll find it surprising. Regardless, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for these three actresses, Quinn and Wallace especially, who, in spite of the talent they’ve repeatedly displayed, are not only forced to deliver Zombie’s awful dialogue but are also directed to overact, pretty much to the point that they inspire laughter rather than fear. There are several instances when I asked myself, “Did they honestly say what I think they just said?”
There’s a minor and ultimately useless subplot involving a writer named Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison), whose latest book on the Salem Witch Trials lands him a spot on Heidi’s radio show; the upshot is that he’s so bothered by the music he hears on that mysterious record that he decides to investigate the matter further, in turn delving into the town’s past. His exit from the story is just as inconsequential as his entrance into it. All leads a particularly unfocused and dreary ending, which is not only excruciatingly surreal on a visual level but also hints that Zombie was a latent misogynist waiting for the right story to come along. Actually, the entire film provides those hints, with scenes like the one where Heidi enters a church and is forced into performing oral sex on a priest while he sermonizes grandiosely, and then vomits up blood. It’s amazing, the sheer number of ways in which The Lords of Salem approaches badness.
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Anchor Bay Films