|Image: Anchor Bay|
I have had a rocky relationship with Rob Zombie’s horror films. From excellent word of mouth I was sure that I would enjoy House of 1000 Corpses, but I ended up really disliking it. I found it soulless and messy, only rescued by some good acting. The sequel The Devil’s Rejects I liked more but, while it smoothed out some of the roughness of the first film, it still left rather too bitter a taste. Again, though, acting was mostly exemplary. Then came his divisive Halloween remake, which I loved, against my prejudices. The love affair was short lived, however, as the version released on DVD, apparently the director’s cut, was full of the sort of pointless graphic excess which had been mercifully absent in the cinema version. Finally came Halloween II, which I was not alone in regarding as far too oddball a film, spinning off from the established formula into a strange world of Zombie’s own. While innovation should be applauded, the jump just didn’t work for me. As usual, though, the acting was strong, with Malcolm McDowell and Brad Dourif especially giving a pair of tours de force.
Now Zombie has returned with The Lords of Salem, an homage to the occult cinema of the 70s and 80s. His wife and muse Sheri Moon Zombie plays the central role of Heidi, a Salem DJ and recovering junkie who receives a personally addressed LP from ‘the Lords’. The playing of said LP draws Heidi into a living nightmare in which she seems fated to end up an integral player in the machinations of a coven, led by the spirit of long dead witch Margaret Morgan, looking to end the heathen reign of the Church and bring back Lucifer, taking their revenge on the people of Salem in the process.
If one thing can be said of Zombie, it’s that he has a unique style. While it might not always agree with me, there is a certain frisson that is unmistakeably his. That being said, this is certainly his most referential work. The City of the Dead-style opening sets the tone for the witchy business of the film, far closer to Bava’s Mask of Satan than to any straight effort like The Crucible. The crumbling apartment building where Heidi lives is an amalgam of the buildings from Suspiria, The Shining and Tobe Hooper’s remake of The Toolbox Murders, with some very familiar camera angles on creepy corridors. The overall plot is a Rosemary’s Baby sort of affair, with flashes of other Satanic favourites in there as well. Zombie certainly knows and loves these films and the tributes are reflective of this.
Overall, however, this is far looser an effort than Zombie’s Halloween (still my favourite of his films by some distance). The reheated plot is left to bubble along with no real effort made to spice it up until the conclusion, but then the sudden inrush of trippy rock video imagery strikes an incongruous note against the pleasantly sedate style of the first half. Before the halfway mark is definitely the strongest part of the film, with a nice slow-burn tension – I was reminded favourably in parts of Ti West’s masterly House of the Devil – but this build-up is unfortunately not paid off in the finale. It's a shame about this damaging tonal misstep, because Zombie does conjure up some strikingly idiosyncratic images, especially the burnt-faced people who appear in a variety of bizarre and sacrilegious outfits, most memorably in papal regalia surrounded by an entourage of goat-headed nudes.
As I have come to expect from Zombie’s work, the cast is where the film’s true strengths lie and this one is all about the women. Sheri Moon Zombie gives a nicely measured performance which is thankfully far closer to her excellence in Halloween than her oddness in Halloween II. Her creepy landlady Lacy is played by the marvellous Judy Geeson, who for me will forever be the star of trashy exploitation flick Inseminoid, even though she’s done a large number of more mainstream films as well. Lacy’s equally worrying sisters are played by The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Patricia Quinn, as terrifically vampy as you would hope, and ET star Dee Wallace (Stone), finally allowed to play nasty and relishing the task. Meg Foster gives a solid pantomime performance as Margaret Morgan, though it’s a shame she didn’t get more screen time. The men are sidelined but Bruce Davison and Jeff Daniel Philips do make an impression as the nice guys.
Far from being Zombie’s worst film, The Lords of Salem still remains something of a mixed bag. While the first half promises much, the conclusion sadly goes for quirky spectacle over anything truly affecting. A trashy revisiting of familiar horror territory, the cast and the occasional creepy flourish make this one to try and catch, but not unmissable.