Heidi Laroc (real name Heidi Hawthorne) is one-third of the “Odd Squad,” an evening-drive DJ team broadcasting out of Salem, Massachusetts. One night, she receives a package at the station–a strange box containing a record with even stranger music on it, credited only to “the Lords.” The music has odd effects on some of its listeners–especially Heidi, who finds herself suffering from audiovisual hallucinations and flashbacks to the town’s colonial past. It seems that Heidi is being groomed for a terrible fate–but who are the so-called Lords Of Salem, and what horrifying goal are they working to achieve?
For me, the transition of the erstwhile Robert Cummings from a purveyor of occasionally catchy if unremarkable (sorry fans) heavy metal music to one of the most visionary voices in contemporary horror film is one of the most unlikely cinematic success stories of the last decade-and-change. He’s managed to take his disparate influences and forge them into a style that may not necessarily be unique per se but are definitely distinctive, helping to popularize the “throwback” aesthetic by appropriating the tropes and iconography of the late ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s without feeling like a Hooper, Craven, Romero or Carpenter wannabe.
That style gives The Lord Of Salem its strongest elements. While Zombie does occasionally go overboard (Heidi’s collection of vintage clothing is so precious it hurts), Salem hits the senses and stings like a fever nightmare. It’s an alternate universe where renegade DJs play black metal and classic rock side-by-side, where lavishly appointed apartments exist in the midst of squalor, where innocuous elements–a neon cross here, a Velvet Underground song there–are recontextualized and given sinister associations. Things are portrayed that I never thought anyone could get away with in an MPAA-rated movie, let alone an R-rated one. There’s real beauty and artistry in the camerawork and production design (demonstrating the influence of both giallo and Stanley Kubrick), and a touch of madness in the score (by Zombie’s solo bandmate John 5). I walked out of the theater a bit dazed, like I’d been hit over the head by a hammer made from a bad trip.
Nailing the aesthetic down is a fantastic cast portraying an ensemble of quirky characters. Dreadlocked and damn near unrecognizable, Sheri Moon Zombie is the anchor of the cast and the emotional center of the film. She portrays Heidi as a struggling soul whose hippie-chick exterior masks an interior that’s haunted in more ways than one, and puts in a fantastic performance doing so. She’s also got great chemistry with ex-Geico caveman Jeff Daniel Phillips, who plays Whitey, another Odd Squad member and implied on-again, off-again love-interest. (Heidi: “You can sleep on the couch.” Whitey: “The couch? Really?” Heidi: “Yes. Really.”) Whitey’s a great character and Phillips’s a great performance on their own, but there’s so much between the two that never gets communicated in dialogue and they pull it off perfectly.
Of course, no Zombie effort would be complete without a cast of thousands in the supporting roles and this is no exception: Bruce Davison (Willard, Apt Pupil, X-Men) as an expert on the Salem witch trials (and Maria Conchita Alonso as his wife); Ken Foree as the third member of the Odd Squad; Judy Geeson as Heidi’s eccentric landlady and Patricia Quinn (The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and Dee Wallace as her equally eccentric friends; Meg Foster as a colonial witch…I could go on for days about these memorable performances.
It’s a good thing that Salem has so many positives in its corner, then, because other aspects of the productions are seriously flawed. The film is too long and meandering, with entire subplots that do very little other than provide the occasional bit of exposition. The flashbacks to colonial Salem are one example; so is 90% of the material involving Davison’s character–there are just too many sequences where the film just drags. “Devil worship” is always a hard theme to pull off in horror, and Zombie’s idea of it is just a bit too cartoony and one-dimensional to be taken seriously. (There’s a tantalizing hint towards the end that maybe even the witches are getting it wrong, but it’s far from certain–I could be reading more into it than I should be.) And while Zombie admirably eschews digital effects in favor of practical ones, some of the monstrous costumes and prosthetics go terribly wrong: in once scene, Heidi is watched over by something that (I shit you not) waddles like an Ewok.
Love it or hate it–and the reception it’s received so far seems to be a little bit of both–The Lords Of Salem is a singular cinematic experience the likes of which you’re rarely likely to see in films made at the budget level of seven figures and higher. Ignore it at your peril.
My rating: 7 of 10.
United States. 101 minutes. Directed by Rob Zombie. Starring Sheri Moon Zombie, Bruce Davison, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Judy Geeson, Meg Foster, Patricia Quinn, Ken Foree, Dee Wallace, Maria Conchita Alonso.