I am an unabashed fan of Rob Zombie’s sophomore film, The Devil’s Rejects. I felt House of 1,000 Corpses was a bit too amateurish and Zombie’s take on Halloween never really thrilled me, but there was some real magic in the sprawling grit, gore and grime of The Devil’s Rejects. Maybe you feel the same, and maybe you’ll forgive me for wanting very much to find a spark of that magic rekindled in his latest offering The Lords of Salem.
The Lords of Salem has a solid foundation of influence, firmly rooted in 60’s and 70’s witchsploitation. And the set-up is simple; a coven of witches violently put to death during the Salem trials levels one last curse upon the town and those that condemned them, and many years later that curse begins to unfold. The opening scenes and several moments throughout the film showcase some of the most pagan images ever committed to mainstream celluloid. It is blasphemous in the extreme and spares nothing in an attempt to shock and to defile religious convention. Simply put, this film is Satanic as fuck. Unfortunately, it is also about as subtle, lacking in depth and intellectually bankrupt as that slogan.
Many have criticized the film for choosing style over substance, but I find that read lacking. I’ve enjoyed many shallow stylized films, and a lot of them happen to be horror. It’s not a lack of substance that makes Lords of Salem ineffective, it’s the fact that it’s quite simply over-styled in some respects and under-styled in others. There is so much affectation layered onto every character and so much artifice onto every surface of the film that one wonders if perhaps Zombie hasn’t been obsessing over Wes Anderson as of late.
At least with Anderson there is some organization to his curio cabinet, some insight into character granted by the meticulously presented garment and styling choices, the endless collections of knick-knacks and gimcracks. Anderson’s miscellania also offer a visual punch and often a whiff of nostalgia. In Zombie’s case it all amounts to only so much clutter and chaos. Every character has at least two more accessories and/or affectations than they need, nearly every set is crammed so full of junk that it distracts completely from the events playing out on-screen. The vibe flits from “filthy junkie bedroom” to “baroque hoarder” to “book fetishist” as we move from locale to locale, yet sometimes there is so little visual distinction between the various apartments/homes that it isn’t immediately certain where the scene is set or what we are even supposed to be looking at.
I’ll give you an example: There is a moment in when the main character (Heidi Hawthorne, played by Sheri Moon Zombie) enters her darkened apartment and flips on a light in her kitchen. The sudden musical cues indicate that something scary is happening, but it simply isn’t apparent what that is supposed to be. I back it up and watch again. It appears we have the classic “character turns on a light in a darkened room and is unaware of a spooky figure standing in the corner staring at her” cliché going on here.
Except that the shot is so wide, and Heidi’s apartment so crammed full of spooky goth-rock trappings that the shadowy witch figure in the corner blends in as effectively as if it were a toaster or blender in a sane person’s kitchen. And given her choice in “Halloween-is-everyday” décor, a life-size witch figure wouldn’t even be out of place. Hell, there’s already a creepy mannequin head in the kitchen for some reason. This effect (creepy witch character appears motionless in the background) is used multiple times throughout the film and never once did it inspire even the tiniest jump-scare.
It’s one of several moments in the film that are more likely to inspire confusion or laughter as opposed to the shock and fear intended. Another involves Heidi having a breakdown in her bathroom in front of a 10-foot-by-5-foot black-and-white painting of several giant masked figures. The figures, already strangely comic in appearance as they somewhat resemble luchadores, begin gushing blood from their mouths as again we are presented with a musical cue letting us know that scary shit is going down.
First, WHO THE FUCK HAS A 10-FOOT-BY-5-FOOT BLACK-AND-WHITE PAINTING OF GIANT MASKED FIGURES IN THEIR FUCKING BATHROOM? And what’s worse is that Heidi never even notices this. It wasn’t presented to scare her, nor are the motionless witches or countless other things that creep up out of the darkness behind her. It’s as if Rob Zombie forgot that one of the reasons scenes like this are effective is because we’re waiting for the character on-screen to discover them, because of the proximity of the scary thing to the character, because of what we as an audience know that the character does not yet know.
When Heidi does become aware of the strange beings around her, she reacts to them with a kind of stoned indifference. It’s difficult to tell if this is the direction she was being given or if Sheri Moon Zombie is simply a terrible actress. There’s ample evidence to support either argument. As what’s happening to Heidi seems to be placing her in an ever-deepening trance-like state, and as she attempts to combat these visions by falling back into a heavy drug habit, perhaps we’re meant to empathize or sympathize with her disconnected apathy. Alas, I found myself unable to.
I think this is yet another moment in which Rob Zombie sold himself and his material short, as the audience is never really inclined to give much of a shit about Heidi or any of the other characters. Zombie allows surface cool to stand in for anything endearing: Heidi is covered in tattoos, has long blonde dreadlocks, loves her dog, wears bellbottoms and a coat with a ridiculous over-sized fur collar and her favorite band is Rush. This is as much character development as we encounter. She’s deeply connected to all the witchy shit that’s going down, but by the time you find out how and why, it’s likely that you won’t even care. And as I said before, all that would be okay, all the shallowness of this character could be swallowed, if the rest of the film delivered.
Because it could have delivered. The few moments of the film that work are flashback and dream sequences, some recreating the moment that the coven who enacted the curse were put to death. There is a raw and filthy carnality to th
ese scenes, an orgiastic exultation to Satan the likes of which we haven’t seen in mainstream cinema in decades. As the film advances, Heidi seems to enter a dream world where she interacts with the dark forces the coven has allied itself with. At first, these moments are grandiose and vile, truly horrifying, eventually Heidi assumes the corpse-paint visage we see in the film’s poster and things seem to finally be coming to a head. Then it’s all dashed to pieces.
We’re introduced to a pig-like dwarf demon that is unintentionally comic in a scene that literally caused me to laugh out loud. A subsequent sequence involves Heidi in an awful mini-skirted stripper costume gyrating against a goat and lapdancing on a guy straight out of bad black metal video casting all while terrible computer generated graphics of melting faces and brightly-colored Satanic imagery morph all over the screen. A trio of papishly attired masked and robed figures sit at thrones, stroking translucent red dildos springing forth from their laps. It’s a metal-head’s PCP-induced notebook sketch come to life; Kenneth Anger via Hot Topic. It is ludicrous and far from frightening.
Yet I have to wonder if the entire film had been so outrageous and over-the-top, if there had been no attempt to string in the everyday life of Heidi and her friends and her fall into darkness, if it had all been non-stop lunacy and highly stylized abstract visuals, perhaps I would have loved this film.
The only extra presented is a commentary by Rob Zombie. It’s not listed as a Special Feature, as there is not even a menu tab for Special Features. It’s buried in the Set-Up menu, under audio, and I took this as a sign that I wasn’t meant to listen to Zombie’s defense of the film.
At some point in the future he will likely appear on one of those shows that details how a person's addiction to purchasing and consuming media has ruined their life. Until then, his obsessions include sci-fi, horror and cartoons.
He can be found tweeting acerbically at @GentlemanSin.