Heidi (Sheri Moon Zombie) co-hosts Salem’s late-night radio show with her two co-presenters (Jeff Daniel Phillips and horror veteran Ken Foree),playing a mix of cheesy AOR anthems and unsigned demos while interviewing mentally disturbed Black Metal musicians and experts on the occult including local author and authority on the notorious witch trials, Francis Matthias (Bruce Davison).
One night, Heidi mysteriously receives an old wooden box engraved with something suitably sacrilegious containing a record ominously attributed simply to The Lords. When the vinyl is spun live on air for the first time, women throughout Salem enter a hypnotic state and appear to follow unsaid instructions, including Heidi herself (although for the main part this is shown by Sheri Moon tilting her head to one side or forgetting how to dress herself).
While she attempts to make sense of the dreams and visions that start to assail her and her growing unease (mostly through equally profound conversations with both Rob-alike Phillips and her pet dog) she is befriended, supported and given lots of tea by her saintly landlady (Judy Geeson) and her chatty ‘sisters’ (Patricia Quinn and Dee Wallace Stone). Soon however, it becomes blatantly obvious, thanks to a memorable discovery by Davison (well after the audience figures it out), that Heidi herself is central to the rebirth of the Devil’s Own at the hands of a once-executed coven of witches (wonderfully and disgustingly led byMeg Foster) known as the Lords Of Salem. Unless of course she’s lost her mind, just like everybody else…
Directed by Rob Zombie! Words as liable to inspire abject disappointment and hate as they are to cause his passionate fanboys to bounce up and down excitedly. It’s a pleasant surprise then that The Lords Of Salem, his fifth feature, is undoubtedly Rob Zombie’s most mature film to date. At least for the first hour. Based loosely on two songs from his 2006 metal album Educated Horses (The Lords Of Salem and American Witch) and unhampered by the studio bureaucracy and tinkering associated with his previous offerings (most notably House Of 1000 Corpses and a brace of divisively received Halloween remakes), Zombie has made a film very much the way he wanted to.
Revisiting his favourite artistic genre fare and taking inspiration from the works of Ken Russell, Kubrick, Polanski andJodorowsky among others, alongside the more traditional horror conventions associated with British and European Gothic Horror of the sixties and seventies, Zombie hasn’t so much found his own voice as borrowed some of his favourites. For those familiar with the entirety of Rob Zombie’s work, from his albums filled with samples, in-jokes and references, his self-directed promo videos featuring cartoon grotesques and his wife’s bare buttocks, to his suitably outrageous and enormous live shows, usually accompanied by big screens on either side of the stage showing clips from favourite movies, this will come as no surprise.
However, at least for the first two thirds of the film, Zombie’s restrained himself, indulging instead his adoration for the impressively assembled cast of familiar faces from beloved genre classics (many cast whose scenes never materialised in the final cut, the late Richard Lynch having his final role as Reverend Hawthorne replaced due to ill health by Andrew Prine and other assorted roles simply excised entirely), allowing them to get carried away with their characters for no other reason than pure entertainment. Some will inevitably feel impatient with these episodes while others will revel in the barefaced shamelessness of it all.
While the witches themselves are a welcome return to the genuinely repulsive, malevolent variety, Foster a withered, naked grotesque of contorted hagdom, the most disappointing casting is that of Mrs. Zombie as the lead. Considering the wealth of female roles, it would have made more sense to cast her amongst the coven than expect her to carry the film with her limited experience. Ultimately, despite everything Heidi goes through, the audience feels disconnected from her plight, although this is not helped by Rob placing her in a rapid series of increasingly insane and abstract moments accompanied by mood-altering songs which all feel like they would belong in other films, most of which actually do. And for a film that so regularly flaunts Sheri’s figure, it’s surprising she’s clothed in the one scene she shouldn’t be, riding the only animal she should be expected to ride.
Depending on the views of both Zombie’s eclectically opinionated armies of admirers and critics, The Lords Of Salem will entertain and excite as much as it will offend or simply underwhelm but ultimately it never pretends to be anything other than hugely entertaining for those who see the world the way Rob Zombie does. For those that don’t, he doesn’t care anyway.