The Lords of Salem review

Heidi (Moon Zombie) is a late-night rock DJ at a Salem radio station. She lives alone with her dog in a slightly creepy apartment building. After finishing work the station receptionist gives her a package – a vinyl LP by a band calling themselves The Lords, which comes in a wooden box emblazoned with an occult symbol that looks like a cross between the stick figure from The Blair Witch Project and the logo of the band Einstürzende Neubauten.

Heidi and her fellow DJs give the record a spin on air during in interview with Francis Matthias (Davison), a local historian who has written a book on the notorious Salem Witch Trials. The music is, not to put too fine a point on it, absolutely ghastly, a kind of industrial folk grindcore that sounds like a cow chewing on a cello. The record is shown to cause a variety of women listening to the show, including Heidi, to enter a trance-like state.

When Heidi returns home, there appears to be a new tenant in the vacant apartment down the hall. However her landlady (Judy "Inseminoid" Geeson) insists no-one has moved in. Gradually the record exerts more and more of a malign influence on Heidi causing her fellow DJ Whitey (Phillips, deliberately made up to look like a nerdier version of Rob Zombie for god knows what reason) to worry she may be on drugs.

Also haunted by The Lords' strange music, Matthias investigates further and uncovers (in the most heinous scene of exposition-by-Google in 21st century film history) evidence of a link between The Lords and a coven of Satan-worshiping witches who were burnt at the stake in the 17th century. It has to be noted that for a man who has written a book on witchcraft, and who runs a folk museum on the history of Salem, Matthais is remarkably clueless about either subject. As more and more bizarre and inexplicable events occur, it is announced that The Lords are to play a "for-one-night-only" gig in Salem, bringing events to crescendo of meaninglessness.

Rock star turned trash cinema auteur Rob Zombie is a controversial figure among genre fans. His first film, The House of a 1000 Corpses, was a minor success despite significant distribution and production hassles. I liked Zombie's debut picture but hated its quasi-sequel, The Devil’s Rejects, which I found to be a vacuous and indulgent exercise in sadism. Rejects become a cult hit, which steered Zombie into more mainstream horror franchise territory when he took on the poisoned chalice of remaking John Carpenter’s slasher classic Halloween. This remake was wildly divisive among horror fans, although the sequel was hated by almost everybody. With this latest film, Zombie has turned his back on the American grindhouse traditions to craft something that is closer to the European tradition of art-house horror. He has fallen flat on his face.

In a lot of ways, The Lords of Salem bears comparison to Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio. It has uncanny sounds affecting the mental state of its protagonist; it is often dark, obscure and surreal; and it shares some of the same cinematic influences. Zombie has clearly watched and loved his share of Euro-horror, but unlike Strickland he doesn’t seem to have understood any of it. Imagery from Roman Polanski, Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession, Michael Reeves' Witchfinder General, Bava’s Black Sunday, among others, have been swallowed to be messily regurgitated without any apparent meaning, subtext or point. There are demonic dwarves, tumescent cardinals, goats, nekkid witches, hairy Sasquatch-type things; in fact, the eventual accumulation of weirdness becomes deadening.

Moon Zombie has appeared in all of her husband's films, but this is her first lead role and she just isn't a strong enough actress to carry a movie. To be fair, though, performances are dreadful across the board. In fact, only the dog does not completely disgrace itself. Visually, the film is surprisingly drab and dull. Even the score (by John 5, Zombie's guitar player) is nondescript. Worse still, it absolutely desecrates The Velvet Underground & Nico's All Tomorrow's Parties in a scene that is supposed to be disturbing but seems more like something out of Pee-wee's Playhouse (a kids' TV show Zombie once worked on as a production assistant).

I'm not sure if Zombie has any idea what he's trying to achieve here. Early scenes showing Salem women falling under the spell of The Lords come to absolutely nothing, as though a plot strand has been removed but the stump is still visible. The fact that a number of actors were cast only to be cut from the film (including Re-animator's Barbara Crampton and genre legend Udo Kier) creates the suspicion that the script and plot were not complete during filming. Then the sheer overwhelming incoherence of the thing compounds it. Nothing makes much sense, not even the film's title – The Lords are clearly women. The Belles of Salem would be more accurate (and has a certain ring to it).

Throughout there is a thick vein of misogyny. I don't mind Zombie's decision to show his wife's naked backside at every possible opportunity, but the film seems to be in favour of burning witches. Having Salem in the title and as a setting is more than a little offensive, given the settlement's history. I don't for a minute think any of this is meant to be taken seriously, but Zombie doesn't help his case by referencing the trials in an incomprehensible and pretentious director's statement included in the press notes.

A major misfire, there will be some who embrace the movie on a so-bad-it's-good level, but frankly all the magic mushrooms in the world couldn't make it interesting.

The Lords of Salem at IMDb

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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