Save for one highly effective teen romance, things get extremely weird.
The Lords of Salem
Director: Rob Zombie
Stars: Sheri Moon Zombie, Bruce Davison, Jeff Daniel Phillips, Ken Foree, Patricia Quinn, Dee Wallace, Maria Conchita Alonso, Judy Geeson, Meg Foster
Running time: 101 minutes
This time, Rob Zombie really isn't fucking around.
Not that he's ever made a horror film that's been lighthearted or pleasant, mind you. Starting off with the uneven but curious House of 1,000 Corpses, the heavy metal hit-maker's second career as a genre director has been notable for its attention to depravity and humorless brutality. That batshit film's superior, more nuanced, and altogether first-rate sequel, The Devil's Rejects, was a huge leap forward artistically, and, although they're mostly derided by hardcore John Carpenter enthusiasts, Zombie's two Halloween flicks each contain numerous well-directed and impressively relentless sequence amidst their storytelling missteps.
Zombie's fans haven't seen anything yet, though. Steeped in European sensibilities, the writer-director's latest horror extravaganza, The Lords of Salem is his most ambitious and befuddling work yet—befuddling in positive ways comparable to the least comprehensible, yet no less enthralling and delightfully appalling, films from, say, Alejandro Jodorowsky and Dario Argento. Except that The Lords of Salem is unmistakably a Rob Zombie vision, one that never suffered the same big-wig interference that befell his Halloween studio assignments. Given total creative freedom from mega-producer Jason Blum (Insidious, the Paranormal Activity series), Zombie holds nothing back.
And the outcome is about as close to modern-day audiences may ever come to experiencing the midnight-movie weirdness of films like Santa Sangre and Alucarda. Zombie's wife, and go-to actress, Sheri Moon Zombie takes the lead as a radio DJ living in Salem and trying to put her past drug addictions behind her. At work, she receives a mysterious box containing a vinyl recording, addressed from "The Lords," and whenever she puts the needle to the record, she starts having hallucinogenic flashbacks centered around Margaret Morgan (an insanely game Meg Foster), who, during the days of the Salem Witch Trials, led a coven that got burned alive and left a curse on their murderers' ancestors.
That, in a nutshell, is what little story The Lords of Salem has, but this isn't a movie where narrative matters much. As Zombie pointed out in the post-screening Q&A, some of his all-time favorite movies are ones that he's not even sure he understands yet can't stop thinking about; through their bizarre imagery and haunting concepts, they've left imprints on his mind.
Nearly 10 hours after watching The Lords of Salem with an energetic Topfer Theatre crowd here in Austin, I'm still thinking about the film's endless barrage of creeping dread and demonic visuals. Especially throughout its final third, Zombie's totally out-there picture morphs into a demented collection of sights, not all of which, it should be noted, entirely convince. Burnt-faced surgeons performing a hideous C-section, paintings that ooze blood, Foster's jarringly skeletal body tucked away in the corners of frames, and long tracking shots that give way to phantasmagoria, all to the sounds of a dizzying electro-metal score, have a lingering effect; seeing demons in priest outfits violently stroking dildos, however, is a bit much.
In this case, fortunately, it's easy to give Zombie a pass. The Lords of Salem opens with naked and flabby witches performing a wild Satanic ritual, so there's never any doubt as to what kind of movie you're viewing, and Zombie completely uses that license to his advantage. The film's parade of grotesqueries will definitely repulse some, if not have them laughing for all the wrong reasons. Chances are, though, anyone who voluntarily seeks out "video nasties" and prefers the lurid over logical will happily kneel before Zombie's strange altar.