Rob Zombie, I’m convinced, has at least one great film in him. It certainly wasn’t 2003’s House of 1000 Corpses (though the sequel that came along two years later, The Devil’s Rejects, was a little better), and it sure as hell wasn’t either of the abysmal Halloween remakes he cranked out in 2007 and 2009.
Nor is it The Lords of Salem, but the shock-rocker’s fifth feature is his most accomplished movie so far, and has something none of his previous films could claim: a sense of fun. Gone are the endless redneck shouting matches that pass for drama in every other Zombie flick. He still writes bad dialogue, mind you, but at least his latest batch of characters aren’t screaming it at one another between dull sequences of torture and pole dancing. And this time around, we get a reward for slogging through it: visually, at least, Lords is always interesting and occasionally, dare I say it, kind of great.
We also get another Zombie first: a main character we can root for. Sheri Moon Zombie stars as Heidi Hawthorne, a Salem DJ and recovering drug addict who happens to be the only living descendant of a Puritan witch-finder by the name of John Hawthorne (veteran character actor Andrew Prine), who roasted a coven of witches in the 1600s and got a family curse for his trouble. What kind of family curse, you ask? Well, it’s complicated, but it involves an evil album, a Bigfoot, lots of rats, some more witches, and getting Heidi to ride a goat.
It all starts when the aforementioned diabolical vinyl, by a mysterious band known as the Lords of Salem, shows up at the record station where Heidi co-hosts a rock show with Herman (Jeff Daniel Phillips—you know him as the Geico caveman) and also-Herman (Ken Foree). She plays the record, which consists of a creepy, continuously repeated three-note hook, and soon begins to have hallucinations about an empty apartment in her building. Her landlady (Judy Geeson) dismisses Heidi’s concerns about the supposedly unoccupied unit, probably because she and her sisters (Patricia Quinn and Dee Wallace) are actually witches whose job is to hurry the curse along. They’re also tasked with thwarting a busybody writer (Bruce Davison) who keys into the fact that all is not well in Salem.
Numerous subplots are introduced and quickly abandoned along the way, including a promising one that involves the record’s effect on the other women of Salem. It eventually becomes apparent that Zombie is less concerned with telling a story than crafting an experience; in some ways, then, Lords is a success. It’s a stylish pastiche of all the things the filmmaker loves: rock ’n’ roll, ’70s horror films, pseudo-Satanic imagery, and so on. Sometimes it works surprisingly well, like whenever Meg Foster is onscreen as the long-dead hag-in-chief who was the curse’s original architect. Her performance is utterly nutso as she licks bloody newborns and prattles on about how completely awesome Satan is, keying us into the fact that none of this is meant to be taken even remotely seriously. There is fun to be had here; and thanks to evocative cinematography by Brandon Trost (co-director of 2011’s criminally overrated The FP), there are also a few genuinely creepy images that channel the spirits of classier horror flicks such as Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining.
Unfortunately, it all goes hurtling spectacularly off the rails when Zombie abandons all that eerie atmosphere in favor of a hilariously psychedelic climax that might or might not take place entirely in Heidi’s fragile mind. There’s Cronenbergian body horror tossed in with random bits of Jodorowsky-inspired hallucinatory imagery and ’80s-metal-video silliness, capped off with candy-colored phalluses, naked people in animal masks, and a floppy-footed tumor monster. If there’s a Gong Show in Hell, this is what it looks like.
If you’re a Rob Zombie fan, you’ll dig it. If you’re not, you’ll at least hate it less than you hate his other movies, and probably have some fun with it. You might even find a few things to genuinely appreciate, like the occasionally creepy visuals, an ominous score by John 5 and Griffin Boice, and fun performances by the aging actresses that Zombie so loves to cast. He still doesn’t hack it as a storyteller, but as a stylist, The Lords of Salem sees Zombie at the top of his game.