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‘The Lords of Salem’ Review

Anchor Bay

The Lords of Salem,’ Rob Zombie‘s long-awaited (though not so highly anticipated) follow-up to ‘H2′ shows a director who desperately wants to prove he’s matured visually, but the results are unsurprisingly derivative.

In ‘The Lords of Salem,’ Sheri Moon Zombie (wife of director Rob) stars as Salem radio personality Heidi, who receives a mysterious box containing a record by a group who refer to themselves only as “The Lords.” When played, the record seems to have a hypnotic effect on a select group of women in Salem — in particular Heidi, whose landlord and “sisters” have taken a sudden interest in her just as she’s starting to have some very strange dreams.

What follows is a predictable tale in the vein of old-school witchy flicks, given a face lift by Zombie, who seems to have spent some time watching Stanley Kubrick and Dario Argento films. Zombie’s aesthetic has always been ’70s white trash, and it served him well on ‘The Devil’s Rejects,’ arguably his only legitimately good film to date. Unfortunately, ‘The Lords of Salem’ falls in the category of his other films: it’s a mixed bag with some highlights, but mostly it’s a mess. The richest, most engaging parts of the film come in the form of Heidi’s visions or flashbacks to witches of the past — these sequences are like fever dreams, where blood drips down the walls and a nightmare can hardly be discerned from reality.

Rob Zombie’s taste level just isn’t up to par to pull the rest of it off, though. There are some sequences which feel as though they should be jarringly effective, but instead the result is laughable — a small demon with a round belly looks like a pregnant wad of clay, the modern-day witches feel as though they belong in a different Rob Zombie film, and a climactic sequence turns into a Salvador Dali porno when seated, faceless priests begin masturbating with their large, bright red penises. Zombie tries to integrate his own sensibilities with those of better, more aesthetically competent directors whose films in the ’70s were magnificent in both tone and terror, but instead of evoking classic Argento, the film feels like modern Argento — and modern Argento is not a director one should strive to emulate.

Zombie is at his best when he shows some restraint, holding on a sequence in Heidi’s bathroom before letting some blood drip down her artwork on the wall, or showing a decrepit, wasting witch hiding in her kitchen in plain sight. And he really knows how to film a hallway, something Kubrick and Argento were also very good at, but he doesn’t seem to understand that what those directors did wasn’t just about visuals — it was a combination of visuals, sound, suspense, mood and tone. It’s also about context and the era in which those films were produced. Perhaps ‘The Lords of Salem’ would be a better movie if it were released in 1979, but I doubt it.

Dee Wallace, Patricia Quinn and Judy Geeson are all delightful as the modern-day witches, but again they feel slightly out of place — almost like an incense-loving, hippie-dippy version of the three fairies from ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ Meg Foster, however, is incredible in her role as the main witch of Salem’s past, baring it all (literally and figuratively) and really giving a daring, bizarre performance that nails the tone of the film — or, at least, the tone of half of the film. ‘The Lords of Salem’ is one-half retro horror, one-quarter comedy, and one-quarter unintentional comedy. It’s the only horror film I’ve ever seen with a final shot that could have been an outtake from ‘Marley and Me.’ Another sequence has Heidi saying she isn’t sure how someone could possibly discover her real name, followed later by Bruce Davison’s character Googling her, finding her real name, and discovering a familial connection that the audience figures out five minutes before he does.

Sheri Moon Zombie follows the tradition of wives being cast in their director-husband’s films, like Frances McDormand and Leslie Mann, but sadly she lacks the same level of talent those women possess. She always seems to be having a great time, even as she’s supposed to be terrified and having a total mental breakdown. Her mouth is fixed in a permanent grin, rendering her incapable of doing what the role requires. And it doesn’t help that Zombie the director spends so much time on shots of Zombie the actress’ bare behind.

Rob Zombie has hardly redeemed himself after the disaster that was ‘H2,’ and while his visual style has matured, it’s only evolved in that he’s apparently done a little homework in his downtime. He still hasn’t learned that stylish, derivative shots have to do more than look cool — like Zombie the musician, Zombie the director is all style and no substance.

Rating Meter 5

‘The Lords of Salem’ premiered in the US at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival, and hits theaters April 19, 2013. 

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